WITH HELP OF MANY, TOMMY JOSEPH’S MLB DREAM CAME INTO FOCUS
Tommy Joseph can’t wait for the second half of the Phillies’ season to begin Friday night. It’s just the way a hitter is wired. When you’re going good, you don’t want any breaks, you want to keep riding the wave. So as welcomed as the four-day all-star break was, Joseph is ready to get back to work and see if he can build on a six-game stretch in which he had 10 hits, including three homers and two doubles, three walks and seven runs scored heading into the break.
Joseph was one of the feel-good stories of the Phillies’ first half, a guy who last fall was put out on the curb like an old desk then dragged back into the garage when nobody stopped and threw it in their trunk. Suddenly that desk has new life and has never looked better as it sits in a prominent spot in the room.
Saturday in Denver, Joseph stroked a career-high four hits, including a homer and a double. It was the kind of day hitters dream about.
The roots of that big day stretch back over a year to a moment and a sudden event that at the time seemed as if it could end Joseph’s career.
On May 11, 2015, Joseph was catching for the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs in a game against the Columbus Clippers. Early in that game, he took what looked like an innocuous foul tip off the mask. But athletic trainer Jon May knew there was nothing innocuous about it at all, not with Joseph’s medical history. May had the woozy catcher removed from the game and a series of tests were performed.
May’s instincts and fears proved correct. Joseph had suffered the fifth concussion of his life and fourth in a professional baseball career that began in 2010.
And thank goodness for that.
In a strange bit of irony, the foul tip that nearly ended Tommy Joseph’s career may have saved it.
Or at the very least turned it around and pointed it in the right direction.
“A lot of good came from it,” Joseph conceded recently. “It forced us to start over, go back to square one and take a deeper look at everything.”
“It turned out the obstacles I was facing were much bigger than anyone knew,” he said.
You hear it all the time. A hitter goes on a tear, someone asks him about the hot streak and the hitter responds by saying he is just seeing the ball well.
The deeper look that Joseph talked about, the one that Phillies medical officials embarked on after he’d suffered that fifth concussion, revealed something that no one really knew had been plaguing Joseph for a while.
He could see the ball.
But he couldn’t see the ball the way a baseball player needed to see it. At least a successful one.
Dr. Robert Franks, a concussion specialist at the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia, started the deeper look into Joseph’s condition. Concussion-related problems can include balance and memory issues and headaches. Franks determined that Joseph’s brain injury, or injuries, had caused a series of ocular motor problems. In short, Joseph’s eyes weren’t moving normally and that caused serious issues tracking the ball as it moved toward him. That’s a big problem for a baseball player, whether he’s in the field or at the plate.
Athletic trainer Joe Rauch, who oversees the rehabilitation of Phillies players at the team’s minor-league facility in Clearwater, and Dr. Michael Gallaway, a vision rehabilitation specialist in Marlton, New Jersey, also rallied to help Joseph.
“At the time, our priority was not baseball,” Rauch said. “Given Tommy’s history, we were all concerned with the impact the concussion would have on him as a human being, on his long-term life.”
After giving Joseph a battery of neurological tests, Franks said Joseph would eventually be able to continue his baseball career, but there was a condition. He could no longer be subject to the risks of foul tips. His days as a catcher were over. He would have to resume his career as a first baseman.
Joseph was OK with that.
But what about those vision issues?
Turns out they weren’t vision issues, per se.
“Tommy’s vision was actually close to 20-20,” Gallaway said. “His issues were mostly in the way the eyes moved. He had a full boat of ocular motor problems.”
Two days a week for seven weeks, Joseph visited Gallaway’s office in Marlton for three-hour sessions designed to get his eyes moving right. Joseph had major issues with convergence — the movement of the eyes toward the nose. The reduced convergence hurt his depth perception and ability to track a pitch. The focusing muscles in Joseph’s eyes did not work as fast as they should.
“Your eyes guide the body so if your eyes aren’t working properly, signals to the brain will be slowed and any movement involving timing will be affected,” Gallaway said.
During the deeper look into Joseph’s condition, the medical team determined that many of the player’s vision issues predated his fifth concussion. Joseph told Gallaway that as a youngster he sometimes would feel his eyes skipping words when he read.
“There’s a high likelihood that he had preexisting issues with tracking, focusing and convergence,” Gallaway said.
“We believe there were underlying issues from his history that had not been addressed,” he said. “These issues directly affect the ability to hit a baseball. It painted a picture of why he was a slow starter at the plate.”
