It is a complicated task to describe the mystery surrounding Mark Wetzel’s ability to successfully teach the art of hitting a baseball. He has been referred to as the "Horse Whisperer of Baseball", comparing his unusual abilities to that of the man who communicates and trains horses through a unique method involving their natural body language.
The mystery is not in the results that Mark achieves but the manner by which he corrects a hitter’s swing. Mark Wetzel is legally blind. He has been afflicted with macular degeneration of the retina since the age of 14. Mark sees hitters differently than the rest of us. The mystery is not in how he sees rather what he sees. The awe and curiosity surrounding this phenomenon was best expressed in the 1990’s by a player then playing with the Omaha Royals, Kansas City Royal’s AAA farm team. After quietly watching Mark with other hitters, Felix Martinez gingerly approached Mark following practice at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium. Martinez took a sidelong glance to insure no one was watching and whispered to Wetzel "What do you see in my swing blind man?" Martinez, as so many others before and after him, had become intrigued at the magical way Wetzel completely dissected and corrected his hitter’s swing. This is difficult for a seeing man and nearly impossible for a blind man.
Mark learned that he had macular degeneration at the young age of 14, after he found himself unable to catch a baseball. Mark was prompted to see a doctor for a diagnosis after a misguided coach made jeering comments on his inability to catch a fly ball. The diagnosis forced Mark to quit baseball. He was forced to live in a visual world filled with dark shadows and silhouettes. He does not see a face as you and I see it, only its outline. He cannot read a bat label, only the silhouette of the bat. Mark cannot read a headline in a newspaper or pick out a player by the number on his shirt, but he can identify players just by observing their swing.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, Mark has turned the world upside down by not allowing the way he sees the world to be something subnormal. The way he uses his vision is something extraordinary. The way Mark sees a baseball hitter allows him to diagnose that hitter and the arc of his baseball bat in a way which no other person can understand, imitate nor imagine. I believe Mark is the best in the country at both spotting the smallest hitting details and conveying them to the hitter.
Mark has focused his unique vision of the world on one goal; to become the very best hitting instructor. It has led him to first learning from and now actively working along side and sharing ideas with some of baseball’s best hitters and teachers. The best include Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and San Diego Padre hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. Merv is considered, by many, to be the dean of Major League hitting coaches. I have personally been present to hear Mark share in the most minute detail hitting concepts and drills with Gwynn, Rettenmund, as well as ball players from the major leagues to Division 1 college players and coaches. Two examples include Steve Sisco, from the Atlanta Braves, and Einar Diaz, from the Cleveland Indians. I was with Mark when both of these players asked for instruction at a Spring Training game. I have seen him work with hundreds of hitters. I walk away from each session feeling that I have just watched an artist at work.
Each Spring a new crop of struggling hitters find their way to Mark’s batting cages. Mark’s unique skills and his attention to each individual hitter’s need for improvement has helped to turn many of these struggling athletes into All State and Division 1 ball players. On Sunday evenings during ball season, you can find Mark at his desk taking calls from coaches and players in college and professional levels all across the country. One Sunday evening, while visiting with Mark, a sports psychologist called to speak with Mark in a three way conversation about small details of hitting with a NY Mets player. His players also check in to report how their games and practices went. Mark gives them instruction and encouragement over the phone. Without a doubt, his students are grateful.
There is no guess work, no blustering, no clichés, or false platitudes that I have observed in so many others. This ability was demonstrated when Mark met Tony Gwynn. He had the opportunity to discuss his swing with him after watching Tony’s swing earlier that week. Tony was amazed at all the minute details Mark was ale to see! For example, Mark noticed Tony’s hands had set down in stride inside his back foot on his stride on a pitch at one at bat. The ability to "see" and the ability to demonstrate the hitting techniques of a Tony Gwynn or a Barry Bonds, combined with the ability to instruct, cajole, humor and even scold a hitter invariably leads to a hitter improving while under Mark’s wing. This ability has led to Mark recently having, at one time, six of the nine hitters named to the Nebraska All-State Baseball Team. It has led to a small school in Colorado leading the state in hitting four of the last five years. It has led to professional players either calling or making their way personally to Mark’s hitting facility in Omaha. It has also led to job opportunities. Mark interviewed for AAA job with a roving hitting instructor named Jimmy Johnson. As Mark gave his expertise, Jimmy Johnson’s jaw dropped. He asked, "Where in thee hell did you learn all of this?". More importantly, it has led to many of Mark’s former students, long after leaving the active world of baseball, to contact Mark to continue an acquaintance that had begun years earlier in a batting cage; someplace, somewhere.
I have seen or heard Mark on national or regional television (CNN, Fox), radio shows (Paul Harvey, Rudy- of the football fame), and read about his talents in magazines, and newspapers. I even read about him in the Congressional Record, June 4, 2003, in a stirring tribute by then U.S. Congressman Scott McGinnis.
I do not know what will become of Mark’s eyesight. I suspect that over time it will deteriorate. When it does, baseball will have lost a treasure. What I know for certain is that at the end of any given lesson, a hitter will emerge as a better hitter. He will also emerge a better person: all brought about by a man who sees the world in a way that only the rest of us can imagine.