Pitcher keeps eye on the ball
There is more than one way to celebrate this coming July 4. You can watch fireworks. You can light fireworks. Or you can stop and hear the story of Jameson Lamb.
Lamb is a high school pitcher who throws right and sees left. Nearly 365 days ago, his right eye went up in flames -- literally -- and he's spent the past year trying to reteach himself how to play baseball. The game is different the second time around. The phrases he used to take for granted -- Keep your eye on the ball … Watch the ball hit the bat … See it, hit it … let it get deep … pick up the signs … watch for the bunt -- are now words to live and breathe by. He is wiser. He is 17 going on 30. But that's what happens when you've seen your future, and in your future, you cannot entirely see.
The phrase he most identifies with is, "Keep your eye on the ball." Who first said that? And why wasn't it, "Keep your eyes on the ball?" Either way, it resonates with Jameson Lamb like you'll never know. Keeping just one eye on the ball? That's easy! It's the other eye he's not sure about. Whenever he looks in the mirror and sees jagged eyelashes and a swollen eyelid and an eyeball covered by a white, milky film, he thinks, "Please work again." But it's baseball that keeps him sane. It's baseball that keeps him from blaming his friend. It's baseball that keeps him preoccupied. It's baseball that keeps him out of the dark.
Growing up, he was never the swiftest or strongest on the field. He was the bright kid, who aced calculus and knew how to take the extra base on an overthrow. In a lot of ways, baseball enabled him to become one of the guys. That was enough for him. His secondary sport was cross-country, which was for loners, but baseball meant a dugout full of instant buddies. Because he wanted to be a doctor and was a National Honor Society member, most had him pegged as an intellectual. But with that uniform and hat, Jameson Lamb became the whole student-athlete package.
"Baseball is what he wanted most," his mother, Renee, said. "It's where he's comfortable. It's where his friends are. It's what makes him not just be a smart kid."
He had learned how to play from his father, Sean, who threw him soft toss, hard toss and also hit him a ribbed baseball that never bounced the same way twice. The ball was for hand-eye coordination, because, if nothing else, you needed your eyes to play baseball.
By the time high school rolled around, Jameson was playing for two travel teams in and around his hometown of Homewood, Ill., just 22 miles south of downtown Chicago. He was a lean, brown-haired, left-handed hitting first baseman who occasionally pitched and was never afraid to throw his diving curveball early in the count. He eventually made the freshman and sophomore teams at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and, although his hitting was spotty, he finished the 2012 season believing the varsity first baseman's job could be his in 2013.
The key would be racking up base hits for the high school's summer league team, in front of the head coach Todd Sippel. Sippel would not accept mediocrity, having been taught the game by Ken Krizan, a legendary coach from Beecher (Ill.) High School who had won 508 career games over 35 seasons. Krizan was famous for teaching life lessons, and early every July, Krizan used to warn his players to take it easy over the July 4 holiday. "He'd say it every year," Sippel says. "He'd say, 'Be careful with fireworks. They're not toys.' Every year."
Sippel badly wanted to emulate Krizan once he began coaching, to teach the same life lessons. And on July 3, 2012, after a nondescript Homewood-Flossmoor summer league game, Sippel told his players, "It's July 4th tomorrow, fellas, be careful. This is a big weekend for accidents."
Sippel remembers a couple of the boys murmuring, "Whatever." Even Jameson, the reputable honor student, left the dugout unmoved. "I thought he was talking more about not goofing off and breaking your arm or something," Jameson said. "I remember thinking, 'Oh yeah, that's not going to happen to me. I don't have to worry about that.' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah. Right.'"
Besides, Jameson and his family were about to make their yearly trip to their lake house in Pullman, Mich., for the cleanest fun possible. Pullman is 150 miles east of Chicago in the southwest corner of Michigan, and every July 4 the Lambs would kayak, water ski and jump on a lakeside trampoline. And every July 4 night, they and the other families on the lake shore would put on a homespun, 10-to-15-minute fireworks show.
