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Lasik eye surgery gains popularity in baseball world

Twins outfielder and Tampa Catholic grad Denard Span credits lasik for reviving his career after he was struggling in the minors.

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Twins outfielder and Tampa Catholic grad Denard Span credits lasik for reviving his career after he was struggling in the minors.

Following the disappointment of another season in the minor leagues, Twins outfielder Denard Span felt like he was missing something. Five seasons after he was a first-round draft pick out of Tampa Catholic High, his career had reached a roadblock at Triple A that even he couldn't explain.

Hitting, always his strong suit, had become a mind-boggling struggle. Once a superb contact hitter, his strikeout totals ballooned. He would walk back to the dugout in a state of confusion.

"I'd come back, and guys would ask me what the pitch I struck out on was," said Span, 24, the 20th overall pick in 2002. "And I'd have no idea what I swung at."

A trip to an eye doctor revealed he was nearsighted and had an astigmatism in his right eye. But he was a candidate for lasik, a corrective laser surgery that has become increasingly popular among players in a game that relies so much on hand-eye coordination.

Span credits the procedure, which he had in Tampa during the offseason, for a .340 batting average at Triple-A Rochester that earned him a promotion and a new life in the majors.

The exam showed Span had 20/40 vision in his right eye. Because he hits left-handed, his right eye leads, meaning he was picking up the spin of the ball a split second late. And when facing fastballs in the 90s, that can be the difference between a hit and strikeout.

"At least now when I walk back to the dugout I know what pitch I was fooled on," Span said. "It's helped me in the field, too. It's definitely made a world of difference. If you can't see in this game, you can't do much."

Since being recalled from the minors June 30, Span is batting .455 (15-for-33) with hits in 10 of 11 games. Including a 13-game stint in April during which he hit .258, he was at .359 with three doubles, two triples and five stolen bases.

This week in Boston, he made Fenway Park's rightfield — known to bedevil first-time fielders — his playground, plucking the ball out of the air while leaping into the stands.

Span's surgery was performed by Antonio Prado, who operated on Hall of Famer Wade Boggs in the offseason before he got his 3,000th hit as a Ray in 1999.

"When he came in, you could tell he was really frustrated," said Sal Musumeci, who did pre- and postoperation work on the 6-foot, 205-pound Span. "He wanted to know if it was going to make it better. And there was no doubt it would help him some."

Lasik is optimal for baseball players, Rays ophthalmologist Mark Sibley said. Contact lenses can shift as a hitter turns his head toward the mound, forcing him to open his stance to see the ball better. And sand, dirt and wind can make contacts troublesome.

Mark Hendrickson, a former Rays left-hander now with the Marlins, had the surgery during this past offseason. His eyesight was so bad — he was legally blind in his right eye and had 20/50 vision in his left — he couldn't see his catcher's signals.

"It was so bad that when he was in the American League, he couldn't even bunt in interleague play," Sibley said. "He had 20/15 the next day. He told me afterward that we just doubled his chance to stay in the major leagues."

Before the surgery, Hendrickson was 4-for-62 (.065) at the plate. In 2008, he's 9-for-32 (.281) and even has been used as a pinch-hitter.

Sibley said former major-leaguer Fred McGriff had lasik the year he retired (2004). His nearsightedness had him seeing a smaller ball throughout his career, but the Tampa native still hit 493 homers.

But now players no longer have to deal with that hindrance, Sibley said: "It's like talking to an athlete on crutches and telling him, 'You give us 10 minutes and you won't need those crutches again.' "

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

The procedure

Laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis, or lasik, reshapes the cornea to allow high-definition vision, Rays ophthalmologist Mark Sibley said. A laser cuts a flap thinner than a contact lens to reveal its midsection then permanently engraves a contact lens prescription. The procedure usually takes 15-20 minutes per eye.

Some risks

• Loss of vision that cannot be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or surgery.

• Visual issues such as glare, halos and double vision.

• Severely dried eyes.

• The first laser was approved only in 1998. Therefore, its long-term safety and effectiveness are not known.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Lasik eye surgery gains popularity in baseball world 07/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 12, 2008 12:02am]

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