Jul 21, 2016Seeing Clearly Now
Hitting at baseball’s highest level can be difficult for even the most skilled players. Now imagine trying to lock onto a 90 mile-an-hour pitch with impaired vision—that was the case for Tommy Joseph of the Philadelphia Phillies. He spent his first three years in the minor leagues, and possibly most of his life, with ocular deficiencies.
As outlined in a story from CSN Philadelphia, Joseph was playing catcher for the Triple A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs last May when he took a foul ball to the facemask and sustained the fifth concussion of his professional career. Though this seemed like a major blow at the time for a young catcher trying to make it to the next level, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With the help of athletic trainer Jon May and the Phillies medical officials, Joseph was put through a series of tests that revealed he had a series of ocular motor problems. Joseph’s eyes weren’t moving normally and that caused serious problems when tracking the ball and recognizing pitches coming towards him.
A team of doctors and sports medicine professionals began to work with Joseph in an attempt to strengthen his eye site and help him recover from his concussion. At first it was unclear whether the ocular motor problems were caused by his repeated concussions, or if they were rooted in preexisting issues. It was later shown to be the latter, with Joseph even admitting that his eyes often skipped over words when he was reading as a child.
Athletic trainer Joe Rauch, who oversees the recovery and rehabilitation of Phillies players at the team’s minor league level, and Dr. Michael Gallaway, a vision rehabilitation specialist in Marlton, N.J., both worked closely with Joseph this past year. Together they confirmed that Joseph’s ocular motor issues were tied to his past and that a great deal of rehab was required to get him back to playing baseball.
“We believe there were underlying issues from his history that had not been addressed,” Rauch said. “These issues directly affect the ability to hit a baseball. It painted a picture of why he was a slow starter at the plate.”
Joseph packed 16 weeks worth of work into seven during his biweekly visits to Gallaway’s office where he was put through a variety of exercises to strengthen his vision. One activity included having ping-pong balls shot at him and he would he have to catch only those of a certain color. Another exercise involved have tennis balls thrown from behind him while he was tasked with hitting only the ones of a certain color. All of the activities that he participated in were meant to repair and strengthen the muscles in his eyes that help with focus and recognition.
“Your eyes guide the body so if your eyes aren’t working properly, signals to the brain will be slowed and any movement involving timing will be affected,” Gallaway said.
Thanks to his hard work and the persistence of dedicated doctors and athletic trainers, Joseph was able to return to the field—this time as a first baseman. He started with the Gulf Coast League and then worked his way back to Lehigh Valley, hitting .347 with six homeruns, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games. On May 13, just over a year after he suffered the concussion and began his journey towards improving his eyesight, the Phillies called up Joseph to the majors.
Though the organization had tried getting rid of Joseph during the offseason, he had proven himself as a vastly improved hitter and was ready for his big chance. Since being called up to the majors this season, Joseph has hit 13 homers, knocked in 23 runs, and has earned .257 batting average. He is now an integral part of the Phillies roster and plans to keep it that way.
“What makes Tommy’s story so great is that so many people helped put it all together,” Rauch said. “From doctors to vision specialists to our athletic trainers and our baseball people who had to teach him a new position to Tommy himself. It’s a credit to so many.”