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Tournaments | Story | 7/14/2015

Never turning a blind eye

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – At 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, Garrison Armstrong fits right in physically with the other players and prospects at this week’s 17u Perfect Game BCS Finals, so it would be difficult to guess that he is quite different from a lot of the other guys in attendance. Armstrong is a bit of an anomaly at a 17u PG national championship event simply because he has another month to wait before he can celebrate his 16th birthday.

There is something else that sets Armstrong apart from the other competitors, and that’s the equipment he carries. As a left-handed pitcher, outfielder and first baseman, he can be seen with his bats and his gloves, but also a facemask he wears when pitching and reflective, protective goggles he wears while both pitching and batting. It’s true, the big, strong, humble, well-spoken 15-year-old from Boerne, Tex., can only see out of one eye, yet somehow manages to play baseball at a pretty high level.

“It’s something that I’m sure from somebody else’s perspective they’d think you’d never be able to do,” Armstrong told PG Tuesday before taking the field with his Lobos Baseball teammates at the Player Development 5-Plex. “I’ve had this (condition) ever since I was born so it’s not something I really had to adapt to, it’s just how it is and what I know. It’s kind of hard to explain in words – it’s just how it is.”

Garrison Armstrong is medically blind in his left eye as the result of being born with what is commonly referred to as Morning Glory Syndrome (MGS). It is described as an extremely rare “congenital anomaly of the optic disk” and stems from an undeveloped optic nerve. One description found online states: “While in utero, the nerve ending from the eye never reached the nerve ending from the brain.”

Ironically, perhaps, his father Shawn Armstrong told PG Tuesday that he and his wife Cari-Ann didn’t really see any red flags regarding Garrison’s vision until he began playing baseball when he 3 or 4 years old; Shawn said the only symptom he noticed when playing with his son was that his left eye was “real lazy”. He and Cari-Ann didn’t realize the severity of the problem until young Garrison was old enough to really tell his parents that all he could see out of his left eye were vague shadows.

It didn’t stop the youngster from continuing to play baseball although his parents realized protective measures had to be taken. To this day, Garrison is not allowed out on the field without his facemask or his goggles because if he was to get hit in the face by a line-drive or a pitched or a thrown ball, he would risk being totally blind for the rest of his life. He has since become completely acclimated to wearing the protective equipment and never gives it a second thought.

“He’s been wearing that protective mask (when he’s pitching) for about eight years now and he’s just been excelling,” his dad said. “He knows that he has to work twice as hard because he has to overcome (the issue) but he never makes any excuses.”

Garrison is a natural left-hander which almost makes it fortuitous that MGS affected his left eye and not his right. While pitching from the stretch, for instance, it is his right eye that looks toward home plate and it is also his right eye that looks out toward the pitcher when he’s batting; Garrison’s right eye is healthy, although he does wear a contact lens in it. It does beg the question, if MGS had affected his right eye instead of his left, how would he have coped?

“I’d just be right-handed; it’s as simple as that,” he said with a laugh. “Before I could tell my parents what I could see and what I couldn’t see I was already left-handed but if it came down to that I would just make the switch because baseball is what I love to do; that wouldn’t stop me from (playing) it.”

Garrison actually played football as a kicker for a couple of years – mostly just to be a part of a team, according to his dad – but soon realized football would not take him to the same places baseball has the potential to take him. In at least one respect, it seems strange that baseball became his sport of choice, simply because of the hand-eye coordination required to both hit and throw a baseball. If his hand-eye coordination is indeed affected, you’d never know it.

“If something happens at the plate and he strikes out or if he makes an error (in the field), he never uses that as an excuse; he’s just like anyone else out there,” Shawn Armstrong said. “He doesn’t use excuses for anything … and he’s just out there doing his thing.”

The sport has taken Garrison Armstrong – and his dad – to a lot of different places over the past couple of years with different travel team organizations, including the 2013 PG Super25 14u NTX Qualifier in Grapevine, Tex., and the 2014 PG Super25 14u South Super Regional in McKinney, Tex., with the Dallas Stars-Spencer. He was also at the 2014 PG Sunshine South Showcase in Tomball, Tex.

Garrison’s primary affiliation has been with San Antonio-based Lobos Baseball program run by director of player personnel Tim Grant. “The organization is great … and we just love it. They get you where you need to go and they take care of you,” Shawn Armstrong said.

The Lobos Baseball team Garrison Armstrong is playing for here this week is being coached by long-time minor league player Jorge Alvarez from the Dominican Republic. Alvarez played 23 seasons in various minor and independent leagues – he made it as high as Triple-A in 1999 and 2000 – before finally retiring in 2012 at the age of 44.

“Garrison is a great player … and I know he has a little issue (with his eye) but I don’t see it; I don’t see no difference,” Alvarez said in rapid, staccato English. “He goes out there and hits the ball and catches the ball and plays the game the way it supposed to be (played); I love having him on my team. He’s a great kid, great daddy, great family … and he’s a good teammate, and he plays baseball hard.”

Things have not gone particularly well for either Lobos Baseball or Garrison Armstrong so far this week. The Lobos lost three of their first four pool-play games by a combined score of 39-8; Armstrong had a double and an RBI in eight at-bats and gave up five earned runs on seven hits in five innings during his only pitching performance. None of that, of course, diminishes the exuberance he feels for the game.

“As a player being out here, we all look forward to this,” he said. “It’s not so much about winning, it’s about having fun. I recognize a lot of these guys because I’ve played in other tournaments and then there are some that recognize me that I swear I’ve never seen in my life. It’s just different out here than it is back home in Texas.

“You’ve got scouts all over the place at big complexes like this; it’s crazy,” he continued. “You get a little nervous at first, but as soon as you get out on the field, you’re fine. It’s baseball, you’re having fun, and you just want to keep on playing.”

Garrison Armstrong will celebrate his 16th birthday in August and will soon begin his junior year at Samuel V. Champion High School in his hometown of Boerne, which is part of the San Antonio Metropolitan Area. There aren’t a lot of college coaches/recruiters or professional scouts that make their way to Boerne during the summer so Shawn and Garrison seek them out at places and events like Fort Myers, Fla., and the 17u PG BCS Finals.

Like every other teenager that took the field at the Player Development 5-Plex Tuesday morning, Garrison Armstrong would love one day to walk out to the mound at a major league stadium and deliver a pitch as a certified, real-life big-league baseball player. He’s also level-headed enough to know certain paths are best traversed using baby-steps and knows college is the next logical step in his progression if he can secure an agreeable offer.

This week in Southwest Florida – and over the next two years of his high school and Perfect Game baseball careers – Garrison Armstrong only wants to show college recruiters what he’s capable of accomplishing out on the field. He also wants to show people from all walks of life that certain challenges can be overcome.

Being blind in one eye and trying to play baseball at the highest level is certainly one monumental challenge, but he is facing it head-on. And just to further get the word out, he has started working with the Miracle League in San Antonio, which is a group that provides special needs children with a place to play baseball.

“They always say that as a dad, your son is only half as good as you think he is – which is probably true – but the things he’s already overcome is what I’m most proud of,” Shawn Armstrong said. “He can always make himself better – he’s a teenager like all these other kids – and when he gets up and gets going, he’s going full-out; he works all the time. We’re so proud of him because … he’s doing what needs to be done, and he wants to go to the next level.”

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