Larry Whitaker started playing baseball when he was 5 years old. He was a gifted young player, able to elevate his game enough to make travel teams by the time he was 11. But everything the young man dreamed of nearly fell to pieces on the Fourth of July 2005 when a bottle rocket misfired and hit Whitaker in his left eye. His cornea was scratched, and his iris was shattered. His right eye was also damaged. Suddenly, he was legally blind. Doctors said he would never play baseball again.
"I started thinking about what else I could do instead of playing baseball," the young man from St. Peter, Mo., explained. "But I just like the game, and I started believing I could still play. I'd been playing my whole life."
Video games proved to him that he still had decent hand-eye coordination after the injury, and although his sight was impaired, he wanted to give baseball another shot. He began training with former Major League Baseball player Drew Prater, who owns and operates Drew Prater's Baseball Xpress training center in St. Peter. Larry spent several nights a week working with Prater, trying to make up for peripheral vision that had been reduced to about 15 percent of normal. Hand-eye coordination was a major part of their workouts.
"I had to adjust an inch or so from where I usually caught the ball, and I had bad depth perception, so I had to adjust for that," said Whitaker, now 15 years old. "I had to do a lot of batting practice to adjust my swing. I was coming in every day for a while."
Prater - who spent seven seasons in the pros with the St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates - was impressed by what he saw from the undaunted player.
"You never hear him say a word about the injury; I think he completely forgets about it sometimes," Prater said. "I sustained two injuries during my career, so I can relate a bit. One thing Larry keeps in the back of his mind is the guidance that I received when I played. It's mental. He's taken the approach that he has to put in 110 percent on every swing he takes, every pitch he makes and every ground ball he fields. He's willing to do that because he has a tremendous work ethic."
The work paid off. Whitaker returned to competitive baseball the following spring, playing for American Legion Post 313's "A" team consisting of younger athletes. During the spring, he also played for Fort Zumwalt South High School's freshman team. Today, he is back to pitching, batting and serving as a utility player on defense. He batted .375 for Post 313's team last season, had the highest on-base percentage on the team and posted the third-lowest earned-run average as the team's closer. He also didn't commit an error in the field.
"He's very resilient," said Rick Reno, Whitaker's Legion manager the past two seasons. "Larry has a strong desire to play baseball, and he's not going to let anything hold him back."
Whitaker could be successful at the college level if he continues to progress, Prater said. That's the sophomore's goal.
"It feels pretty good doing what I've done," Larry said. "I feel like I've accomplished something. But now I want to make the high school varsity team. Then, hopefully, I can get a college scholarship. That would be cool."