Pilgrim Academy's Noah Kramer has overcome partial blindness to become a high school baseball playerBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Since this isn’t a typical high school sports story, let’s start it out with a little interactive exercise. Wherever you might be reading this, stand up, get in a right-handed hitter’s batting stance and imagine you are playing varsity baseball and the pitcher is throwing about 80 miles per hour with a curveball as well. You all set? OK, now close your left eye and try to square up that fastball for a hit. Your balance is off, right? No depth perception? How are you supposed to hit by just looking out of one eye?
Welcome to Noah Kramer’s world.
Kramer, who just finished up his sophomore year at The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, has no vision in his left eye. Zero. Zilch. Yet somehow he has found a way to play high school baseball, and the Pioneers are thankful that he did. He was the addition they needed to field a team of nine players and have a season after two of the 10 players went down with injuries or medical issues. Kramer injured his eye in a freak accident when he was 8 years old, just a little boy doing what a lot of little boys tend to do.
“When I was 8, I was playing with this metal pole and I was hitting a tree with it, and when I did that a piece of bark flew off and hit me in the eye. I ended up having to have a bunch of surgeries. The surgeries weren’t really for anything that had to do with vision, they were so I could keep the eye. I can’t see anything out of my left eye,” Kramer said. “It didn’t hurt at all, but my vision was blurry. Then, I saw the blood. It didn’t really hurt, but I guess I cried because of the blood.”
Kramer has had about two dozen surgeries in the eight years since, but still has no vision in his left eye.
“He’s had a total of 23 surgeries over the years. He had a ruptured globe — (the piece of bark) just completely sliced his eye. After that, he had a detached retina. We had so many doctors appointments he began tricking the doctors by memorizing the eye chart, so for a long time we thought he had vision. The doctors caught on, and he had to get surgery again for the detached retina. But, nothing was successful with that, so he still has no vision,” said his mom, Lori McCline. “The recovery for the detached retina, he had to be faced down for six weeks. Even just to go to the bathroom, he had to walk with his head down, he had to eat that way — everything. So that was a lot for him and he was out of school for a while.”
And Kramer’s hardships don’t end there. This past year, Noah had complications with his right eye that began causing temporary blindness that sometimes could last as long as a day. It’s been a long struggle for the family, which includes dad Rick Kramer, brothers Ricky (age 19) and Logan (13) and sister Keira (7). But Kramer has kept up a good attitude throughout the setbacks and continues to look on the bright side — even if he has to find it through a pair of special prescription glasses.
“Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with a condition in his right eye, which was unrelated to the left eye, which causes temporary blindness. So, at any moment, he can go completely blind. He was diagnosed with that midway through the season, and that was probably the third time doctors told us he was probably not going to be able to play and we would just have to accept that. But he didn’t let that stop him,” Lori said. “I begged him to play in the outfield, to wear a mask when he was up to bat, but he said if he was going to play he wanted to do it the right way. I ran everything by the doctors first because safety comes first, and the doctors said if he’s OK with it, let him try.”
Pioneers baseball coach Jordan LoSasso was in a bind before the season started. He had 10 players on his roster, but two were unable to play, so he needed at least one more player to field a team. Athletic Director Charlie Baehner came up with an idea, and told LoSasso about Noah Kramer, a kid who had a passion for baseball since the time he was 4 years old.
“We were having trouble getting enough guys to even field a team. Before Noah came along, we had 11 players but then a kid tore his ACL, so we were down to 10. Then, another kid had medical issues, so we really needed a guy and the athletic director said he might know somebody. He told me about Noah’s eye and I was like, ‘so how is that going to work?’ But he’s been a blessing, honestly,” LoSasso said. “The other players were very understanding and they didn’t put too much pressure on him. My expectation was that he wouldn’t be able to hit the ball at all. It’s hard enough to hit with two good eyes, let alone just one, so I had no expectations. He started off a little slowly, but about halfway through the year you wouldn’t be able to tell something was up just watching him at the plate.”
Kramer was far from a player who was going to garner any postseason accolades from area newspapers, but that didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to be back out there on a baseball diamond, with his friends, enjoying the game he loves. And, he turned out to be pretty good, too, despite his perceived limitations. He was the starting third baseman the entire season, and even came up with a couple of hits throughout the year.
