TJ Wheeler’s breakout season – and eyesight – threatened by fluke accident, but Oregon State slugger is on the mend

CORVALLIS – TJ Wheeler was standing behind a protective L-shaped screen at the indoor batting cages across from Goss Stadium when his breakout season took an unimaginable turn.

It was March 2, an off day for the Oregon State baseball team, but Wheeler and a couple teammates wanted to squeeze in a hitting session. So they ventured over to McAlexander Fieldhouse in the evening and took turns taking hacks in the cages.

As one of Wheeler’s teammates swung away, the inconceivable happened. A baseball rocketed off a bat, took a weird bounce, and ricocheted behind that screen toward Wheeler’s face.

He crumpled to the turf. Blood spewed all over the place. Dazed and confused, he gazed around and could not see out of his left eye.

“It all happened so fast,” he said. “I was just concerned about my sight in my left eye. I mean, I’m a hitter. “

Wheeler was rushed to the hospital, where emergency room doctors threaded five stitches under his eye, gave him eye drops and handed him a patch to wear. The diagnosis: Hyphema and a macular hole in his eye.

His life has not been the same since. Wheeler was ordered to see optometrists and retina specialists and placed on bedrest for 12 days. Twelve. Long. Days.

“It was not ideal,” he said in an understatement.

A macular hole is a tear or small break in the macula, located in the center of the retina, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The macula is central to reading, driving and seeing fine details. A Hyphema, according to the AAO, is when blood collects inside the front eye between the cornea and iris. It is usually caused by trauma, features significant pain and is one of the most challenging clinical problems for an ophthalmologist.

Both ailments distort and hinder vision and, if not treated, can lead to permanent vision problems.

All of this weighed on Wheeler’s mind as the first baseman / designated hitter inexplicably found himself trapped in his room in Corvallis, relegated to bedrest for nearly two weeks. He had opened the season on a tear, hitting .350 with 12 RBIs, a home run, a double and seven walks in seven games. But, unbelievably, thanks to a fluke accident during a voluntary hitting session, his season – and his vision – were in jeopardy.

Wheeler was given a protective shield for his eye and spent the first few days of bedrest listening to audiobooks and podcasts in his room. Eventually, he was cleared to watch television. Through it all, he waited nervously, hoping his ailments would heal on their own and he would be spared from long-term vision issues.

“I’m still worried about that,” he said Saturday. “My left eye is still a little fuzzy. The best way to describe it is that it’s like a smear in the middle of my eye affecting my vision on my left side. Ideally it heals. If it does not heal, I’ll have to get surgery on my eye. As of now, it’s healing well, though, especially compared to the first visit. ”

When his 12 days of bedrest mercifully came to an end, Wheeler was able to rejoin his teammates, and he immediately stopped by Goss Stadium for last Tuesday’s midweek win over the Grand Canyon. Slowly, he has resumed light baseball activities.

Since Tuesday, Wheeler has taken part in “very modified light workouts,” including weight-lifting sessions and mobility exercises, taken a couple cautious swings off a tee and stood in the batter’s box during teammates’ bullpen sessions. He is forbidden from doing strenuous activities, but he has managed to play a couple of ping pong games with teammates in the clubhouse.

“It’s going well,” Wheeler said. “I can see the ball. I whiff one every once in a while, like, when the ball is down to my left. My depth perception is off and I still have a little blind spot. But it’s getting better and as long as the hole keeps closing, it should be fine. ”

The Hyphema is gone, Wheeler said, thanks to the bedrest. And the macular hole is slowly closing. He continues to see a retina specialist every week and, if all continues to go well, he could return sooner than later.

Doctors have not given him a timeline, but Wheeler’s own internet research tells him it could take between two weeks and two months.

When someone mentioned Saturday that his setback was especially cruel considering it happened after he had such a red-hot start to the season, the community college transfer smiled and offered hope.

“Yeah,” he said, “it is. But I’ll be back. ”

– Joe Freeman | jfreeman@oregonian.com | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian / OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories

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