Ted Williams—two-time American League MVP, six-time league leader in batting, two-time winner of the Triple Crown, and the last player in MLB to bat over .400 in a single season—is thought to have had the best eyes in baseball. Despite getting hit in his right eye by a walnut as a boy, he had 20/10 vision—meaning if something was 20 feet away, he could see it as well as a “normal” person could from 10 feet. Williams denies the rumors that he could count the seams on an incoming fastball and watch it hit the bat—but says that “in the last 20 feet [he] could see which way it was spinning.”
Good vision is essential for athletes—and not just those trying to hit 90 mph fastballs with a stick. After Tiger Woods got LASIK surgery to improve his vision to 20/15, he reported that “the hole [looked] bigger and his ability to read greens improved dramatically.” He then went on to win the first first five tour events he played after having the surgery.
But visual acuity isn’t just about sharpness. It’s also about perceiving depth, color differences (although that doesn’t always help), reaction time, and field of view. In many cases, these qualities are more about the brain than the eyeball—and can potentially be improved with training, e.g., in the vein of brain games. Indeed, Williams himself noted that, “a lot of people have 20/10 vision. The reason I saw things was that I was so intense. It was discipline, not super eyesight.”
Does that mean you could train yourself to see like Williams? University of Houston optometrist Kevin Gee seems to think so. He recently founded the Sports Vision Performance Center, where he tests athletes’vision not just with letters, but with exams involving, for example, “a 3-D movie projected on a computer screen with shimmering objects that pop up to measure depth perception, a lighted batting test that can time up to one-thousandth of a second to gauge timing and accuracy, and a Dynavision™ board—a vertical lighted peg board—that determines reaction time, peripheral awareness and accuracy of movement.”
Gee used these tests to examine the UH softball team, identified visual deficiencies, and fitted them out with different shades, filters, and vision correction—but it doesn’t really sound too extraordinary quite yet. He has yet to test whether these lenses actually improve “depth perception, color, speed and accuracy of movements and contrast sensitivity,” although this type of improvement is his ultimate goal. Ted Williams’s vision for all is not in the near future—although the idea of Barry Bonds hitting .406 is pretty awesome.
Image: eek the cat/Flickr