“I played baseball ever since I was 4 or 5 years old. At first (I didn’t think I could do it) but as time went on, I thought I could do it even though I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I was going to at least try to. I was out of the game for about two years. Batting is where I have the most trouble, seeing the ball come in. I can’t really place the bat to it. Fielding, I do fine with that. I just wanted to hang out with my friends. They were all playing baseball and I thought it would be fun. You get to go places, leave school early, stuff like that,” Kramer said. “Sometimes I would hit the ball maybe two or three times out of four at-bats, but other games I wouldn’t make contact at all. When there were two outs and we had a chance to win, I didn’t want to be up to bat because I didn’t want to mess up for the team. But I just got up and tried. Practice doesn’t really help at all, it was just ‘let me swing the bat and hope I can hit the ball.’”
His mom said being part of The Pilgrim Academy baseball team has helped improve Noah’s overall mood tremendously.
“It happened eight years ago, but probably about 10 of the surgeries have been within the last two years, so it’s been an ongoing thing. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and there were times when he didn’t even want to come out of his room, but baseball kept him on a natural high,” she said. “He was always ready to go out there and be around his friends. When he was diagnosed with the condition in his right eye, he took that pretty hard, but baseball definitely lifted his spirits. Even though he was told he wouldn’t play again, he didn’t let that slow him down. He was determined to get out there and prove people wrong. He wasn’t worried about being the best player, but he also didn’t want to let his teammates down. He just went out there and did it.”
“I don’t think he had a single fielding error. Maybe one throwing error. He played third base because we really had no other choice because nobody else really had the arm for it, and that’s the hot corner. I was just hoping for the best, and it turned out well for us. I couldn’t tell you how he does it, but it’s worked out and I don’t know how,” LoSasso said. “Out here on the field, Noah is just cool the entire time. I never really saw him get too frustrated. We had a pretty rambunctious team, so it was nice to have him, somebody who was steady. He was an important part of the team, to say the least.
“He was batting ninth most of the year, but he had two hits in a game and a walk and I said, ‘I think we are onto something here.’ So I moved him up to leadoff, and it kind of rallied the team a little bit.”
Kramer said he plans on transferring to Oakcrest this coming school year, now that his family lives in Mays Landing. He said he’s nervous about attending a new school and isn’t sure if he’s confident enough to try out for the Falcons’ baseball program — a highly competitive team that competes in the Cape-Atlantic League.
“It’s going to be sad to one day give up baseball, but I’ve been preparing myself for that. I had two surgeries last year and I didn’t expect to play this year. But, I decided to play and had a good time, and I’m glad I did. It’s fun hanging out with everyone on the field,” Kramer said. “Playing baseball helped a lot. It was good to get out and do something rather than just sit at home. We had practice every day, so that was good to get me out. I’m glad I played this year because I wasn’t planning on it. It’s all those little things, getting to leave school early and hang out on the bus with your friends. Most of the games were far away, so we had time to fool around, relax. When I put the jersey on, it felt good and I definitely appreciated it.”
Some high school students never get the opportunity to be part of a varsity sports team, and Lori said her son understands what a privilege it has been for Noah to be a part of the Pioneers’ program.
“It makes me proud. He’s had to grow up a lot faster than most 16-year-olds, so I’m not surprised he able to appreciate the opportunity to play more than most kids might. He takes advantage of it and doesn’t take it for granted,” Lori said. “People don’t realize this has been eight years of surgeries, ups and downs, and it can be draining on him. It’s been a tough eight years, but he always comes out on top. He might get down on himself for a few minutes, but it never lasts long.”
She said the family will continue to try different surgeries in hopes of a better outcome, but, no matter what happens, she said her son has gotten used to trying to prove people wrong and has embraced the underdog role — not just in sports, but in life.
“We have another consultation for another surgery in August, but this is going to be a lifelong battle. Doctors don’t expect him to get any vision back. They don’t expect his vision to completely go in his right eye, but we just don’t know. We can usually tell right before (he has a temporary blindness episode) because he’ll get a migraine. He has problems in the right eye because his brain is putting so much stress on that eye to compensate for the lack of vision in the other,” she said. “It’s hard for him now, looking into colleges and potential careers. There are a lot of things he’s been told he can’t do, but I’m excited to see him prove people wrong again.”
If you’re still in your batting stance, go ahead and open up your left eye, and what you’ll see is a world of possibilities — for anyone who has the courage to give something a try.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays