Rooting for the Cyclops with the Rays

Sometimes a small injury can lead to a big disability.

Did you know that Cyclopes was the plural of Cyclops? Who knew you could run into enough single-eyed cats at one time to even need a plural? It turns out that there are a lot of us International Squint-Like-a-Pirate-Day wannabees out there, including one taking his life in his hands at Rays camp. Juan Sandoval, a 32-year-old right-hander, is trying to pitch well enough in camp to make the Triple-A Durham roster and thereby be a heartbeat away from the majors. Journeyman on a mission: There's nothing unusual about that, except this one has been doing it with one working headlight since 2006:

Sandoval, his then-fiancee and some relatives were out for dinner in their hometown of Bonao when the restaurant security guard and a drunken old man began to scuffle. Sandoval heard the sound of a gun, turned to look and felt the searing sting of shotgun pellets, including three in his right eye. (The man was arrested, though Sandoval requested his release, believing it was an accident and wanting the man to be able to return to his family.)

A seven-hour surgery saved Sandoval's eye but not his vision.

I'm rooting for Sandoval, because like him, I am a Cyclops, blind in my right eye, and it is encouraging to see someone perform in spite of that handicap. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with a choroidal melanoma -- eye cancer. Until that moment, I was unaware that you can get moles on the inside of your eye, and that these lesions can turn evil and kill you, just like those on the surface of your skin. I underwent two surgeries, spending five days with a radioactive plaque inside my eye in between, fixed to the spot of the tumor. Over a period of months after getting out of the hospital, a series of laser surgeries took what remained of the tumor and burned it. The inside of my eye looks roughly like a white table cloth that has had a cigarette stubbed out on it.

As you might guess from all of that, the afflicted eye is now totally useless. The radiation crisped my optic nerve, and it is now deader than Elvis. It is, as yet, an irreparable injury, unfixable by drugs, transplant surgery, or even stem-cell treatment. Looking out of my right eye, all I see is darkness. I live in fear of losing my left eye, and the last thing I would think of doing is standing 60 feet away from a guy whose main purpose is to bat hard projectiles towards me at 900 miles an hour. Two words: Bryce Florie. That worst-case scenario is not only frightening, but all too likely. Sandoval lacks depth perception, but that's not the hardest part of losing an eye -- your brain simulates depth perception fairly well using context clues. It's only in select instances, such as when I look at a set of stairs at the wrong angle and they appear to go flat, or try to line up the mouth of a bottle with the lip of a glass, that depth perception becomes problematic (the only real loss, if you can call it that, is that 3-D movies and theme park rides are a non-starter. Heard "Avatar" was pretty neat in the theaters, but I'll never know).

Rather, the biggest hazard is that of having half the view of the world you used to and no peripheral vision on one side. Any ball hit more than, say, 20 degrees to Sandoval's right is going to simply disappear from his perspective. Did the third baseman grab it? Did it go down the line? If it was popped up, is the third baseman making a beeline for exactly where he's standing? He is going to be the last to know.

There is a small kind of social embarrassment I suffer at times that symbolizes what it's like to navigate the world with one eye. I'm at a restaurant looking at the menu. The waiter arrives to take my order. If he shows up on my left, I look up. If he shows up on my right, I don't know that he's there and will continue reading, or talking to the party across the table from me, or fiddling with my phone, until he makes some kind of "Excuse me" noise to alert me to his presence. Someone is standing about a foot away and I'm unaware of it, so I would have no chance of picking up something heaved at me from across the room, like a pie, or a baseball.

More commonly, I just walk into things on my right side -- people, the side of buildings, those supermarket displays where they stack cans in giant pyramids. I have been knocked down on the sidewalk by people I never knew were there, and have knocked people down as well.

Sandoval missed the 2006 season, but has been pitching as a Cyclops ever since, and it is heartening that it's not a lack of eyesight but a lack of command that has held him back to date. I know it probably seems like a small thing to give up one eye in trade for getting to live the rest of your life (no sure thing, actually; I'll be at risk for an almost-instantly fatal metastatic cancer for the rest of my days), but it does feel like a loss. I'm aware of it all the time, and in almost everything I do there's a sense of being less than whole. In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Frederick S. Southwick describes the loss of one of his legs: "The loss of a limb is traumatic, and I experience waves of sorrow and regret. I struggle with continual pain in my residual limb, and am trying to learn how to walk with my prosthesis. My work as a physician has been put on hold."

I suppose my case is less severe in a physical sense, but I know from sorrow. I have a young son. We have never gone outside, put on mitts, and had a catch. It's just not safe for me. I feel great sadness whenever I think about it.

At those moments, I would do well to remember Juan Sandoval.

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