Catcher is often recognized as the toughest position to play in baseball.
Try doing it with one eye.
You’d never know it — and runners might be ill-advised to test it — but Raceland senior Ryan Tolliver can’t even see first base while crouching behind home plate.
After undergoing four major eye surgeries to become the Rams’ starting signal-caller, coaches and teammates call him an “inspiration.”
In March of 2011, Tolliver walked in for an annual checkup with his optometrist after he had experienced some extraordinary blurriness in his right eye. He thought he was in need of a simple bump in contact lens strength. Instead, he walked out staring at a nightmare directly in the pupils.
Tolliver was sent to a specialist in Lexington, who came in on a Saturday to take a peek under Tolliver’s eyelids.
“She said, ‘It’s a lot worse than we thought. We need to go to surgery right now,’” Tolliver recalled.
The emergency procedure was a complex one that involved cutting into the eye and injecting a gas bubble. Doctors also performed laser surgery on his left eye as a precautionary measure.
Throughout the prolonging process, his future with one of the greatest loves of his life — baseball — was fading into darkness.
“I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” Tolliver said.
As his team took the field in April, Tolliver held out some hope that he could make his return to the diamond. He needed nine full weeks of healing before being released for athletic activity.
Six weeks following the initial surgery, a partial tear in his eye landed him back in the operating room. The frustrating pattern continued six weeks later when, again, another tear occurred and another repair ensued.
Finally, following those three taxing cycles, Tolliver faced two options. He could either have his right eye removed, or travel to Detroit, Mich., for an experimental surgery.
To Tolliver, it was a no-brainer. He chose the trek to the Motor City in the summer of 2011, just weeks before his junior school year was set to begin.
“They took my blood,” he said, pointing to the vein in the crease of his left elbow. “And put it in my eye. It helped stop the deterioration.”
The fourth time, it seems, was the charm. The exhausting battle had taken a turn, and the road to recovery reached a straightaway.
Longtime Rams baseball skipper Randy Vanderhoof regularly checked in on Tolliver throughout the ordeal.
“We did a lot of praying for Ryan,” Vanderhoof said. “We just wanted him to be a normal teenager. Baseball would just be a bonus.
“It’s really a miracle that he’s out on the field with what he’s been through.”
Formerly a three-sport athlete, Tolliver was advised against attempting football but he did try basketball for a short period.
“But I really couldn’t see where I was guarding people,” he said.
Tolliver adamantly tried to deflect the thought that he’d never cross the chalk lines again, but the ugly idea kept creeping into his head.
Doctors expressed the same notion.
“They told me I’d probably not play baseball, especially with a small object coming at me,” Tolliver said.
How about cruising at him consistently at 70-plus miles per hour?
“He does a wonderful job back there,” said fellow senior Zayne Sammons, the Rams’ ace pitcher who has thrown 45 innings with a 2.18 earned run average this season. “He’s caught me now for two years, knows my pitches very well and he does a great job adapting to every pitch.”
Tolliver sports protective goggles — he keeps a clear pair as well as safety sunglasses. He wears a contact in his left eye, but leaves the right naked because the soft lens “just makes things worse.”
Currently, he can only see out of his right eye if he exerts extra effort.
“It’s like it’s not even there unless I try,” he said, rotating his right iris. “I can see color and movement.”
As for the lack of visibility down the first-base line, Tolliver said “it’s all about communication. The guys holler at me if a runner is going.”
Vanderhoof first approached Tolliver about catching in April of 2012. The then-shortstop was just getting back into the swing of things after having missed his entire sophomore season.
Another no-brainer for Tolliver.
“I talked to him for five minutes about it,” Vanderhoof chuckled.
“I love it,” Tolliver said. “I was a backup catcher when I was 13, 14 years old.”
Amazing is his progression considering that, when cleared after his fourth surgery, he couldn’t even catch a tennis ball thrown by his grandfather in the backyard.
His depth perception began to steadily improve, though, so his transition to catcher was fairly seamless.
“Just being back there, I feel like I can help the team a lot,” said Tolliver, who has caught all but a handful of the Rams’ 27 games (they’re 14-13). When not catching, he typically fulfills the designated hitter role. The right-hander regularly bats second in the lineup.
Growing up, Tolliver looked up to his cousin Thomas, a school, 16th Region and even state record-holder.
He dons the same jersey number (11) as the speedster who went on to star at Transylvania University. Thomas swiped a state-best 164 career bases. He also amassed 164 runs, 201 hits and had a .477 career batting average.
While Ryan’s batting average isn’t outstanding, he gets on base 33 percent of the time and he’s second on the team in runs, with 20. Kyle Moore’s 24 top the team.
“It’s still not easy (to hit), but (my eye’s) not something I’m going to use as a crutch,” Tolliver said.
Said second baseman Freddie Shepherd, another one of the team’s three seniors: “How he can do it with one eye, I mean, we should be able to do it with two and be two times better. But he just comes out and shows everybody up all the time.”
Hard-working is a characteristic of Tolliver’s, said Vanderhoof.
“You don’t have to tell him to do anything, he just does it,” said the coach. “When he gets behind the plate, he brings a lot of energy to us.
“It’s an inspiration every day.”
Tolliver said he couldn’t have overcome such adversity without the support of his family, namely his mother and father, Wendy and Phillip.
He summed up his grueling, yet ultimately rewarding, journey in seven words: “It made me grow up ...” he paused. “... I’m lucky.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.