By Bob Cohn
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
OMAHA, Neb. — Despite its recent expansion, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium still affords a pretty good view of the College World Series from just about any seat. Unless you are Mark Wetzel. Wetzel, 54, is a local hitting coach of some renown. He also can hardly see because of macular degeneration that started when he was 14. Asked how his eyesight is measured, he said, "I can see two fingers at three feet."
Always upbeat, ever cheerful, the short, stocky Wetzel takes delight in referring to himself as "The Blind Guy." The native Nebraskan gives motivational speeches, imploring people to do anything they want to do.
But mainly, he teaches hitting. Dozens of area kids go to Wetzel to have their swings adjusted or altered. A few college coaches have asked him to work with their players. One of Wetzel's prized pupils is Arkansas freshman outfielder Jake Dugger, who was 9 when he started seeing Wetzel. Dugger came home with his Razorbacks teammates as one of the eight teams in the CWS (they were subsequently the first team eliminated).
Wetzel, with his binoculars, watched from a seat down the right-field line. A friend, Dan Geier, drove him to the game.
"This guy is a miracle worker," Geier said. "There's no other way to put it."
So how does Wetzel do it?
"I can't recognize my wife, kids or mother by their faces, but I've developed peripheral vision very well," he said. "I can see the outline [of the player]. I can see the bat. I can tell by where the bat is, where the front elbow is. What I really look for in a hitter is where are the hands when the front foot hits the ground."
Wetzel added he can tell by the sound of the bat whether a swing needs adjustment. Then he laughed and said, "I don't know how I do it."
Wetzel, who is friends with big-league hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, Los Angeles Dodgers scout Mitch Webster and former batting champion Tony Gwynn, has a barn with a dirt floor and two batting cages that he calls his "laboratory." He also has a big screen television ("The biggest we can get.") he watches from a distance of about eight inches.
A pretty fair ballplayer until his sight began to deteriorate, Wetzel believes there is nothing he, or others, cannot accomplish. Once, a driver's license "fell into my hands," he said.
"They said I could never drive," he said. "And I shouldn't have. Every day was a chase scene. But don't tell me you can't hit a curveball."