By Matt Kane
Delano Herald Journal Sports Editor
MAPLE PLAIN, MN The next time you are playing catch with your buddy, your son, or your dad in the backyard, try catching one of his throws with your non-glove hand covering one of your eyes. It’s not that easy, is it?
The good thing is you can remove your hand from your eye, and go back to playing catch with the benefit of seeing the incoming ball with two eyes. That’s not the case for Brandon Schliinz, a pitcher for the Maple Plain Diamond Devils.
Since March, Schliinz has been adjusting to living his life with just his left eye after deteriorating vision, caused by a rare form of cancer, led to the removal of his right eye. For Schliinz, part of living is baseball, and part of his adjusting to life all summer has taken place on the baseball diamond.
Schliinz grew up as a middle infielder, who could hit, run, and play defense with the best of them in Minnesota amateur baseball, but, with his right eye, the retinal cancer also stole all of these parts from his game. Cancer stole a lot, but not everything.
After battling the question of whether or not to give up playing the sport he loves before the start of this season, the 32-year-old Schliinz decided it wasn’t time.
Brandon Schliinz’s retinal cancer was finally recognized as Retinal Pigment Epithelium (RPE), and his case is only the 14th ever reported. - Photo by Matt Kane
“I was planning on just being the third-base coach. When they took (the eye) out, I had to wait for an eye, so I had to wear sunglasses and a cover so you couldn’t see the cavity. I’ve been playing baseball all of my life, so it was tough just watching,” explained Schliinz, who began playing for the Diamond Devils in 1994, when he was a sophomore at Orono. “You have that routine of playing, and I didn’t want to give it up yet.”
So, Schliinz didn’t give up baseball, instead dedicating himself to being just a pitcher.
Becoming just a pitcher meant Schliinz had to give up all the offensive and defensive aspects of the game that got him drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 37th round (1,086th overall) of the 1996 first-year player draft. Schliinz admits that putting down the bat and infielder’s glove this spring was difficult to do.
“The toughest part is not being able to hit. As a baseball player, you take pride in hitting and in how you do. That’s the toughest part for me,” he said. “Stealing bases, or turning a double play, or hitting a double that’s the kind of stuff I miss.”
His Maple Plain teammates probably miss that part of Schliinz’s game, as well, but they are glad he is back and playing.
“Last year, his sight was going, and he kept trying to play,” Maple Plain manager John Timpe said July 19, just before the regular-season finale against Loretto. “He asked to come back this year and give it a shot, and he’s played well. Last Sunday, he really threw well against Rogers. It speaks to what kid of person is. He is a pretty neat guy.”
Pitching wasn’t new to Schliinz. He was 1-1 in 16 innings in league play a season ago so he knew what he was doing when he made the decision to be a pitcher. He has been effective in five games this season.
During the regular season, Schliinz was 2-1, with the loss coming against non-North Star League opponent Champlin June 28 at the Hinckley tournament. Schliinz pitched five innings and picked up his first win of the season June 14 in an 18-4 win over Buffalo. In his last start of the season, July 12 at Rogers, Schliinz picked up the win in five innings of work. He also made appearances in a 5-4 loss at Rockford June 12, and in a 7-5 win at Dassel-Cokato May 24.
How well Schliinz has performed is no surprise to Timpe, who applauds Schliinz’s desire to continue playing.
“It’s a testament to him and to how good of a ballplayer he is, and to how much he loves playing the game,” said Timpe. “It takes a lot of guts to go out there with one eye with the chance the ball is going to come back at you from 50 feet away.”
Schliinz pitched the ninth inning at Dassel-Cokato, giving up two, unearned runs. That outing was his first since he had his right eye removed in March.
“It was emotional the first time I pitched,” he said. “Because of the fear of getting hit and the fear of what could happen. I wasn’t quite sure what I should expect.”
Timpe remembers pondering whether or not the situation was right at Dassel that night for him to put Schliinz in the game.
“In his first game, we played up in Dassel a 6 o’clock game, and it was starting to get dark. I didn’t really want to put him in when it was twilight, but so far it has worked good,” Timpe said. “It’s was more a matter of getting his arm in shape than anything else.”
Schliinz said Timpe didn’t have to make the decision that night in Dassel.
“He left it up to me. We made an agreement that I won’t pitch night games, because I have a harder time seeing,” Schliinz said. “He protects me as much as he can, and leaves it up to me.”
As for the act of pitching, Schliinz said seeing the catcher’s mitt and throwing strikes are fine, but problems arise when it’s time to field his position.
