Future Reflections Spring/Summer 2003
Father Shares Passion for Baseball with his Blind Son
Reprinted from the May 5, 2002, Aiken Standard, Aiken, South Carolina, the article, originally titled, “Through His Father's Eyes” is by Rob Novit, staff writer with the Aiken Standard.
Ryan Uhle poses for his 2003 baseball card portrait.
Editor's Note: Mike Uhle, the father in this story, 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. They shared this article with me in the hopes that it might raise the hopes and expectations of parents of younger children, and inspire them to keep an open mind to all possibilities and opportunities for their blind children. By the way, Keisha tells me that Ryan will be playing T-ball again this year, and Mike is coaching the team. Here is the article as it appeared in the Aiken Standard last May:
Through his father's eyes
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.
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.”
Ryan hits the ball while his dad cheers him on.
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.
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 pre-school class at Aiken Elementary. Ryan will start a regular 5K class at Aiken Elementary in the fall.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.