One day in the spring of 2003, Seiichi Uchikawa woke up and the vision in his right eye was practically gone. Not only that, but his hand was numb and he was unable to pick up a pencil, let alone a bat or ball.
Fast-forward six years and the Yokohama BayStars hitting wizard is suiting up for Samurai Japan as they get set to defend their World Baseball Classic title.
"This is something I never expected and it's just a dream come true for me," the 26-year-old Uchikawa said prior to a recent practice game at Tokyo Dome.
Uchikawa was no stranger to injuries prior to 2003--in fact he underwent three operations on a nasty bone cyst on his heel while playing for Oita Technical High School--but this was different. Forget about your baseball career, when you lose your eyesight and use of your limbs, sports become an afterthought. Hitting a baseball is one thing, but this was even jeopardizing an act as simple as driving a car.
"It got to the point where everything was very blurry in my right eye and then everything just went white," Uchikawa said.
The problem was that Uchikawa's prominent jawbone was out of joint and it was causing pressure on the nerves in his neck and upper spine. Doctors mulled surgery but finally opted for treatment consisting of a system of retainers and braces that were eventually able to realign his jaw. Problem solved, but not before some serious soul-searching on the part of Uchikawa.
"I was in a condition where it was very tough to play baseball with what I was going through, so I even thought that I might have to quit the game, which was very tough," Uchikawa recalled.
Looking back now, however, Uchikawa actually credits that episode with some of the subsequent success he has enjoyed, and there has been a lot of it. A career .311 hitter, Uchikawa put together a monster season for the sad-sack BayStars in 2008 hitting an NPB-best .378, over 30 points higher than the No. 2 man, Yakult's Norichika Aoki (.347). Last year, Uchikawa hammered out 189 hits in 135 games and he also posted a slugging percentage of .540 (total bases divided by number of at-bats).
"It was tough back then, but I try to look at things in a positive way," said Uchikawa, one of the most approachable players in the game here. "Because of the injuries I had, my approach to the game is different now, and that's why I'm here today. It brought me to a good place in my game, being able to prepare for the game and to perform the way I have.
"All I do is play hard every day, take it one game at a time, one at-bat at a time, and that's why I'm here today. Coming back after the injury and playing hard every day gave me confidence and took away the fear as I recovered."
Uchikawa, the ultimate utility player--he has seen action at first base, second base, third base, shortstop and in the outfield in seven-plus seasons with Yokohama--said he'll play wherever Japan manager Tatsunori Hara feels his services are needed most, be it first base, left field or coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter.
But the good-natured Uchikawa also has another role to play, with teammates constantly coming over and playfully tapping his sizeable chin. At one point the Japanese media even took to calling him "Agodzilla," ago being Japanese for jaw.
"As long as the atmosphere brightens up, I'm fine with it," said Uchikawa. "I don't mind playing the clown at all."
After what he's been through, Uchikawa is just grateful to be playing baseball--representing his country in a prestigious international tournament is gravy. You might even say he's seen the light.