Mike and Jean Sutton love listening to baseball on the radio, but Jean has never actually seen a baseball field. The Suttons are both blind, and Mike sought out an opportunity that would allow the descriptive words they hear on the radio to come to life by touching, feeling, and even smelling those things that those with sight may take for granted.
"I wasn't interested in baseball until after I got married," Jean said. "Baseball is a good sport for blind people because it is so easy to follow. There are a lot of blind baseball fans."
"She likes that there are only nine guys to keep up with," Mike later joked and Jean confirmed.
The South Carolina Baseball Office arranged a time for the Columbia couple to walk on the field at Founders Park on Tuesday, where they also explored some of the facilities inside, held a national championship trophy, tried on a national championship ring, and met with head coach Mark Kingston. While Mike has actually attended several games at Founders Park, Jean had never been there before, although she had been to Sarge Frye Field, the former home of the Gamecocks. The couple depends on radio play-by-play to paint the pictures in their mind.
"Radio is the only way," Mike said. "With TV, you don't know what's going on. That's why description is so important to us. I just love it when [the announcer] says something like `the pitcher heaves a sigh, and now he bends at the waist as he looks over the top of his brown glove, leans back, winds, and fires.'"
Mike, a native of Lancaster, S.C., has been legally blind since he was nine years old, and lost his remaining sight approximately 10 years ago. He is retired after working for many years for the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. Jean, a native of Inman, S.C., has spent the last 35 years as a medical transcriptionist at the V.A. Hospital. She was born with glaucoma and had some vision until 1984. The Suttons met while students at South Carolina with Jean graduating in 1981, after Mike earned two degrees in 1978 and '79. The couple married after they had graduated and have lived in Columbia ever since.
I think I can picture it better now, especially the bases, the wall, and the pitcher's mound.Jean Sutton
The Suttons are fans of all Gamecock sports, but baseball has been special.
"We were living in a small apartment downtown right after we got married," Mike said. "One day, it just poured down rain, and Jean told me she wanted to learn some sports, so we sat down and did about 13 BrailleNotes on baseball. She's been a fan ever since."
Jean's interest in baseball skyrocketed during the national championship seasons of 2010 and 2011.
"We went to the parade the first year they won the championship," Jean said.
"One of my favorite memories is the way the town responded when the team came home," Mike said. Now they were getting a chance to stand in the places they had only heard about.
As they circled the bases and explored the outfield, Mike sounded like a radio play-by-play announcer in explaining to Jean where she was and what she was feeling as she bent down to touch the bases, the dirt and the grass, or reached up to feel the padding of the outfield wall. Mike narrates, while Jean smiles. Their white canes help them navigate on their own.
"Get down and feel it," Mike said to Jean as they reached first base.
"I never realized the bases were so puffy and high," Jean said, noting she always thought they were flat like home plate.
"Feel this dirt," he said as they continued toward second base. "This area here, where the grass curves, is the cutout."
The couple approaches second base. Jean would later remark that she had no idea there was so much dirt on the baseball diamond.
"Do you want to slide into second?" Mike asked.
Holding arms, Mike demonstrates how far a runner might come off the base to take a lead. Moments later they detour into the outfield and feel the carpet-like grass.
"When they say that the second baseman goes back to the edge of the grass to catch a short pop up, this is where they are," Mike explained as Jean nods.
The Suttons make their way to the warning track in center field and reach out to touch the padding on the green wall. The couple stops to recall a grand slam home run hit by former Gamecock catcher Grayson Greiner. Each easily rattles off the names of their favorite South Carolina players over the years.
The couple returns to the infield, rounds third base and heads back toward home plate. After touching home, they walk arm in arm to the pitcher's mound.
"How do you like it?" Mike asks Jean, who replied quietly, but smiles big enough that you don't have to see it to know it's there.
The couple climbs on top of the pitcher's mound. Jean kneels down to touch the pitching rubber. Mike knows his baseball and tells her how long and wide it is.
"Let's turn, and I'll let you travel back to home plate like a fastball, but with me it's more like a curve ball," Mike quips. Then he tells her about the size of the batter's box on each side of home plate, with which she is now more familiar.
"I think I can picture it better now, especially the bases, the wall, and the pitcher's mound," Jean said and acknowledges how much it will help when listening to the games on the radio next spring.
"That's what I wanted to do," Mike said as he takes Jean's arm and leads her off the field.