The Lambs, like most of the homeowners, would stop at a fireworks shop on their way into town and stock up on everything from Aerial Repeaters to Flying Spinners to Roman Candles. The Lambs would spend up to $400 -- just to come close to keeping up with the Joneses -- because, frankly, some families on the lake were investing as much as $2,000 on more advanced pyrotechnics.
The show itself was pure Americana, straight out of the 1950s, practically -- families on deck chairs and hammocks oohing and aahing at their neighbors' aerial displays. And on this particular July 4, Jameson was there with his mom, his dad, his sister Kaitlin and four of his high school buddies to soak it all in. These friends were not baseball players -- some were hockey players, some were lacrosse players, one was a buddy visiting from the Philippines -- and they were all staying in a loft above the Lamb's lake house garage.
The fireworks show ended about 11:30 p.m., and, a little after midnight, Jameson's father urged the five boys to get some rest. The plan was to spend another full day kayaking and water skiing in the heat, then head back to the Chicago suburbs.
But 16-year-olds will be 16-year-olds, and a little after 1 a.m., the boys crept down from the loft into the garage and noticed some leftover Roman Candles. "None of us were tired," Jameson said. "So we thought it would be a good idea to just go shoot them back over the lake and have a good time."
Eventually, the boys moved to a street in front of the cottage. Roman Candles are meant to be launched from the ground, at a 75-degree angle, away from participants and onlookers. In the air, they eject several colorful shells or embers that can sometimes still be red hot when they drop from the sky. But, rather than setting them off from the ground, Jameson and his friends were lighting and discharging them from their bare hands.
It all seemed harmless, until one of Jameson's friends -- he won't say who -- inadvertently discharged a shell at Jameson's leg. "There were burns on me," Jameson said. "I was like, 'Ow, this hurts a lot.' Then, I turned my head to talk to the kid that hit me, to say, 'What are you doing?' And that's when another one hit me."
In the right eye.
Jameson says his first sensation was a feeling of being punched in the face and that the second sensation was the horrific feeling of an eye on fire. "It was like my eyelashes got singed off," Jameson said. "The eyelid was burnt. There was like black debris in there. There was a hole in it. It, like, ripped through the first layer of my cornea."
Blinded, he howled, "I got hit!" The first response of the group was unknowing laughter. The friends thought it was slapstick humor, that Jameson -- quick-witted Jameson -- was feigning injury. The friend who hit him had no idea that his Roman Candle had been pointed in Jameson's direction. But reality set in when Jameson turned his back to them all and rushed toward the kitchen door of the cottage.
It was locked, so he pounded violently. His mother, Renee -- who has had multiple sclerosis for 22 years -- was awakened by the commotion. She unlatched the door, and he almost barreled through her, screaming, "My eye! My eye!"
She took one look, smelled the gun smoke and let out an "Oh My Lord." She filled a Dixie cup full of cold water and then essentially poured it down his eye socket. "I swear I don't know how I didn't break his neck because I'm holding his head back trying to flush it out, you know?" she recalled.
Sean, startled from his sleep as well, says there was a "black hole" where his son's right eye had been. "It was like a 'Terminator' movie," Sean said. "Like there was no eye there."
By the time the four other boys had raced into the house, Sean had a towel full of ice over Jameson's eye. The two of them then drove to the nearest emergency room, 20 minutes away in the resort town of South Haven, Mich.
The car ride was quiet. Jameson held the bag of ice over his eye -- futilely, because it was already swollen shut. "I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, I messed up,'" Jameson said. "I was thinking they were going to have to take it out that night.''
He didn't cry; rather, he says he felt defeated. "I was like, 'Wow, I don't know how I'm going to be able to do anything for the rest of my life now with one eye.'"
