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The eyes have it

Special to

April 28

The hitter's creed begins with the phrase, "see the ball." As Jeff Bagwell says, "It's hard enough to hit, but if you can't see, it's darned near impossible."

This may be hard to believe -- considering the fact that Bagwell averaged .300 with 34 homers and 118 RBI the last five seasons with the Astrodome as his home -- but he claims he had "at least 50 at-bats a year when I couldn't see pitches because of my contact lenses." So, over the winter, he joined what is an increasing number of professional athletes who had laser eye surgery.

Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Bagwell may be even tougher now that he's ditched contact lenses.

"I always wore contacts," says Bagwell, "and they were supposed to insure 20-20 vision. But between allergies, different conditions like cold or dust or whatever, there were an awful lot of times when there was a problem with the contact lense. I'd be stepping out, trying to adjust one, or I'd be tearing up. In at least 50 at-bats, I couldn't really see, then I'd get panicky and swing at the first pitch just to not get behind. I think I'm still in an adjustment period; they claim it takes at least six months for the process to be completed. But it's a lot better. I've got natural 20-20 vision again."

Bernie Williams, Jose Cruz Jr., Trot Nixon, Bernard Gilkey and Todd Dunwoody had the same procedure. "In my first full minor-league season in Lynchburg I started having problems with my eyes," says Nixon. "I realized that I couldn't see the seams of the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand, which meant that I couldn't recognize pitches. I got contacts, and they certainly helped, but they always were a problem. I have a tear duct problem and the lenses were never comfortable. I constantly had to adjust and re-adjust them at the plate, and I think it probably took me out of my hitting rhythm. There obviously were pitches when they were out of line and I couldn't see right.

"I fiddled with them so much that they called down from upstairs here at Fenway and wanted to know what was wrong with me," says Nixon. This offseason Trot and his father, a nephrologist (kidney disease and dialysis specialist) in North Carolina, explored the laser surgery process and he had the procedure in Boston. "I believe there is a big difference," says Nixon, who is off to the first good start of his professional career. "My vision is 20-15, I'm seeing the ball much better and I believe that because of that I'm a lot more relaxed at the plate and able to stay back much better."

Greg Maddux had the laser surgery performed during the All-Star break last season, one of several pitchers who have opted for the procedure. "I realize that vision is important to everyone," says Bagwell. "But it may be more important to a hitter than any athlete. What's the toughest thing to do in sports? Hit a baseball. What's the essence of hitting? You have to see the ball."

News and notes

  • Quilvio Veras's numbers haven't been eye-popping for the Braves, but he has turned out to be exactly what the Braves needed -- a battler who gets on base. Last year, the Braves had a combined .315 on base percentage in the 1-2 holes; thanks to Veras and Rafael Furcal, they were at .392 in those two spots through April 25. There are some in the Braves camp who think Furcal should play some left field this season and have him and Veras hit 1-2. It's been pointed out that Veras had his best season in San Diego batting second behind Rickey Henderson.

  • The Cardinals get Matt Morris, Mark Thompson and Jesse Orosco back soon, which further strengthens their pitching staff.

  • More good news for the Mets. Bill Pulsipher has slowed down his delivery, calmed down and is throwing very well at Norfolk, while young RHP Grant Roberts has improved so much they think he can come up like Octavio Dotel and help them down the stretch.

  • When the Red Sox signed Mel Rojas and Mike Figga in the same day, their motto became "Rojas and Figga, it don't get any betta." Supply your own Boston accent.

  • Padres LHP Kevin Walker was Kerry Wood's high school teammate.

  • We New Englanders stick together, which is why it's refreshing to hear scouts in this year's draft say, "Get me another Brad Baker." Baker, 19, was a sandwich pick of the Red Sox last June from tiny Pioneer Valley High School in Western Massachusetts. Baker is 3-0 at Augusta, and in seven pro starts is 4-0, 0.97 with four walks and 34 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings. Great delivery and curveball. And where the USA national teams usually take only hyped, warm-weather kids, this summer's team USA includes two Connecticut kids -- RHP Brian Sager (Stanford sophomore) and OF Adam Greenberg (North Carolina freshman).

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