PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Outfielder Sean Ratliff's rapid rise through the New York Mets organization derailed only a handful of days before minor league players broke spring training camp last year. It happened as quickly as it took a checked-swing foul ball to travel 10 feet off teammate Zach Lutz's bat.
"It was like a snap of the finger," Lutz recalled.
Ratliff, who was standing in the on-deck circle, was struck in the face during a Triple-A game in Jupiter, Fla. The blow broke six bones, nearly fully detached Ratliff's retina and left him immediately fearing he might lose his right eye. The incident happened only three weeks after Atlanta Braves minor league manager Luis Salazar also was struck with a foul ball. Ratliff immediately worried because he knew Salazar ultimately lost his left eye.
Four surgeries later, however, Ratliff is back at the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie going through a regular workload with fellow players, and hoping to pick up where he left off in 2010. In the season immediately preceding the accident, the former fourth-round pick out of Stanford hit .298 with 21 homers, 80 RBIs and 10 steals in a combined 503 at-bats with Class A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
"This guy, when he hits the ball on the barrel, it's loud and it's dangerous," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who oversaw the organization's farm system in 2010. "I saw him hit a ball in St. Lucie in the middle of the summer -- you know how humid it is -- and you think it's a regular popup to the outfield. And this ball ends up going 15 feet out of the ballpark, with that kind of backspin on it. His power potential is amazing. I just hope he can fight through this and regain the chance to play."
Ratliff, who turns 25 next Friday, still has hurdles ahead. Using a thick corrective contact lens, his vision still is barely 20/30 in the right eye. That makes it more challenging to pick up the spin and depth of pitches. It also increases the complexity of gauging balls in the outfield. His vision formerly had been 20/15 while using contact lenses, which he has worn since he was 10 years old.
Further complicating matters, Ratliff now experiences problems with glare. He needs to wear sunglasses while batting in the daytime. He also has been asked to consider wearing a face guard on his helmet, but has replied "absolutely not" to that recommendation.
"There were a couple of moments where I was like, 'What am I going to do? It doesn't feel like it's getting any better,'" said Ratliff, who spent his idle time during a summer away from baseball by fishing, visiting friends in Colorado where he grew up, and spending three weeks in Alaska. "Four months of sitting there, I had to think about, 'What am I going to do if I can't play anymore?' I had a lot of thoughts about, 'Am I going to have to go back to school? Do I have to get a real job?'"
Davis insisted he literally hated Ratliff when they were Pac-12 rivals because Ratliff homered so often against ASU. But the Mets first baseman warmed to Ratliff after they became teammates with Brooklyn in their first pro seasons. Ratliff, who has lived with Davis in Phoenix each offseason since the draft, has less than a quarter's workload remaining to complete an economic sociology degree at Stanford.
"I had no idea what I wanted to do," Ratliff said with a laugh Wednesday when asked what an economic sociology major does. "I was sitting there thinking, 'What the hell can I do with this education?' It's nice to have that degree. It's a great thing. But..."
Thankfully, the second-career options can wait since his vision has progressed to a point to at least make a comeback bid viable.
"It was like a giant retinal tear -- basically it was a retinal detachment," Ratliff said. "So they had to remove all the vitreous fluid from my eye, cut the lens out, put like a silicon solution in there, scar all my retina back together. Sometimes it still pops up a little bit where I can see spots from where the scarring is in my eye. It used to stay for the whole day. Now it will pop up for a minute.
"I'm still not completely sure that I'm going to be game-ready," he continued. "It's a matter of seeing live pitching and getting into game situations. But it's closer than I thought it was going to be at this point, which is really good. Probably about a month ago, when I got this most recent contact [lens], I started to realize there was still a pretty good chance I was going to be able to play."
Hitting coach Dave Hudgens said the lefty-hitting Ratliff is trying to turn his head more to his right than previously had been the case, to provide his unaffected left eye more of an opportunity to track the pitch. "His depth perception doesn't feel quite right yet," Hudgens said. "Hopefully he'll be OK."
Lutz, whose foul ball struck Ratliff, had his share of misfortune during the ensuing 2011 season while playing at Triple-A Buffalo without his friend.
Poised to return from the DL after mending a strained right hamstring, Lutz was struck in the dugout with a foul ball while still inactive and broke the ring finger on his non-throwing hand. Then, twice in a one-week span during the summer, Lutz was hit with pitches in the head and ultimately was diagnosed with concussions. The second beaning, by Chien-Ming Wang on July 1, prompted Lutz to get dizzy when he reached third base. He vomited upon reaching the dugout. Lutz eventually returned after missing a month. But after 23 additional games, the concussion symptoms resurfaced and he was forced to end his season, scuttling chances for a September call-up to the Mets.
Lutz felt terrible for his role in Ratliff's eye ordeal.
"As soon as it hit my bat, it went right off his face, and he was down," Lutz said. "I didn't even want to play for a little bit. He's one of my closest friends in the organization. I talked to him in the offseason all the time. For something like that to happen, and for them to say he might never play baseball again, I'm like, 'Oh my gosh.' But he's back now."
Said Ratliff: "I felt awful for him. I talked to him quite a bit during the season. ... It was one of those things, he called me almost every day for the first month after I got hit. I kept telling him, 'You weren't aiming at me. You can't feel that bad about it. There's nothing you could do. It's one of those bad luck kind of deals.' Hopefully I come back and everything is good and I can keep swinging the bat well, and I can get right back on the train where I was, but just a year back."
"It was almost to the point where he wasn't thinking about baseball," said Davis, Ratliff's offseason landlord for the past four years. "It was like, 'I hope I can see again.' It probably puts life in perspective a little bit. Just to see how far he's come from what it was, it's nice to see him back on the field and running around. It's only going to be a great story when he comes up this year and has a great year and makes the big leagues and all is forgotten. But he definitely has the scars to remind him of that."