ROCHESTER, Minn. — It's an itch common to baseball fans.
The feeling begins about now, when pitchers are preparing to report to spring training, and the days begin to eke out extra lengths of daylight. Even in winter's deep freeze, you can feel it: The national pastime is around the corner.
And Chris Mathews, a newly arrived Rochester, Minn., transplant and avid baseball fan, was feeling it.
For the 23-year-old, the urge expressed itself in a specific way. Mathews wanted to learn how to pitch a baseball, something he had never done in his life before because he is blind.
"I've played a couple baseball video games with friends of mine. I figured that was the closest I'd get," Mathews said.
Still he had that itch. And being relatively new to the area, having just moved to the Med City in August from North Milwaukee, Wis., Mathews articulated his desire on the Facebook page, "Spotted in Rochester."
"I've got a bit of an odd question," he wrote Feb. 7. "I am legally blind, and I'm a huge baseball fan. Wondering if anyone in this group knows how to pitch, or knows of a place that I could go to learn, preferably for cheap if not free, as I am a college kid."
The response was instantaneous.
Wade Beavers, a Rochester entrepreneur and co-owner of The Yard, a Rochester softball and baseball training facility, offered Mathews five free lessons on the spot. Women took note of the post and told their baseball-loving boyfriends or husbands, who reached out. Dads offered to toss the ball.
His first lesson
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, Mathews got his first pitching lesson. Mitch Brown, a former Cleveland Indians minor league player, had read Mathews' post and offered to help. After talking on the phone, the two met at the Rochester Batting Cages near Pine Island. Mathews arrived attired in a Milwaukee Brewers cap and jersey.
Brown had done some research. He had never taught anyone who was blind how to pitch. Vision is key to pitching, to locating the ball and to getting feedback to recalibrate throws.
But as a one-time pro, Brown also knew that pitching is an exercise in critical thinking and problem-solving. In the absence of vision, he would lean on Mathew's other faculties: his hearing, touch and heightened sense of space.
So the first thing Brown did was to familiarize Mathews with his surroundings.
With Mathews' hand resting on his his shoulder, Brown marched off the number of steps from the pitching mound rubber to the net running along the length of the pitching area and then back to help orient him. Mathews followed his example. He was soon stepping off the dozen paces from the net to the rubber by himself and hitting it within an inch.
Brown also used a PVC pipe as a kind of pool cue to heighten Mathews' spatial awareness. That way, Mathews was able to learn where to place his feet, align his body to the plate and how to rotate his body during a pitch.
And after an hour, the tutorial was done. Mathews began to pitch.
It was a process of trial and error. Mathew's first five throws were off the mark. Brown would tell him how far and in which direction. Mathews suggested it would be easier for him to pitch if he could hear where the ball was going. So a 10-feet-by-6-feet black board was placed behind the plate.
Every time Mathews' pitches hit the board, it gave off a "thunk." After a while, the thunks became more numerous. There were parents and children at the cages that night, and every time Mathews hit the mark, heads would turn or people would clap.
"Chris, that's a strike," Brown said.
And then later: "Dude, that was freaking awesome. I'm so proud of you. You were throwing strikes."
Mathews was pleased with his performance and imagining getting better in time. He was also beginning to feel like a pitcher. His arm was sore.
"It wasn't easy, but it was easier than I thought," he said. "But to be able to know what that feels like as players do. To actually have of a piece of that is so much more rewarding than, you know, hitting a ball off a tee blindfolded."
Not born blind
Mathews was not born blind, but became blind almost at birth.
Born prematurely at 26 weeks, Mathews was placed in an incubator with an excess of oxygen. The environment caused the blood vessels behind his eyes to burst, leaving his retinas permanently scarred. The condition is called retinopathy of prematurity. In addition, Mathews has cataracts and glaucoma in both eyes.
"If you think of your vision as a movie screen, mine is made of tissue paper, and somebody went and dumped a bunch of water on it. It got wrinkled. It got torn," Mathews said.
Mathews does have some residual vision: He relies on a "central patch" in his left eye for "looking around a room or to travel." A tiny glimmer of vision in the corner of his right eye allows him to read materials up close.
Mathews marks his infatuation with baseball on his 9th birthday, when his parents bought him a boombox. It introduced him to the velvety tones of Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, who became the voice of baseball for Mathews.
Spending hours listening to the radio, including both pre-game and post-game analysis, Mathews fell in love with the game.
"I'd listen to my radio for 6 1/2 hours at a time. I think my parents were probably a little worried about me at some points," he said.
After receiving his first lesson, Mathews said he felt even more connected to the game he loves.
People at the cages congratulated him on his accomplishment. A Cubs fan who was present good-naturedly ribbed him about making a sartorial change.
You might considering switching out of the Milwaukee stuff, he said.
"Sorry to hear that," Mathews replied about the man's Cubs allegiance.