When they pulled up to the ER, it was nearing 3 a.m., and Sean had to ring a bell at the front desk. When a nurse appeared, he said, "My son got hit in the eye with a firework." She answered, "Happens all the time this time of year; let me take a look.'' Then she gasped. Immediately, a doctor was paged.
Back at the cottage, sitting with four despondent boys, Renee's mind was racing. She remembers thinking, "Why did they go out into the street in the middle of the night to blow up Roman Candles? They're being stupid 16-year-olds? They've watched too many 'Jackass' movies?' I don't know."
"It's your worst nightmare," she says now. "Had Jameson messed with fireworks before? No! We would never allow him. Were we handing him a book of matches and saying go play? No! We don't even do sparklers.
"We feel horrible. The fact we bought [the fireworks]. There's some guilt there that we bought them. It never even crossed our minds they would [find them] and light them off unsupervised. Never crossed our minds. Should have, I guess."
In the ER, a South Haven doctor pumped saline solution into his eye, trying to clean out the debris. Hours later, Jameson was examined by a local eye specialist, who urgently sent the family to see the renowned eye surgeons at University of Illinois-Chicago.
"Just to let you know, they perform miracles there," the doctor said.
"Do we need a miracle?" Sean asked.
"Yes," the doctor said. "You do."
They were greeted at UI-C by cornea transplant specialists, limbal stem cell transplant specialists, retina specialists and eyelid surgeons. Seven or eight doctors were in the room, including Dr. Ali Djalilian, one of the leading eye surgeons in the country, who explained bluntly, "This is one of the most devastating injuries that can happen to an eye."
In layman's terms, Jameson had a thermal eye injury due to the heat of the Roman Candle and a chemical injury from the firework's gunpowder. When the shell hit him, his eyelid seared onto his eyeball, and surgeons would need to reconstruct the eyelid, monitor his damaged cornea and hope blood would someday flow back into the injured eye. The plus was that the eyeball had not perforated and wouldn't need to be removed. But otherwise, according to Dr. Djalilian, Jameson's right eye was essentially "dead … there were no cells alive on its surface." The chances of him seeing out of it again were poor. But they wouldn't know for sure for 12 to 18 months.
Almost two baseball seasons.
The news spread swiftly throughout the Homewood-Flossmoor community. Coach Sippel hated that he and his mentor, Krizan, had been right about the hazards of July 4. In the past, Sippel had sometimes forgotten to deliver Krizan's warning speech. He would never forget again.
He was sick about this. His young first baseman was now damaged goods. "I figured he was probably done," the coach said.
But Jameson resolutely stared into his mirror each night over the next week or so convinced that nothing -- at its core -- had changed. He wasn't in pain -- doctors figured he couldn't feel anything because the nerve endings in his eye had fried -- so he decided there was nothing to keep him from playing with an eye slammed shut.
"I can't even imagine life without baseball," he said. "I don't know what I would have done. It was a big part of my childhood growing up. I played in high school the season before. I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I was going to play.
"I asked [the doctors], and they said I probably shouldn't play that summer, and that it probably wouldn't be a good idea for me to play the 2013 season. I said, 'That's not happening.'"
He gave himself two weeks to recover and then asked his father to meet him at the high school baseball field. It was July 18, two full weeks after the accident. They began to play catch. The boy bobbled nearly every ball thrown his way. "My depth perception was way off," he said. "I couldn't even toss it up to myself and catch it."
Sean sensed baseball would be impossible. He began hitting his son ground balls. The grounders ate Jameson up. The ball was almost always bouncing off the heel of his glove. "I'm losing sight of it the last foot-and-a-half to two feet," Jameson told Sean.
He wanted to pitch, wanted to see if his curveball could still dance. Thankfully, depth perception wasn't an issue, but finding home plate was. With only a left eye, he found it difficult to center his pitches. "Think about it," Jameson said. "Close your right eye. You see a little different than if you close your left eye. If you throw down the middle, it's not actually down the middle."
