A group of students filed into a classroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on Tuesday morning. The topic of discussion for the day? Washington Nationals second baseman Dan Uggla.
The students had been instructed to investigate Uggla’s case and give a presentation about oculomotor dysfunction. They read news stories about when Uggla was hit in the head by baseballs in 2012 in 2013, and about his sharp decline in production thereafter. They looked at what might have been ailing him, and how it could have been corrected.
Bob Donatelli, an adjunct professor at UNLV, quietly followed along.
“It was a good class, yeah,” Donatelli said by phone afterward. “They did a nice job.”
When Uggla started at second base for the Nationals in their 3-1 loss to the New York Mets on Opening Day, he completed one of the most incredible comeback stories in baseball this season. Here was a player considered done at 35 years old after being cut by two teams in two months, a three-time all-star who could no longer see, or in most cases hit, the ball. The Nationals picked Uggla off the figurative scrap heap in January and gave him a chance to compete for the starting job. An injury to third baseman Anthony Rendon helped get him there.
All the while, the physical therapist who sparked Uggla’s remarkable resurgence looked on from his Las Vegas home with unmeasurable pride.
“For me, it’s just been so gratifying to be able to help this guy out,” Donatelli said. “Everyone was kind of questioning, ‘Is this right? Is this right?’ And I just kind of knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do with Dan. There was nothing else. There was nothing else that could be done.”
Uggla went 0 for 3 at the plate Monday but remains confident in his swing. His work with Donatelli is the main reason why.
The relationship between the two men started with a gut feeling. Early last season, Donatelli watched Uggla on television and saw him flail at incoming pitches and back away from others in fear. “How is that possible?” he thought. “How could a player who once hit 30-plus homers in five consecutive seasons lose it all so quickly?”
Donatelli reached out to a former patient and friend, 17-year veteran Marquis Grissom, who put him in touch with Uggla. Donatelli asked him a few questions over the phone, confirming his suspicions. He believed Uggla’s struggles were caused by an issue in the vestibular system, the part of the inner ear and brain that controls balance and focus in vision, and asked him to visit his office in Las Vegas.
Once there, Donatelli instructed Uggla to read a standard eye chart. When sitting still, he had 20/15 vision. Then Donatelli turned on a metronome, shaking Uggla’s head back and forth to the rhythm, and asked him to read it again. There was a long pause.
“Dan, you’re supposed to read a line,” Donatelli said.
“I can’t see anything, Bob,” he answered, as Donatelli recalled.
After spending 10 days with Donatelli, retraining his ocular muscles, Uggla continued the work in Atlanta with trainer Tripp Smith, who worked under Donatelli’s supervision.
At first, Uggla was nervous about whether his offseason work would translate to live pitching. Would he be able to see the ball, and pick up its spin, like he once could? But as of Monday morning, those concerns had been put to rest.
“Right off the bat I was like, ‘Man, this is a world of difference,’” Uggla said Monday. “The last couple years, I’d go a week, week and a half of just hitting, like, maybe one ball hard. [I’m] back to hitting one, two, three balls hard a game, so it’s a cool feeling, to make contact and get the strikeouts back down.”
Uggla’s problem is corrected and he can’t lose the progress he made this winter, Donatelli said. But it also won’t hurt to continue practicing and maintain the reflexes in his ocular muscles.
At Uggla’s request, Donatelli sent him a video copy of his VestibuTrac program, which outlines the visual exercises Uggla used this offseason. Uggla said he plans to continue doing those exercises on his own during the season.
Donatelli doesn’t believe Uggla is the only player in baseball to suffer from oculomotor dysfunction and hopes to raise awareness about the issue moving forward. He believes head injuries, when coupled with the numerous flights that players take on road trips each year, can damage the vestibular system. A player may have trouble tracking or seeing the ball as he once could and have no idea that there may be a medical explanation for the problem.
“Dan was great at compensating,” Donatelli said. “That’s the one thing athletes do — they’re great at compensating. But he could not compensate for his oculomotor dysfunction. He tried to do everything — make changes to his swing, his stance. But when you can’t see the ball, it’s difficult to make any compensations.”
Donatelli and Uggla keep in touch regularly now. Uggla calls him “a dear friend.” Donatelli is following Uggla’s performances from hundreds of miles away, and cheering for his continued resurgence. If he ever needs additional help, Donatelli said he’ll fly to Washington at a moment’s notice.
“That’s why I got into this profession: to help people,” Donatelli said. “The ultimate is to help a guy like that, who’s down and out. … For me, it’s just been great.”