Future Reflections          Special Issue: Sports, Fitness, and Blindness

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T-Ball and Beyond

Editor’s Note: Mike Uhle and his wife, Keisha, became acquainted with the NFB shortly after their son, Ryan, lost his vision as a toddler. Despite their grief, they didn’t waste any time reaching out to get information. I met them at a retreat for parents sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. A few years after the retreat, they sent me an article about Ryan playing T-Ball, and we reprinted it in Future Reflections, Volume 22, Number 2, under the title, “T-Ball Rules! Father Shares Passion for Baseball with his Blind Son.” That was five years ago. I wondered if that experience had meant much to Ryan and his family over time. So, we contacted Mike and asked him if he wanted to give us an update, and he did. So, here is our “Then and Now” story--the original T-Ball article followed by Mike’s reflection on that experience and the impact it had on the father-son bond:

THEN…..

Through his father’s eyes
Rob Novit, staff writer
Reprinted from the May 5, 2002, Aiken Standard, Aiken, South Carolina

The players, all of four-, five-, and six-years-old, race onto the field at Graniteville’s Gregg Park--a spring in their step, their caps pulled low to protect against a late afternoon sun that tinges their matching red shirts with an orange glow. It’s a timeless moment in small town USA and of course it’s about baseball, a game only a few decades younger than America itself.

Ryan’s baseball card shot from 2002.In short right, a small boy named Ryan Uhle pounds his glove and places himself in good position. Nearby, his dad Mike soaks it all in proudly, smiling and laughing with uncomplicated delight. Mike Uhle was a multi-sport athlete at Aiken High as a teenager, but baseball was always his thing. And years later, when his wife Keisha gave birth to their first child, Mike held Ryan in his arms and could envision a future for his son a lot like his own.

“I had definitely wanted a boy so he could play sports,” said Mike. “I love baseball and when the TV is on, I’d rather watch baseball than anything else.”

Without warning
Ryan was just six months old when he was diagnosed with retinal cancer and in the course of treatment over the next year, his right eye was removed. The prognosis for the left eye was very good, but a large tumor appeared unexpectedly when Ryan was two. During chemotherapy his retina detached and could not be repaired. The little boy had beaten the cancer, much to the relief and joy of his parents. But now they had to accept a new reality.

“Even with this form of cancer, we never imagined Ryan would be blind,” said Keisha Uhle. “We just thought he would be a one-eyed kid the rest of life. We had a plan in our heads of how we hoped our child’s life would be and then our expectations totally changed.” The couple knew as much about blindness as most other people, which was virtually nothing. But they did research and sought activities that might be suitable for Ryan.

Moving forward
Last year they discovered STAR, a therapeutic horseback-riding program for children and young adults with disabilities. That experience gave Ryan confidence and so did the violin classes that Mike and Keisha arranged through instructor Joanne Stanford. He attends preschool kindergarten at St. John’s United Methodist Church and a preschool class at Aiken Elementary. Ryan will start a regular 5K class at Aiken Elementary in the fall.

Ryan swings toward the ball as his dad, Mike, cheers him on.Baseball--or at this age, T-ball--was seemingly out of the question, but Wendy Scolamiero, the Oakwood-Windsor physical education teacher, didn’t think so. A close friend of Keisha and Mike, Scolamiero knew they wanted to find as many regular childhood activities for Ryan as possible. Her own son, Clark, played T-ball at Gregg Park for a volunteer coach named Mike Conaway. Last year Scolamiero told him about Ryan and asked if the youngster could join the team this spring.

Conaway was all for it, but Mike Uhle had his doubts. “We were a little hesitant at first,” he said. “It was like ‘Oh man, is he going to be able to do this?’ We didn’t want to be an inconvenience to everybody else. But Ryan never had any hesitation and the first day of practice convinced us it was the right thing to do.”

One of the players
Of all the kids on Ryan’s team, maybe three can throw the ball with any reasonable accuracy and perhaps the same number have some expectation of catching those throws. The rest are endearingly clueless as they stand in the field admiring their uniforms and their gloves and waving occasionally to their parents and siblings and their teammates.

Ryan sees none of this. But from his right field position, he has his father’s eyes. Mike stands next to him the entire inning. An errant throw comes toward them and Mike scoops up the ball and hands it to Ryan, who flings it within hailing distance of first base. Everybody cheers. “Way to go, Ryan.”

But Mike offers much more than a helping hand. He serves as Ryan’s personal color commentator, describing the game to his son as if Ryan were listening to him on the radio. In this T-ball league, one of the coaches pitches three times to each player; if the child doesn’t hit the ball, the tee is then used.

From t-ball to golf tees, Ryan loves most sports.“The coach is telling the batter what to do,” Mike tells Ryan. “He pitched it and the batter missed it, and he’ll hit off the tee this time. Show me you’re getting ready. Hey, that’s a good job, buddy.” The batter sends a slow roller between short and third and reaches first safely. Ryan leans toward his dad and says slyly, “I caught a ball.” Mike just grins. “Oh get out of here.”

The game continues and Mike yells out encouragement to the other players. The next hitter swings and misses, fouls off a pitch and then whiffs on the next one. “But he looked like he was going to hit it this way,” says Mike. “What are you going to do if you get it?”

“Throw it to Clark,” Ryan responds immediately, “But what if he doesn’t yell for me?”