Finally, almost bashfully, Sean asked Jameson if he wanted to hit. He was hoping he'd say no. "I thought for sure he was going to screw himself into the ground," Sean said. "Figuring he's a lefty hitter and it's his right, dominant eye that's gone."
But Jameson told him, yes, he wanted to grab his bat. Sean set up an L-screen halfway between the pitcher's mound and home plate, though he didn't think he'd need the protection. But, as soon as he started throwing, something bizarre happened:
Jameson started hitting the baseball, hard, to all fields.
"OK, I'm going to start bringing it, as much as your old man can bring it," Sean told him.
But the baseball kept leaping off his son's bat. He told his dad the vision in his left eye was so sharp, he could see which way the ball was spinning. "I can see it clearly coming out of your hand," Jameson told him.
They went to his eye doctor to get his left eye tested -- and were mystified by what they heard.
His vision had improved from 20-20 to 20-15.
Jameson's first thought? Baseball, here we come.
Three days later -- 17 days after the accident -- he suited up for one of his travel teams, the Flossmoor Station Brewers.
One of his doctors, Dr. Samuel Lee, gave him the green light to play, but only if he wore protective eyewear.
"Why? My eye's already messed up," Jameson said.
"Not for your right eye," Dr. Lee said. "For your good eye."
So he showed up for a doubleheader that day wearing a pair of Oakley glasses with clear, protective lenses. His right eye was still swollen almost shut, while his left eye was sensitive to light and grew easily fatigued. No one was sure how it would go.
At least Jameson felt like he had X-ray vision in his good eye. An ophthalmologist had informed him that his left eye had always been his dominant eye and that his vision had improved because it was compensating for the right eye.
"Most of what that doctor's saying is quite true under the age of 10," Dr. Djalilian said of Jameson's improved vision. "The brain is still developing at the age of 10 and the brain can shift things over and put more emphasis on one side than the other. But there's evidence now that even well into 18 years old, the brain still maintains that plasticity. It has the ability to shift from one side to the other. I wouldn't be surprised if that happened in this case."
Sean couldn't wait for his son's first at-bat. In the first game of the doubleheader, the travel team coach decided to use Jameson only as a pinch runner, simply to get a sense of the boy's balance. But when the team went to a pizza joint in between games, the coach announced, "Jameson, you're pitching the next game." The entire team threw their napkins up into the air.
He was nervous starting out, yielding one first-inning run. But then, at the plate, he turned it around. He swung at the first pitch he saw and drove it 300 feet -- a success, even though the center fielder made an elegant catch. "Everyone was shocked," Jameson said. "Like, 'How did that happen. We expected him to strike out.'"
His next at-bat was a single up the middle. Jameson wound up going 2-for-4, while pitching a complete game three-hitter with nine strikeouts. That's when Jameson told himself, "I'm back. I can play."
The rest of the summer, Jameson alternated between doctor appointments, baseball, doctor appointments and baseball. He would take a tennis ball and, for hours, pound it against a wall and catch it. He was relearning how to turn his head, how to see, how to backhand, how to scoop. He would dribble that old ribbed ball, the one with the erratic bounces, to help his hand-eye coordination. There were no days off.
His travel ball statistics that summer were off the charts. He batted .400 and struck out only three times. He went 4-0 as a pitcher with a 1.76 ERA. One game, he torqued his body so much to throw a curveball that his cap flew off. But he caught the hat in midair, fielded a comebacker while simultaneously putting the cap back on his head and then threw to first base for the out. Fans and players erupted.
As summer turned to fall, the eye incrementally improved. The steroid eye-drops and the surgery to repair his eyelid had "kept the eye alive," according to Sean. Jameson could see shadows now out of his injured eye. Modern medicine had much to do with it, but, if you ask his doctors, his parents, his friends and him, the lure of baseball was just as responsible.