After the May 2015 concussion, those issues were discovered and addressed.
Had Joseph not suffered that concussion, he might still be plodding along in the minors, not seeing the ball very well, wondering why his career was not advancing.
In addition to vision therapy, Joseph went through two weeks of vestibular therapy in June 2015. That program addresses balance issues.
But most of Joseph’s time was dedicated to fixing the way his eyes worked.
Gallaway recalled the day Joseph arrived in his New Jersey office.
“He was shaken,” Gallaway said. “It was a dark period for him. I think the whole ordeal had been tough on him psychologically. But he worked his butt off. He packed 16 weeks of work into seven weeks.”
Under Gallaway’s direction, Joseph did a variety of specialized vision exercises. Three-D glasses, strobe glasses, lenses and prisms were used. Gallaway purposely blurred images, forcing Joseph’s brain to bring them into focus. After seven weeks with Gallaway, Joseph’s eye movement became normal.
Joseph went to Florida, where Rauch continued to work on the player’s vision, only with more of a baseball focus. Rauch used a machine to shoot Ping-Pong balls at Joseph, who was instructed to catch only certain colored balls while ignoring others. In one of the drills, Rauch would stand behind Joseph and flip colored tennis balls over a home plate. Depending on the color, Joseph would have to hit the ball with a Wiffle Ball bat or let it go.
Eventually, Joseph got back on the field, started playing catch, taking ground balls, hitting and, of course, learning a new position.
Joseph’s vision and ocular function was tested every two weeks. Finally, 2½ months after his fifth concussion, he was cleared to play a game in the Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung of the minor leagues. He played 13 games and hit .485.
“I saw a difference almost immediately,” Joseph said. “Even though it was only the Gulf Coast League, it was the most confidence I’d had in a long time. I felt relaxed and comfortable. I felt like I could trust myself because I had confidence in my vision. I could see the ball longer and trust myself.”
Joseph went back to Lehigh Valley and hit .247 over the final 25 games of the season. But while his ability to see a pitched baseball travel toward him had improved, his future was still unclear.
In October, 3½ years after he was acquired from the San Francisco Giants in a trade for Hunter Pence, the Phillies waived Joseph from their 40-man roster. No team claimed him and he was sent to the minor leagues.
Joseph wasn’t surprised by the move. Nor was he surprised when no team rolled the dice and selected him in the Rule 5 draft in December. He had sustained concussions in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and missed time in 2014 with a wrist injury that required surgery.
“I hadn’t been a very reliable player,” he admitted.
He was thankful the Phillies decided to bring him to minor-league camp in February. He knew it was his last shot and he knew what he’d have to do to stay around. As a catcher, Joseph could have a major impact on a game with his pitch-calling and defense. As a first baseman, he would have to hit, and hit a lot, to get to the big leagues.
Joseph reported to camp in Clearwater and underwent a series of follow-up eye exams, just to see how things were progressing. He was diagnosed with astigmatism in his right eye and prescribed a contact lens, one more bit of ocular fine-tuning that helped revive his career. The games started in minor-league camp and Joseph started hitting. He did not stop when he got to Lehigh Valley. He hit .347 with 6 homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games. On May 13, one year and two days after suffering the concussion he feared might end his career, Joseph was called up to the majors by the team that had put him on the curb and made him available to every other team just a few months earlier.
In Clearwater, Joe Rauch tingled with happiness when he heard that Joseph had been called up to the big club. He and a number of co-workers who had helped get Joseph’s career back on track found a spot to watch that night’s Phillies game.
“We weren’t missing that one,” Rauch said.
In Marlton, Michael Gallaway got the news that the young man who spent seven weeks in his office trying — and eventually succeeding — to get his eyes to work right had been called to the majors. Gallaway looked at the bat Joseph had signed for him on his last day of therapy and felt a sense of elation.
In Philadelphia, Joseph went hitless in his first game, but he had one in his second game and three in his third. Two months after his debut, as he is about to turn 25 on Saturday, he remains grateful to everybody who helped revive his career and get him to the major leagues.
He has seen his dream come true, you could say.
“What makes Tommy’s story so great is that so many people helped put it all together,” Rauch said. “From doctors to vision specialists to our athletic trainers and our baseball people who had to teach him a new position to Tommy himself. It’s a credit to so many.
“Tommy was always a good player. And now that he can see the ball coming at him …”