The Blind Guy Knows HittingPosted May 4th, 2011
by Bert Williams
“Elbow down. Keep the elbow down. Follow the ball with your hands; that’ll keep your front shoulder in longer. All right. All right! Good effort, buddy!”
“All right, who’s batting now?
“OK, now, if you feel yourself come up, do not reward yourself with a swing. That’s right. Good effort, good effort!”
“Now extend. Extend that left hand. Great effort. Great effort, buddy!”
“OK, who’s up?”
“OK, now, let the ball come deep. Oh, that front side opened way too soon … OK, now. Once your foot’s down, your head’s frozen. Right there. Right there! Good effort, buddy!”
Behold, the Sunday afternoon work of blind hitting instructor Mark Wetzel—age 60—who was diagnosed with early-onset macular degeneration when he was 14.
Legally blind for many years, Wetzel cannot read a newspaper headline, but in his peripheral vision he can make out the silhouette of a batter, and that’s all he needs. The friend of major leaguers and junior high kids alike, Wetzel has been the batting coach to hundreds of young ball players in Omaha, Nebraska over the years. He has coached many who became Division I college players and several who have been drafted into the pros.
Hall of Famer
So, really? Can a blind guy effectively coach kids in how to hit a baseball? Not only kids, it turns out. Try eight-time national league batting champion Tony Gwynn. Now retired, Gwynn spent his career with the San Diego Padres. He is now enshrined in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Wetzel first met Gwynn 15 years ago, through a mutual friend, while Gwynn was still playing with the Padres. Wetzel had attended the Padres’ game the night before they met.
“He knew I couldn’t see well,” says Wetzel, “so when we were introduced, I told him a couple things I’d noticed when he was hitting the night before, and he about fell on his face. He said very few people could see what he was doing, and he was amazed that I’d seen it. On one particular pitch, I saw his hands come forward as his front foot set down. He told people later, ‘This blind guy comes along. Most people are pretty humble around me, at least at first, but this guy comes along and starts telling me what I did wrong. And you know what? He was right. I went to work on it.’”
Over the years Wetzel and Gwynn have become good friends.
“So will you be working with a kid,” I asked, “and say to yourself, ‘I want to talk to Tony about this kid.’”?
“Yeah, every once in a while that happens,” Wetzel replied, “you know, at the upper levels. If I’ve got a kid in pro ball, and he can’t quite get the inside pitch, I’ll ask Tony what he thinks. Then he’ll probably tell me what Ted Williams told him. It can become a very interesting conversation.”
“Ted Williams. The last major league player to hit over .400 in a season, right?”
“Yep, you’re right!”
Wetzel said he had talked to Gwynn a couple months before our conversation, and would probably call him again in another week or so. He had a few things to discuss, he said. And then it was back to another stint focusing on his high school players.
Ground Ball or Home Run
“On that one you simply threw your hands out,” Wetzel said to the young African American player standing in the batter’s box. “You’re gonna hit a ground ball every time when you do that. You’re gonna hook the ball. Keep your hands inside the ball. Hit the back of the ball. That’s a home run instead of a ground ball to the shortstop.”
“Sometimes playing in games just establishes bad habits,” Wetzel said to me between batters. “In two hours here, they probably get more instruction than they’ve ever gotten in their lives while playing in games.”
The African American player is one of several who are on scholarship with Wetzel’s program. “We’ve started a foundation called Young Diamonds in the Rough,” Wetzel told me later while we sat on bleachers next to the infield. “We started it to give these minority players an opportunity to develop. We’ve got seven of them here on scholarship, out of about thirty players in the program. Our goal is to give these inner city kids the opportunity they can’t afford. I’ve got a staff out there on the field. Four or five coaches are working with me this afternoon. They’ve got to get paid. The inner city kids just can’t afford the coaching that some of the other kids in the city are getting. Some of those kids are in their second year with us, and they’re really starting to improve.”
Wetzel said it’s not uncommon for him to hear from graduates of his program when they’re playing college ball.
“Once they go off to college I don’t see them very often,” Wetzel said, “but a lot of them, if they find they’re struggling, will give me a call.”
“Can you help them over the phone,” I asked, “even if you can’t see what they’re doing?”
“Oh, definitely. Definitely. I remember those kids. I know what they’re doing. I can close my eyes and see every one of ’em swing. They know the key words I use. We can do a lot of work on the phone.”
“So break it down,” I said. “What does it take to hit a baseball effectively?”
“The main thing you’ve got to do is see the ball,” said Wetzel. “With most young hitters, their bodies move so much their head can’t stay still. Compare it to reading a book. If you’re moving around, you can’t see the words well. Same thing in hitting. Most people use way too much body, and they over-swing. Some coaches will say, ‘Johnny, keep your head still,’ but it’s not the head moving, it’s the body moving the head. If your body’s still your head’s still. That’s the main thing. You have to be quiet to see the ball.”
Relaxing is Hard Work
Wetzel recalled coaching a seven-year-old girl. “I wasn’t looking forward to it,” he said, “but she hit line drive after line drive that afternoon, and guess what? Her body was very quiet. I learned from that girl. I still think back to her now and then. It’s so much about relaxing—doing less. It takes hard work to learn to relax.”
I asked Wetzel how he learned to be a hitting coach, since he hadn’t actually done it himself since junior high.
“Well, we’ve seen so many swings over the years that we’ve devised a program,” he said. “For example, I know that if you lock that front knee you’re going to hit it harder. I know that if you put your hands here (he demonstrates) you’re going to hit it harder.”
“But how do you know that? Where did you learn that?”
“Through trial and error. I started with a few kids a long time ago. It’s through watching all these young hitters and learning from them. When we really get busy, I see six or seven thousand swings in a week. You learn from the kids. Then complement that learning with the fact that I’m very good friends with one of the best hitters ever to play the game, and it’s a pretty good combination.”
“I had a kinesiologist come out this year,” Wetzel continued. “I knew that by putting the weight here, and the weight here, and the hands here (he demonstrates) the kids were hitting the ball farther. So I had this guy who has the education about how the body works come out and observe, and he says, ‘You’re right.’ And I say, ‘So why does that work?’ So then he’ll give me the scientific terms—kinetic chain, and so forth. It was very interesting.”
The fact that college students would be calling Wetzel years after his instruction made me think there might be something more than just hitting instruction they were after. Wetzel told me some things that made it clear that was, indeed, the case.
“They don’t care what you know until they know you care,” Wetzel told me while we sat on the bleachers. I was getting chilly on the blustery fall afternoon, but I wasn’t inclined to end the conversation. “Actually, Tony taught me a lot about giving back,” Wetzel continued. “He’s taught me the gift of giving back to other people. If a hall-of-fame superstar can take his time out for me, I’ve certainly got time to talk to kids at the ball field. And when I think about these kids, especially these inner city kids, some of them probably haven’t heard many ‘atta boys.’ They’ve heard mostly negative comments during their lives. You can get a message across while being positive or negative. The impact is so much stronger if you’re positive.”
“So,” I asked, “how much longer do you think you can go on with this? Do you think that little bit of vision you’ve got left will hold out?”
“Well, Shepherd Smith did an interview with me a while back for FOX News,” Wetzel replied. “He asked me the same thing.”
“And what’d you say?” I asked.
“I told him if my eyes get worse I’ll just become an umpire.”
Mark Wetzel’s web address is: www.blindguyhitting.com