You can't hit what you can't see. That time-honored baseball axiom was never more real to Casey Kotchman than when he stood at the plate inspecting pitches last season.
"It was kind of like looking through a dirty windshield wiper," he said.
After batting .217 in 125 games for the Mariners, the second-worst average of his career, the former Seminole High star made an appointment in October with Dr. Tom Tooma, a pioneer in lasik who had performed the surgery on Kotchman in Newport Beach, Calif., in 2004.
Kotchman, 28, was diagnosed with a bacterial infection, and Tooma squeezed pus out of both tear ducts. Several followup visits ensured the problem was corrected.
"My vision has been pristine so far, to say the least," Kotchman said. "And I'm trying to get out of the bad habits I got into mechanically at the plate last year."
But you have to forgive Kotchman if he's still having trouble trusting his eyes. Certainly, he never saw this coming:
Manny Ramirez retiring a few days into the season to force Kotchman's recall from Triple-A Durham; Dan Johnson struggling with one home run and a .129 average; and Kotchman being given a chance to play nearly every day in the big leagues for the Rays, his hometown team.
Entering tonight's game against the Indians, Kotchman is feeling more comfortable in and out of the batter's box. He's hitting .355 with three doubles, a homer and six RBIs, and has batted .400 over his past 10 games.
"When you can't see the ball, that's the biggest thing in hitting," he said. "You start to guess, and you don't trust your swing. You can't, because you can't see. The first importance is to see the ball and go from there."
Manager Joe Maddon knew when the Rays signed Kotchman, he wouldn't forget to bring his glove. He has a .998 fielding percentage at first base, the highest in major-league history among players with at least 500 games.
But at the plate?
Maddon remembers when Kotchman hit .296 with 11 homers in more than 500 at-bats with the Angels in 2007. But when you put on the tape of him with the Mariners, he was too jumpy.
"I didn't know what to expect," Maddon said. "He came to spring training, we looked at him closely and watched some old stuff (along with hitting coach Derek Shelton). And he's made some nice adjustments.
"Right now, he looks hitterish, he does. Nice and calm at the plate ... and I think with that, he knows where the head of the bat is."
Defensively, Kotchman has been stellar.
"My dad always told me, the bat can't and won't be there every single day," Kotchman said of his father, Tom, an Angels scout and manager of the Orem Owlz of the Pioneer League. "But your glove can and it should be. So you're going to help the team with your glove and keep the starting pitcher in the game longer and put less stress on your bullpen by taking away hits or saving errors."
Maddon said the Rays have been spoiled with some slick-fielding first basemen such as Travis Lee and Carlos Pena.
"Now Kotch," said Maddon, who was the Angels' bench coach when Kotchman was with the big club in 2004 and 2005.
"For so many years, people said just put somebody over there as long as he can hit. Bad thought. As far as I'm concerned, you want a really good-fielding first baseman that does draw the confidence out of the infielders where they can just pick up the ball and throw it knowing that it's going to be caught somehow. And he does that for all of those guys."
Kotchman's acceptance has been quick in the clubhouse. Five of his eight seasons in the majors were spent with the Angels, but since 2008, he has bounced among the Braves, Red Sox, Mariners and now Rays.
"When you come full circle like he has, relatively young age, to end up back sort of where it all started in T-ball, not many kids get to do that," Tom Kotchman said.
But seeing is believing.
"It's like I'm living a dream at home," said Kotchman, the 13th overall pick by the Angels in the 2001 draft. "It really is. I say that humbly. I mean, I'm living a dream. I'm at home with the family. ... It's something I couldn't envision happening."