By Jason Chlapek
Killeen Daily Herald
The first time it happened was a freak accident.
The second time around Ellison catcher Justin Dingman had to do some soul-searching.
After going through the first 15 years of his life practically immune to injury, the sophomore was struck not once, but twice by pitches early in the 2009 season. Both times the ball smacked him square in the left eye.
To make things even worse, after the second time Dingman was struck, he was diagnosed with glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a disease caused by damage to the optic nerve, which acts like an electric cable that carries images from the eye to the brain. The disease has been nicknamed the "sneak thief of sight."
And once lost, the damaged visual field can never be recovered.
Dingman was forced to choose between the game he loved and the off-chance he could get struck again.
He chose to play.
"The doctors said if I get hit in the eye again, I could lose sight in that eye," Dingman said. "But other than that, life is back to normal now. When I'm playing, I'm playing the same way I did before the injury."
Perhaps it is his youth that gave Dingman the courage to motor on. That air that every teenager has that nothing can hurt them.
Perhaps, though, it is his heart. Dingman knows the risks involved with getting behind the plate again, having fastball after fastball come straight at him; each one hurtling within inches of his face.
It is a risk he has chosen to take and thanks to prescription eye drops, night-vision goggles and a faceguard on his batting helmet, Dingman is back with his teammates and back to do what he does best, playing baseball. But it was not an easy trip back. In all, Dingman had to sit out a month and a half.
The time away from the game and his team made Dingman even more determined to return to the diamond.
"The only reason Justin sat out was because the doctor told him he had to," Ellison coach Craig Martin said. "He's tough, he's a leader and a competitor. Justin hasn't missed a beat since he came back from the injury, either. He still sets the tone for the defense and the pitchers feel comfortable throwing to him."
Despite, being only a sophomore, Dingman is a leader for the Eagles. He calls the pitches, and is the clean-up batter. Out of all the pitches Dingman calls, his favorite is the shake-off.
"The shake-off tricks the batters and keeps them off balance," he said.
Even, though, he is heavily depended on behind the plate, Dingman is most proud of his hitting – especially for a guy that thought he might not be able to see again.
"Just having a year of varsity baseball under my belt has made me a better hitter," he said. "I'm more confident at the plate, and pitchers who would've intimidated me last year don't intimidate me now because I've seen pitching at that level. I also see a lot of the pitchers from opposing teams during summer baseball."
His coach agreed.
"Justin's hit very well, and usually puts the ball in play," Martin said. "For his experience level, Justin's done some great things and he's going to keep improving."
In the end, though, the thing that will determine his career the most is not his desire or his talent. He has enough of both to do almost anything on the diamond.
Instead, it will be his doctors.
The biggest concern for Dingman's doctors isn't the disease itself, but the pressure in his eyes. If the pressure in Dingman's left eye is more than 20 mm HG, or millimeters of mercury, (average pressure in the eye is 10-20 mm Hg), he cannot play. The risk is too great.
At one point in the season, Dingman had eye pressure of 42.
"This was all a wake-up call for me, and missing the amount of games I missed helped me learn a lot about myself," he said. "I've also learned to give 100 percent effort every time I'm on the field and to play each game like it's my last."
Contact Jason Chlapek at email@example.com or (254) 501-7565.