Drive me out to the ball game

Barry Larkin (l) congratulates another baseball hero in Cincinnati, Hall of Fame sportswriter Hal McCoy. AP Photo/David Kohl

There's only one baseball beat writer in this country who has a chauffeur pick him up in a new Lexus and take him up to the game every day: Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News.

He has to. He's legally blind.

McCoy has been that way for 10 years now and yet continues to report, opine, blog, chat and broadcast about the Reds with humor and panache, his 42nd year on the beat.

"Hey Hal!" Aaron Boone once yelled out in the Reds' clubhouse. "Do you realize you've been talking to a Coke machine for the last 20 minutes?"

It wasn't that funny that day in 2003, when the vision in McCoy's left eye went all dark and blurry, matching the fog in his right one from the year before. Optical strokes had hit them both -- an event as rare as the unassisted triple play -- and they left McCoy sure his Hall of Fame baseball writing career was done.

He walked into the office of his sports editor and told him that he was going to have to quit. They both had a good cry. Then the editor asked him to try one day of spring training.

A decade later, McCoy's eyesight is only worse, but he's still covering the Reds like a summer shower, thanks to his own bottomless knowledge of baseball, a very big flat screen in front of his seat in the press box, and his personal driver/Sancho Panza, Ray Snedegar, who got the job by answering this question in McCoy's blog:

"... anybody out there with nothing much to do on their hands who would like to see most of the Reds home games this season…for free?"

McCoy got more than 400 applications from all over the country but he only interviewed one man, Snedegar, whose wife, Barbara, had died two years before. He drives a hearse, but only part-time, and he's ex-military, so he's used to the 12-hour days of a beat writer. Plus, they were both in their early 70s and loved the same things: Yuengling beer, old rock 'n' roll and the Reds.

Two hundred miles a day, 55 cents a mile, and no complaining about extra innings?

"Sold," Snedegar said.

How does a legally blind sportswriter cover a baseball team?

Really well.

McCoy writes for FoxSportsOhio.com, appears on Fox TV, writes stories for the Daily News, writes his blog, "The Real McCoy," and even covers road games from his garage. He's as popular as many of the players.

But he couldn't do it without Snedegar. "The last time I drove a car, I wrecked it," McCoy says. Snedegar survived a wreck himself -- a plane leaving Saigon in 1975 that killed 138 people as part of Operation Babylift. A doubleheader in August wasn't going to scare him.

Snedegar answers occasional questions from McCoy like: "What just happened?" and "Who's that talking?" He takes his elbow when McCoy gets in heavy foot traffic.

"The worst part is people think I'm ignoring them," McCoy says. "I have to get up on a guy to two feet before I know who it is. So people will say hello to me and I won't say anything. They probably think I'm an arrogant jerk."

One day, he was interviewing Reds pitcher Mat Latos in the clubhouse. Latos, barefoot, finally stopped the interview and barked, "Dude, how many times are you going to step on my toes?"

Latos didn't know, and neither did McCoy.

Today, McCoy is interviewing Reds superstar first baseman Joey Votto. Afterward, I ask Votto if he knew.

"I've known for a few years now," Votto says. "Hal's got a very nice air about him, classy. So I'm glad to talk to him. But can I ask you a question? Is it true he can't see a fastball or a line drive?"

Sort of. Between the big screen and the cloud forest in his eyes he can just make out the ball -- until it's hit hard or leaves the outfield. But then he just watches which way the batter's head turns. That's how he knows where it was hit.

"Cool," says Votto.

McCoy can tell where a home run lands by watching the fuzzy scramble of people in the bleachers. Or when a pitcher drops his head in shame. He knows where a line drive went by watching the relay line. In the clubhouse, he's memorized each player's walk and voice. And with his glasses and 20-point bold font, he can read his laptop.

"If the third baseman stays where he is, this guy is going to bunt," McCoy says to nobody in particular as the Reds are playing the Colorado Rockies.

Sure enough, Reds outfielder Derrick Robinson bunts.

"How'd you know that?" I ask.

"I know these guys," he says.

"It's flat-out amazing to me," says Reds reliever Bronson Arroyo. "Your eyes are your No. 1 asset. And he's covering the team. I'll bet half the guys on the team don't know."

It's two hours before the first pitch, and Reds manager Dusty Baker has saved the chair in front of his desk -- and the first question -- for McCoy, as always.

McCoy has already interviewed three players and the GM. After Baker, he'll go up, bang out a pregame story for Fox, and then finally get something to eat.

There were years, even when he was sighted, when he didn't get to do that. When bombastic Marge Schott owned the Reds from 1984 to 1999, she'd often punish McCoy for breaking stories she didn't want broken by banning him from the press dining room.

No problem. McCoy was so respected that Eric Davis sent him a pizza. Another time, Tim Belcher. One night, for a laugh, the rest of the writers collected canned goods and piled them up in front of his space in the press box.

As McCoy is telling the story, the guy eating next to him makes a comment. McCoy turns and asks, "How long have you been sitting there?"

"About 10 minutes," the guy says.

"See? I never even knew you were there. My peripheral vision is zero."

There's a bit of an awkward pause in the conversation … until McCoy adds: "Hey, it's not all bad. I'm now perfectly qualified to be an umpire."

The lovely part of McCoy's story is that it was a player who gave him a way to see his path forward.

The first day of that spring training in 2003, without a good eye, was a disaster. He had to out-wait everybody at the luggage carousel because he couldn't tell which bag was his. He was lost in the Sarasota airport. When he stumbled into the clubhouse for the first time, "I suddenly couldn't recognize the faces of guys I'd known for years. And I'm thinking, 'How can I cover a baseball team when I can't see?'"

McCoy was looking like a wrinkled pile of laundry with a person in it. Naturally, Boone figured it was a perfect time to give him crap.

"What happened to you?" Boone asked with a grin.

McCoy shuffled in the direction of the voice.

"Aaron, I think this is the last time you'll see me for a long time," McCoy said. "Both my eyes are gone. I have to quit."

Boone took him by the shoulders and sat him down in his chair.

"I don't want to hear you say 'quit' again," Boone said, sternly. "That's not a good enough reason to quit. You're too good at your job to quit. You're still too young. We'll help you. We'll get it figured out."

McCoy was flabbergasted. A millionaire player caring about a lowly writer?

With at least one person believing he could do it, McCoy decided to stick around for two more days. Then somebody wrote a piece about him. Immediately, McCoy's email box filled up with encouragement.

"People were telling me not to quit," McCoy remembers. "A soldier in Iraq telling me I was his hero. A guy with leukemia. And that day it hit me. I had it a lot better off than a lot of people. … But I would've quit that day if it weren't for Aaron."

In fact, when McCoy threw out the first pitch one night in 2009 at Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark, he asked Boone, then with the visiting Houston Astros, to catch it.

"That was so memorable," says Boone, now with ESPN. "Just to be able to come back to the mound and hug him and say, 'Love you, man.' I'm so proud of him. I'm proud to be linked to him."

On this night, the Rockies beat the Reds on Troy Tulowitzki's late two-run home run. McCoy won't be done until 11:30 p.m., and he and Snedegar and the Lexus will still have the 90-minute ride home ahead of them.

"Are you going to be able to stay awake all the way back?" I ask Snedegar.

"Don't have to," he says. "Hal always drives home."