“Throw it anyway, because you might not be able to hear him with all the cheering.”

Another father, Morgan Stringfield, said he too wondered at first how Ryan would handle the situation. “But when I saw how Mike interacted with him and taught him how to do different things,” said Strickland, “I was surprised at how well Ryan was doing. It’s a neat thing for my son Logan too. He understands that Ryan can’t see and why Mike is out there to help him play the game. Logan realizes that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean he can’t do things like everyone else.”

Ryan remains eligible to play again next season and has been invited to stick around an extra year if he wants to. His baseball career will likely end as his buddies move on to coach-pitch and beyond.

And next?
Wendy Scolamiero has been looking into other programs for Ryan and has contacted Chukker Creek P. E. teacher Dr. Bonnie Bucket, an authority on special needs students and physical fitness. Track and field is a good choice, as there are blind runners who compete with the assistance of sighted companions. But for now, baseball rules. Mike Conaway said he too has been amazed at Ryan’s success. A bonus is that some of the players including his son, Alex, are relatively shy. But they realized they have to call out to Ryan so he can locate them. “That has really helped them come out of their shells,” said Conaway. “They understand Ryan’s special needs and that’s been great.”

Ryan enjoys a ride on his bike.It’s the second and final inning and Ryan’s team comes to bat. He waits patiently for his turn, listening to the chatter of talkative teammates and the shouts and applause of family and friends. He has his own gallery--Keisha and his grandparents, two-year-old sister Natalie and new brother Jared, not yet three-months-old. Finally, it’s his turn. Mike hands a bat to Ryan, who eagerly walks to the plate. Mike sets the tee with the ball and positions Ryan, giving him an idea of the ball’s location and its height. Moments later, Mike barely has time to take a step back when Ryan swings. He connects! A hard grounder sails toward short and father and son take off in tandem, Mike running backwards and calling out to Ryan, who races toward him and reaches first safely.

“Good job, buddy!” Keisha screams happily from the stands. Natalie dashes away from her and hurls herself against the fence. “Go Ryan!” the tiny girl yells. The players behind Ryan also hit the ball and he eventually comes around to score. Not that anybody is actually keeping score, not for kids this age.

Natalie may join Ryan on the team next season, providing another set of eyes. Maybe someday she’ll sing or dance or play a musical instrument. It’s likely that Jared will participate in sports like his dad did a generation earlier. Ryan undoubtedly will serve as the supportive big brother for both kids.

But he’ll find his own niche, his parent said. And best of all, said Keisha, he’ll go to baseball contests with his dad. Thanks to the T-ball experience, Ryan will have a better grasp of the game. It’s all about the layout and rules and perhaps even more, the atmosphere--the National Anthem, the feel of a bat on the hands, the rust-colored clay blotches on the uniforms. And Ryan Uhle has been right in the middle of it. “It’s been fantastic to be out here with my son,” Mike said.

NOW…..

Mike Uhle….
I’m not sure who got more out of Ryan’s playing T-ball for three years: him or me. I grew up playing sports and am still an avid sports fan. When Ryan lost his vision at two-and-a-half years old, I felt that my dreams of having a son that I could play and enjoy sports with were over before they ever began. I was wrong.

Ryan was good at hitting and in each of his three years of T-ball was in the top half of the team in his ability to hit the ball. Those three years helped Ryan develop self-confidence. At an early age he learned that he was just as good as any other kids. That self-confidence carried over to his schoolwork, his ability to make friends, and his being independent. Ryan also gained a much better sense for the game by wearing the uniform, getting dirty, feeling what it is like to hit the ball solid, running the bases as fast as you can, being in the dugout, and giving your teammates high fives.

While his days of playing organized baseball are over, Ryan still enjoys our family baseball games out in the yard and going with me to baseball games. We love to watch our local single A baseball team, the Augusta Greenjackets. I get a thrill in giving him play-by-plays, and teaching him more about the games. Ryan thinks it’s cool to learn more about the game, and he gets so excited by the great sounds in a baseball game: the crack of the bat, the umpire’s calls, the pop of the glove, the fans cheering, the vendor selling hot dogs, and the PA system with its funny sound effect are just a few. Ryan also has another team to cheer for, the Cardinals, his little brother Jared’s T-ball team.

Ryan likes other sports, too. He regularly watches high school, college, and pro-football with me. For his last birthday, Ryan took a buddy to a minor league hockey game and we sat right up on the glass. It’s great to have my son with me to share the excitement of the games, and it is special to be able to describe to him what is going on.

Ryan is ten years old now and is very active in other sports. He loves going golfing with me and riding in the cart. When the course isn’t crowded, I let Ryan hit balls in the fairway. We practice golf in our front yard and Ryan will be taking golf lessons this summer. Other favorite activities are swimming (he spends almost every day in the summer in his grandparents’ pool), and riding his bike and scooter. He makes his mom and dad nervous with the speed that he travels, but there is just no holding him back. He gets more than his share of cuts and bruises (and stitches…ugh). You would be hard pressed to find a tougher ten-year-old.

Even if Ryan had never played T-ball, I think he would still be the active and self-confident person he is today; but man, am I glad we both had that experience. I encourage all parents of blind children--especially fathers--to get their kids out there to participate with sighted kids in sports. It benefits everyone--the kid, the teammates, and you.

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