Weiler brings inspiring vision to Hurdle, Bucs
Blind college student shares love of sports, motivation in visit at Busch Stadium
ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates are dragging. It is Day 19 of a stretch of 20 consecutive game days through four states. The losses have outnumbered the wins. Only minutes earlier, injury was added to fatigue with the losses of their closer and indispensable catcher.
That woe-is-us gloom fades as soon as Bryce Weiler shows up in their Busch Stadium dugout on the Saturday of the weekend series, sitting on the bench clutching a baseball. And a white cane.
Weiler is 22, a few weeks from graduating from the University of Evansville and taking his degree in sports management into the graduate school of sports administration at Western Illinois. And he is blind, has been since his four-months premature birth in Olney, Ill.
His story is relatively well known, retold as an inset to March Madness for a couple of years now, of a sightless sub-six-footer who sinks free throws before and sits on the bench during Evansville games and networks an illustrious roster of coaches, with his corner including everyone from Rick Pitino to John Calipari, with Evansville's Marty Simmons the pillar in the middle.
He intends to land a job, and a pulpit to inspire, in sports.
Weiler's primary wish is painfully understandable.
"My one dream in life," he said, "is to be able to see. If I cannot do this, I hope to find a job where I can inspire others through sports."
Given his roster of mentors, you have to conclude basketball is Weiler's favorite sport. And you are wrong.
"Actually, my favorite is baseball. But basketball coaches are just more outgoing, easier to get to know," he says. "Baseball managers haven't responded to my emails."
Until he got to Clint Hurdle, that is.
"Mr. Hurdle was the first of the baseball managers to respond to me," Weiler said. "I'm thankful to have them. Those are my baseball guys."
"He reached out to me, as he does with other coaches, to enhance his understanding of the game, and to ask questions," said Hurdle, the devoted and proud father of Madison, 11, born with Prader-Willi Syndrome.
Madison's condition had drawn Hurdle to Pittsburgh. The Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill is a leading provider of care for those afflicted with Prader-Willi Syndrome. And it drew him to Weiler.
"He knows I have a special-interest child so it drew my interest, and we've just stayed in touch for over a year. Talked to him, video conferenced with him," Hurdle said, sitting in his small office in the visitors' clubhouse. "But this will be the first time I get to meet him."
Back out on the bench, Weiler is trying to contain his enthusiasm, to "stay within himself," as Hurdle's players would say.
"I'm excited to meet Mr. Hurdle. I will be back in August to see Mr. Black with the Padres," Weiler says, referring to San Diego skipper Bud Black, a former pitcher. "I enjoy talking about pitching, because it's so confusing to me since I can't see. But for Mr. Hurdle to be my first Major League Baseball manager … I wouldn't have traded that for anything."
In addition to being contagiously peppy and upbeat, Weiler is like that, respectful and proudly possessive of the friendships he has cultivated. Everyone is Mister, and they are all his guys.
He also is loyal. Sitting next to him on the bench is Kyleigh Lewis, just as she had joined him on a different bench years ago. A member of the Evansville dance team, one day she noticed Weiler sitting forlornly on the bench and joined him and struck up a conversation still ongoing.
"She was one of the first people who ever talked to me," said Weiler, who had felt understandably isolated in college. "When word got out that I would meet Mr. Hurdle, a lot of people wanted to come with me, but I thought I should bring her because she was the first who really helped me out."
Paying it forward, Weiler senses he may have helped out Maddy Hurdle, even if only in a little way.
"Mr. Hurdle enjoyed reading my articles about my journey through college basketball," Weiler said. "He must've thought sometimes, 'My daughter might not be able to do this,' but this has shown him people can overcome challenges."
Weiler, of course, nailed that. Like many people without sight, his sensory perception is acute.
Prior to departing Pittsburgh, Hurdle had told his daughter about his upcoming meeting with Weiler and described her reaction as "all jacked up."
"Dad, he does the sports? And he doesn't have vision?"
Dad corrected her: "He can't see -- but he's got great vision."
Hurdle comes out of the tunnel leading away from the clubhouse and turns left. He sees Weiler, who senses him and alights from the bench.
The men hug. Weiler presses his face to Hurdle's chest, lost in the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder's embrace.
"Maddy gets it," Hurdle tells Weiler. "She has her own sets of challenges, but has also been an angel without wings for our family. And you've been an angel without wings for your mom and dad and everybody else who has gotten to know you."
That's enough of the somber stuff. The rest is pure irreverent Hurdle, putting Weiler at ease by reverting to his cheeky self.
He teases him about his social life and, when Weiler notes the approaching "3 1/2-year anniversary" of his getting together with Kyleigh, Hurdle says, "Relax … I'm gonna have to put a seat belt on you."
As he has shown everyone who has stopped by, Weiler produces for Hurdle the link from the basketball net cut down following Louisville's win over Michigan in the 2013 NCAA title game and presented to him by Pitino.
Hurdle looks at the fraying strand and says, "Yeah, I bet somebody had to cut that down for you. I'd be careful giving you scissors."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.