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The eyes have it
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
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.
"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."
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