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The Big Picture: McCoy still has true baseball vision

Thursday, July 03, 2003

The gent in the PNC Park press box with the flashlight, the magnified-screen laptop and the large-print scorebook filed three stories last night for the readers of tomorrow's Dayton Daily News.

Hal McCoy stops at PNC Park en route to the Hall of Fame this summer. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Just another day in a 31-year career of covering the Cincinnati Reds. Just another Hall of Fame performance by a baseball writer headed at month's end for Cooperstown and a ceremony that will cause him to miss his first Reds road trip.

What, Hal McCoy slack off because of a stroke behind his other eye? "Don't intend to," said the gent prepared to write two stories today and five more tomorrow, on a holiday.

McCoy is legally blind. His field of vision is a blurry tunnel at perpetual dusk, and his peripheral view and the perspective below his waist is completely gone. During our conversation, he would gesture , and accidentally thump my left knee.. He needs someone to drive him to home games, a 2 1/2-hour commute from Dayton to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. He needs the flashlight to locate anything he drops on the floor, the extra-strength screen to look over his own words, the biggie-sized scorebook to continue to record every out of every game of every year spent on a beat that essentially kept him on the road for nearly 14 full years of his 62.

Two years ago this August, heading to his press-box seat in St. Louis, he lost half the vision in his right eye because of a sudden stroke to the optic nerve. No headaches. No warning. A blur, just like that. The condition is known as ischemic optic neuropathy, and that's about the only part on which specialists seem to agree. One quoted him 15 percent odds that it would happen to his other eye.

"My left eye took over. Continued to drive. Played tennis three or four times a week. Forgot all about it. Until January 23."

That day, barely a month after fellow baseball scribes voted him into the Hall as the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, McCoy awoke to find he beat those odds with his left eye.

A total blur. Just like that.

"I'll admit, after it happened, and during spring training, there were a lot of frustrating days and a lot of tears. I thought something that I loved so much was going to be taken from me. It's pushed me. Pushed me hard. But millions of people are worse off than me. I'm still getting to do what I love to do."

Here's a sports writer who displays the kind of perseverance daily that rivals the perseverance of the people he writes about. But his is a tale beyond the margins of a newspaper page. It's a story of respect in sports, of all things. A story of amazing support from readers, employers, competitors and the very people he covers -- Reds players.

McCoy already has a portion of his Hall speech written for July 27, the part in which he personally thanks Reds third baseman Aaron Boone.

McCoy remembers walking into the Sarasota, Fla., clubhouse that appeared more dark and foreboding than ever before. He remembers feeling he would have to quit the first morning of spring training. He remembers this 30-year-old player sitting him down at his locker and lecturing "the hell out of me."

"He told me about what was going on with him and that he didn't think he was going to be able to continue," Boone recalled. "I just listened to him and told him, 'No. That's not good enough.' "

Boone offered help at every turn. Same with Sean Casey of Upper St. Clair. Ken Griffey Jr., too. And more.

"I think everybody respects him," Boone said. "I think we're all better off that he's still doing what he does and still, as much as ever, he has his finger on what's going on in this clubhouse.

"Of course, I joke with him from time to time: 'Hey, I'm over here.' "

Boone teasingly yelled about the subject matter across the PNC Park visitors clubhouse to Casey the other day. "We do more interviews about Hal than us," Casey said. "But he knows he has a support system here. I admire Hal for his attitude and the way he's handled this whole thing."

McCoy is the leadoff jokester when it comes to the eyesight that will never return. He knocks over his share of chairs and garbage cans in the clubhouse, steps on enough gloves and spikes that would elicit angry screams most anywhere else. He tells folks it's OK to laugh at him when he interviews the Coke machine.

Last winter, when McCoy first went to Dayton Daily News sports editor Frank Corsoe with his eye-test results, both men cried. The bosses offered him a choice: write a column or continue to try to cover the Reds. His wife, Nadine, shoved him out the door to Sarasota. For the record, she figured he'd only last a week.

Tony Jackson of The Cincinnati Post became his Florida chauffeur, though Jackson maintained he benefited from their everyday companionship. The rest of the Reds beat writers, many of whom received McCoy's counsel when they first started on the job, now escort him to clubhouses and hang even closer. His paper dispatched a newsroom assistant to drive him to and from Cincinnati on game days, a duty lately awarded to an intern.

True, he has made accommodations. He wears yellow-tinted bifocals. He carries a third briefcase to games, with the flashlight, binoculars, magnifying glass and all. He uses a foot to carefully feel out that first step, though he tumbled down a Denver airport escalator in late April and tore a hole in his favorite jeans. Stress makes his eyesight condition worsen, he said, "and airports are always stressful."

Look at him now.

He threw out the first pitch when the Reds played at Tampa Bay in mid-June. Last week, he was given Hal McCoy Day by the Dayton Dragons minor-league team and another first pitch. He gets his own mound ceremony July 21 in Cincinnati.

Expect him to toe the rubber and throw a third strike.

Pretty impressive in a game in which the umpire is supposed to be legally blind, not the writer.

"We love Hal," said Casey, echoing a sentiment the writer hears from several hard-bitten scribes nowadays. "Guys in this clubhouse have reached out to Hal because of who he is as a person. He's always fair in how he writes. He never makes the player look like a complete idiot, you know what I mean? And he writes it as he sees it."

No malaprop there. McCoy writes in the style befitting the grand old game, even if he cannot make out much of any ball beyond the infield. He is clear, witty, accessible, knowledgeable and forthright. Long considered among baseball's finest reporters, he graced the cover of an inaugural edition of an ill-fated magazine devoted to sports writing. He is no Reds apologist, which caused former owner Marge Schott to ban him from the ballpark dining room and use his newspaper column for, uh, Schotzie relief appearances.

His sports writing journey started when he was an Akron East High basketball player who asked to write for the school newspaper about his team. After graduating from Kent State, where he played baseball with future Yankees player-general manager Gene Michael, a career was jump-started. The Dayton paper had him covering all kinds of sports -- high schools, University of Miami, University of Dayton, golf, auto racing, the defunct NBA Cincinnati Royals, the Cleveland Browns -- before a boss offered him a choice in his 11th year there, 1973: baseball or the Bengals.

"I'm sure glad I took the Reds," he said with a smirk.

In an age of Jayson Blairs and uncaring management and athletes behaving badly, it's a blessing to hear of a few good people coming together.

Baseball's better off because of them. We all are.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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