"It was encouraging," Dr. Lee said. "I thought, 'Here's a kid who literally lost his vision in his one eye and isn't sulking.' Other patients aren't this way."
Jameson brought his friend -- the one who hit him with the Roman Candle -- to one of his eye appointments, just to show him that all was not lost, that he shouldn't feel guilty. Jameson was the one cheering his friend up, cheering his parents up.
By the end of the winter, all Jameson cared about was making his high school baseball team. He still had his 3.90 grade point average; he was still "the smart kid." But without baseball in the spring, he'd have lost his game and his eye. He couldn't fathom it.
It didn't matter to Sippel that Jameson had 20-15 vision in his good eye; he and the school administrators weren't going to risk him standing at the plate. "So that's why I said, 'The only way he'll make the this team is as a pitcher,'" Sippel said. "We knew hitting the baseball was probably out the door this early. I didn't watch him hit in travel ball. But when I saw his curveball [at tryouts], I said, 'Whoa, he's going to help us.'"
Usually, Sippel posts a list of who makes the team. But he pulled Jameson out of P.E. class to deliver the news in person. "I want you to know you made this team, but only as a pitcher,'' he said.
"Oh, coach, that's all right," Jameson said. "Happy to be a part of it."
Jameson wasn't going to complain about not being allowed to hit. He wasn't going to talk back. He'd proved to his coach that he wouldn't be a liability with one eye. So now, underneath his baseball cap, Jameson wrote, "Prove it to yourself."
They brought him into a 1-1 game against Joliet West -- just gave him the ball and a pat on the rump. All right now, bud. See what you can do. Four innings later, the final score was 3-1, in favor of Homewood-Floosmoor. He'd given up just one hit, and with his eye still relatively swollen shut, it looked like he was winking at the hitters. If he could've, he would've.
Another time, he was summoned with the bases loaded and two outs against Lincoln Way East and struck a kid out with his 12-to-6 curveball. He wasn't nervous either time. Coach Sippel noticed it right away. When you've already lost an eye, what's worrisome about maybe losing a game?
His sense of calm was apparent to all. Kids on the other teams noticed his swollen eye -- "They'd be, 'Wow, what happened to you?'" Jameson says -- but he would just chuckle and move on. He seemed able to laugh it all off. On his 17th birthday, this past May, his parents gave him a birthday card with a picture of an eyeball. The note inside said, "Keep an eye out for fun" -- and he cackled at it. His sister gave him a bobblehead of an eye for the dashboard of his car, saying, "Now you have two eyes for when you're driving." That bobblehead is still prominently displayed in his Honda minivan.
The end result was a 2.20 ERA for the high school season. The batting average against him was just .233. But, even better, the odds of him getting his sight back have risen to greater than .500.
This month Jameson is scheduled to undergo a limbal stem cell transplant that could restore the vision in his injured eye. Dr. Djalilian will transplant limbal stem cell tissue from his good left eye to his right eye and scrape away the blood vessels that are currently obscuring the right cornea. It is an intricate procedure, and another eye specialist, Dr. Peter Setabutr, will permanently remove Jameson's right eyelashes before the operation to avoid complications. The hope is that the limbal stem cells repopulate in the right eye before the blood vessels grow back and obscure the cornea again. "It's the big one," said Jameson's mother. "It's the BIG surgery."
He will, perhaps, wake up that day with 20-40 vision in his right eye. That is the best hope, according to doctors. He would then wear hard contact lenses to get him back to 20-20 vision in the injured eye. But whatever happens, happens. If it doesn't work, he'll keep his eye on the ball; if it does, he'll keep his eyes on the ball.
It's been a full year since the accident. On Wednesday -- July 3 -- Sippel will give his firework speech again, and on July 4, Jameson will not be going back to the lake house in Michigan. It's not because he's afraid of horrible memories. It's because he has a summer league baseball game to play.
He'll probably be pitching. And batting third.