“The only fear I have with pitching is if somebody hits a come-backer. It’s going to be hard to see and my reaction time won’t be as good as someone with two good eyes,” he explained. “One challenging part is ground-balls to first, where I’ve had to cover first base and they flip it to you. I had to find the base and find the ball. I made the plays, but it took a lot of concentration.”
Timpe admitted he worries about Schliinz on the mound.
“You get worried, but you can’t, because anybody can get hit,” said Timpe, who is in his 38th season as the Maple Plain manager. “Maybe we are conservative when we play him, but he makes the decision.”
Schliinz’s peripheral vision to his right and his overall depth perception have been greatly altered by the removal of his right eye, but he said his left eye has learned to compensate some for the lack of a right eye.
The loss of depth perception seems to give Schliinz the most problems in baseball and in everyday life.
“When you come up to a mailbox or you pull into the garage, you think you are a lot closer than you are,” he explained. “Baseball-related, fielding ground-balls and hitting is really a challenge. Batting practice isn’t bad because I’ve played a lot of baseball and I know the speed of the ball, but, if it’s a curve ball or slider, I don’t have much of a chance.”
Schliinz may not have much of a chance hitting a breaking ball, but just having the chance to play baseball after a bout with cancer is something he doesn’t take for granted.
“I know I’m lucky with the type of cancer I got, and it should be behind me now,” said Schliinz, a bachelor, from his home in Minnetrista.
The type of cancer Schliinz was finally diagnosed with in December of 2007 was Retinal Pigment Epithelium, or RPE.
Never heard of it?
You are not alone, according to Schliinz.
After a couple weeks of radiation treatments, for what doctors thought was a typical retinal cancer, failed to work, more tests were done.
“The Mayo (Clinic), as good as they are, had never seen it, so they had to send it away to get clarification,” Schliinz said.
The urgency with which everyone was moving tipped Schliinz off that the spot on his right eye was something serious.
“They referred me over to the Mayo, and the Mayo looked at it. I got in within two days, so I knew it was something bad,” he said. “They diagnosed it as retinal cancer. It is very rare. Only four-in-a-million get retinal cancer, and usually it is people who are older.”
It took experts in Pennsylvania to finally tell Schliinz more about what type of retinal cancer he had.
In five outings during the regular season, Schliinz is 2-1. He made his pitching debut with one eye May 24 at Dassel-Cokato. - Photo courtesy of Brandon Schliinz
“The radiation wasn’t really doing anything to the tumor, so, in January, they decided to take the tumor out and do a biopsy. They thought they knew what it was, but they didn’t know what type (of cancer) it was. They did some biopsies, and still didn’t know what it was, so they sent the sample to the Wills Eye Institute in Pennsylvania, and they diagnosed it as RPE cancer,” he explained. “There had only been 13 cases reported ever, and I am the 14th.”
Fortunately, for Schliinz, the rare RPE tumors are treatable, and they act in a benign manner.
“The good part is that the RPE is the best kind you can have. Of the other 13 cases, none of them have spread,” Schliinz said. “If it was the other type, it probably would have spread. I had to lose an eye, but the good part of it is that it is not going to spread.”
Schliinz must travel to the Mayo Clinic for routine blood tests every six months for his first two years of remission. The frequency of the visits will lessen to once every couple years after that.
The removal of Schliinz’s right eye came 14 months after a routine contact lens evaluation revealed the tumor growing on his eye. His vision began getting cloudy last summer, and his eye was removed this past March, just two months before the start of the amateur baseball season.
Look Schliinz in the eyes and one wouldn’t know which of his light-green eyes was actually looking back at you. The prosthesis in his right orbital socket is connected to his eye muscles, so the movement of his fake right eye synchronizes with his real left eye. Also, the visible portion of the prosthetic eye, which he said is shaped like a half-moon, has been designed so it aesthetically matches his right eye.
Maintenance includes cleaning the artificial eye regularly, and Schliinz will need to replace it every seven years.
Not done, yet
The regular season is now over for Maple Plain and the rest of the Class C teams, and the playoffs are underway. For Schliinz and the Diamond Devils, the East Division champion, it’s business as usual, as they attempt to return to the state playoffs for a second straight season.
If Maple Plain needs him to toe the rubber during the playoffs, one can bet Schliinz will be ready. Just don’t expect to see him with a bat in his hands.
On second thought, he has a perfect on-base percentage so far this year. In his only at-bat this season, which came the Rockford game, Schliinz drew a walk. That’s the sign of a good eye.
In five outings during the regular season, Schliinz is 2-1. He made his pitching debut with one eye May 24 at Dassel-Cokato. - Photo by Matt Kane