"Nobody ever forgets the blind guy:" Omaha Man Coaches Hitters To See What He Can't

April 7, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Coach adjusts a young boy's hitting stance in a batting cage.
Mark Wetzel of Omaha works with a young baseball player on the finer points of hitting. (Photo by Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The first thing you notice along the steep winding drive that leads to Mark Wetzel’s home in Omaha are the handmade signs. One says “No hill for a climber.” Another “The smooth straight path seldom leads anywhere.” And then there’s one that reads “Don’t quit on the first bump in the road.”

"I thought, 'Well, I’ll just put these on my road.' Because I got a bumpy road. I got a hill. I got a fork in the road, smooth path. I’ll just put these on the road," Mark said.

There are more signs in the large building next to the house that contains a couple of batting cages. The messages are meant to inspire the young players Mark works with – teaching them the finer points of how to hit a baseball or softball. At 72, he’s been doing that for more than 40 years. And he’s good at it, attracting kids from across the state, and the country.

"Last year, I had some people come from Oregon twice. I had some people come from Colorado, Oklahoma. Majority of them from right here in this area."

Mark can notice even the smallest flaw in a hitter’s swing. He coaches them on how to see the ball better, even though he can’t see the ball at all. Mark Wetzel is legally blind and has been most of his life.

"Well, most of my center vision is gone, and it really accelerated the last two or three years here. But like right now, I can’t see your face. My mother, if she were to walk in here today, my wife, I don’t know them by face," Mark said.

Coach with a white baseball caps gestures toward a young softball player as she finishes her swing in a batting cage.
Mark Wetzel coaches a softball player at the batting facility next to his home in Omaha. (Photo by Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media News)

Mark has macular degeneration. It started affecting his eyesight when he was about 11. Eventually, he had to quit playing the game of baseball he loved so much. So, he became a coach.

"I’ve had people ask me, 'Well, why did you teach the hitting aspect?' I said, 'What do you think, I want to play catch? Hey, I’m only good for about two or three to the face a day.'"

Mark can see outlines of the hitters and their movements with his peripheral vision.

"I can see the weight shift. I can see if they let the bat lay on the ball naturally long enough. I can see if their knees started behind their hands, stuff like that," he said.

If at this point in the story you’re doubting how good a blind guy could really be at improving a young player’s hitting, well, Mark’s heard that before.

"Well, there’s people that come in and they’re pretty skeptical. 'Wait a minute, a blind guy teaching hitting?' Mark said. "And then they just watch the difference I can make in a few swings, and I talk to them and tell them what I see. And then they’re thinking, 'What in the world?'"

Coach with his hand upon a young boys head in a batting cage. The boy is holding a baseball bat.
Hitting Coach Mark Wetzel works with players from across the country, but most are from the Omaha area. (Photo by Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media News)

Eleven-year-old softball player Dehlia Hallberg says Coach Mark has made her a better hitter. And the first time she worked with him, she didn’t even realize he was blind

"We were driving home, my dad tells me and I’m like, 'I didn’t know that.' I couldn’t even tell," Hallberg said.

Mark Pearson took lessons from Coach Mark as a kid. Now he’s a softball coach and parent.

"I don’t know how he sees things, but he’ll be over here and he’ll see something over there," Pearson said. "And I think he even hears things, he can tell by the way the ball is hit on whether, good contact, how they missed it and where they missed it... It’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty remarkable."

And while the road Mark has been forced to take in his life has had its share of bumps -- just like that drive up to his house – he says he’s fine with being known in baseball circles as "the blind guy."

"Because you know what? You’ll never forget the blind guy. 'Oh, I go to some hitting coach out in, What’s his name? John Smith or something? Oh yeah. Oh, the blind guy.” Nobody ever forgets the blind guy," Mark said.

Coach stands between two batting cages talking with a young boy and girl, while a boy is in a batting cage behind them swinging.
"Just keep swinging." Mark Wetzel teaches young athletes about baseball and life. (Photo by Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media News)

Mark hasn’t been fooled by all the curve balls life has thrown at him. He’s never let his blindness stop him from seeing what he needs to do to succeed in life.

"I think I learned years ago, you got to work harder to make up for what you don’t have."

Mark has spent his life doing that. He may be surrounded by all those inspirational signs and motivational messages, but his message is simple – whether it’s baseball or life…

"You’re going to get knocked down about every other day or just plan on it. Don’t let it surprise you, but just get back up," he said. "You’re going to strike out, just get back up. Just keep swinging. You’re going to have bad days. We all do, but just keep swinging."

That from a legally blind guy who sees things pretty clearly.

Watch this video segment "A Vision For The Game" featuring hitting coach Mark Wetzel from our Nebraska Stories program on Nebraska Public Media.