During Jeff Belge’s first bullpen session this summer as a member of the Amsterdam Mohawks, pitching coach AJ Gaura noticed them.
“That’s pretty awesome you’ve got two different colored eyes,” Gaura said to Belge, an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher from Syracuse’s Henninger High School.
The ensuing conversation was a quick one. Belge smiles easily and doesn’t mind talking about his eyes, but he’d rather pitch. Teenagers with fastballs that touch the mid-90s are like that. So Belge explained that his left eye is green and his right eye is blue, and got back to work.
A couple days later, Gaura brought the topic up to veteran Mohawks head coach Keith Griffin during a car ride together.
“Hey,” Gaura said, “have you noticed Jeff’s got two different colored eyes?”
“Yeah,” Griffin responded, adding, “he’s blind out of one of them.”
Belge’s right eye — the blue one — has extremely limited vision, only capable of seeing shapes and outlines. It’s been that way since he was 9 years old, when an accident involving skipping stones resulted in one of the rocks piercing into his right eye. The tear required more than a dozen stitches and two surgeries to fix, and resulted in the eye’s color changing from green to blue.
Things could have been worse. He almost completely lost the ability to see. In the aftermath of the injury, his left eye suffered from a condition — sympathetic ophthalmia — where a healthy eye reacts negatively to an injury to the other. Treatment thwarted the issue, leaving Belge with a fully-functioning left eye.
During the next eight years, Belge — who wears protective, non-prescription goggles when he pitches — developed into one of the country’s top prep baseball players. Heading into last summer, scouting services had him ranked as a top-10 talent nationally and as the best pitcher in New York — ahead of Shenendehowa’s Ian Anderson, drafted third in this year’s Major League Baseball amateur draft.
Then, disaster struck Belge for the second time. A year ago today, Belge reinjured his eye in another freak accident. Goofing around with a friend ended when a finger poked into Belge’s right eye, reopening his initial scar. More than a dozen stitches — again — were required to close the wound, several of which still remain in his eye.
“I might have those ones forever,” Belge said.
In the aftermath of his second eye injury, Belge could not pitch for several weeks. Unable to train and upset, he gained weight. His stock as an MLB prospect out of high school tumbled. That second accident likely ripped away his chance to be a first-round pick this past June, a status worth millions of dollars.
“That was the hardest thing about it for me,” Belge said. “If I’d pitched well that summer and never got hurt, it could have been a different story.”
But Belge is still writing his story.
It’s a real good one.
He pitched one inning last September to finish his 2015 baseball year on his terms, and then got to work with his personal pitching coach and trainer. By the spring, the 6-foot-4 pitcher had cut his weight to an imposing 220 pounds from the 260 he had ballooned to by the end of last summer.
“He really turned things around and proved himself after missing that time last summer,” said Nathan Rode, the national supervisor for Prep Baseball Report. “It takes a lot of dedication from a
17-, 18-year-old to do that in the offseason.”
Scouts noticed Belge’s offseason of hard work to get his body right. They noticed the increased velocity on his fastball more.
“He came out this spring throwing 95 and all the sudden people were running out there to see him again,” said Jonathan Mayo, a senior writer for MLB.com who covers the draft.
Belge pitched well throughout the spring and regularly had dozens of scouts at his final high school games. His family sent extensive medical records to MLB so teams could access to them, but none of them were willing to fully bite and use a first-round pick on him.
More than his injured eye, Rode said, that was because of the amount of action Belge missed last summer.
“[His eye injury] is something that’s in his history, but it’s not like we’re talking about a shoulder or an elbow injury,” Rode said. “If he were a hitter, [his eye] would be a big deal.”
A few teams, Belge said, offered to take him in the third round, but weren’t willing to offer him enough money for him to turn down his scholarship to St. John’s University. The Boston Red Sox took a chance on Belge, anyway, taking him in the 32nd round of the draft, but he said he still plans to attend St. John’s.
That means Belge is spending his summer in Amsterdam, playing as one of the few rising college freshman in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. Playing against older players, he threw three scoreless innings this past Wednesday, striking out five and allowing no hits or runs.
“He’s a real guy,” Gaura said of Belge, who is next scheduled to pitch Monday. “He may have a ways to go in his pitching development — which everyone here does — but, from what we’ve seen, the kid has everything there to be a big-league pitcher down the road. The arm is there. It’s a million dollar arm.”
Athletes with vision issues have gone on to successful careers in professional sports. Wesley Walker, legally blind in his left eye, made two Pro Bowls as a wide receiver for the New York Jets in the 1970s and 1980s. Jake Peavy, now pitching for the San Francisco Giants, has dealt with poor eyesight throughout his career.
MLB.com’s Mayo sees an MLB future for Belge, too.
“He projects as a big, durable middle-of-the-rotation starter, especially if he can find a better level of consistency,” Mayo said. “He’s got some rough edges that need to be ironed out, but he has the chance to have a really good three-pitch mix.”
From his decades of coaching at a variety of levels, Griffin has had 15 former players make it to the majors. He doesn’t see any reason why Belge won’t add to that tally.
“If Jim Abbott could play with one arm, I don’t think this would stop you if you’re good enough — and he’s good enough,” Griffin said. “His future, it’s limitless. This isn’t going to stop him.”
Belge said he was disappointed to not have this year’s MLB draft turn out better for himself, but said he was more excited than jealous of his pitching peers who were lucky enough to have things work out for them in 2016. He views this summer in Amsterdam as a chance for himself to reset his mind and begin to focus on a college career he hopes ends with his name called in the first round of the MLB draft.
“I want to show I can compete at the next level, at a high level,” Belge said. “I’ll definitely have a chip on my shoulder.”