By Joe Kay
DAVID KOHL/Associated Press
Dayton Daily News sports writer Hal McCoy shakes hands with the Reds' Barry Larkin after McCoy threw the first pitch during pregame ceremonies honoring him July 21. McCoy will be inducted into the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame this Sunday.
Hal McCoy walked haltingly down the shiny airport concourse, his laptop bag in tow. He looked one way, then another, and felt a surge of panic.
Other passengers were rushing by, but he couldn't make out their features. No matter how hard he squinted through his wire-rim bifocals, the baseball writer couldn't see anything more than shadows.
"It was terrifying," he said.
He found his way to the baggage carousel at the Sarasota, Fla., airport and realized he couldn't even pick out his suitcase. Instead of covering the spring-training exploits of the Reds, the 62-year-old writer figured it was time to retire.
An eye condition that left him legally blind a few weeks earlier had flared up on the flight.
"Right there I said, 'I've got to go home. I can't do this,' "he said.
How can a baseball writer cover a team when he can't see what happens? How can he follow the ball when he can't find his luggage?
McCoy has found a way. And in his 31st season of writing exemplary baseball stories, the Dayton Daily News beat reporter has become one himself.
Sunday, he'll join the writers' wing of baseball's Hall of Fame, the culmination of the only career he ever wanted. Only a few months ago, he thought he had lost it.
"It's turned into a sort of inspiration to a lot of people," Reds third baseman Aaron Boone said.
McCoy's peers voted him the J.G. Taylor Spink Award last year based upon his longevity, dedication and excellence -- more than 6,000 games covered, more than 20,000 stories filed.
Growing up in Akron, McCoy followed the Cleveland Indians and became fascinated with newspaper accounts of his favorite team. He would watch the press box at sporting events, wishing to be there someday.
"I can remember being 9 or 10 years old and playing baseball games with dice, and I would sit down with a piece of notebook paper and write a story about it and design headlines and draw pictures and make my own newspaper," McCoy said.
He also played a little first base, attending Kent State on a partial baseball scholarship. He soon realized that if he was going to make it in baseball, it would be by writing about it.
He headed for Dayton and worked his way up to the Reds beat, taking over in the 1973 season.
Over the years, he covered the Big Red Machine and the Pete Rose gambling scandal, World Series wins and Marge Schott's foibles. He loved travel and baseball and writing, and considered himself lucky to get paid to do all three.
Two years ago, his eyesight started to fail -- the vision in his right eye blurred. It didn't clear up.
Doctors diagnosed an eye condition that affects perhaps 5 percent of the population. He had a stroke in the optic nerve that left him with a permanent blurry spot.
It didn't seem so bad. He could work around it. There was only a 15 percent chance he'd have a stroke in the left eye. He adapted.
On Jan. 23, he awoke to find the vision in his left eye had blurred even worse. He couldn't read his morning paper. The odds had failed him.
"It was absolutely devastating," McCoy said. "I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I was going to have to retire. How can you cover baseball if you can't see?"
He was only a week away from being honored by his newspaper for his Hall of Fame selection, one of the best moments of his career. His sports editor broke down when McCoy told him what had happened.
"I was very sad for a co-worker and very sad that it would happen in this year of all years," Frank Corsoe said. "That's just too cruel a twist of fate. So I told him, 'Listen, whatever you want to do, we'll support you. If you want to be a columnist, we'll make you a columnist. But I think you need to try to go to spring training.' "
McCoy's wife, Nadine, also urged him to try, but feared he wouldn't be able to make it.
"She told friends that she thought I'd be back in a week or two," he said. "I was tripping over things at home, running over furniture. I was falling down. And that's my own home, where I know where everything is."
When he got to the luggage carousel in Sarasota, he was ready to give up. First, he decided to hitch a ride with another writer and visit the Reds' clubhouse to tell the players goodbye.
The first one he met was Boone, who saw him stumbling around and asked what was wrong. McCoy told him, then got a lecture.
"He told me about his condition and finished up with, 'I don't think I'll be able to keep on working,'" Boone recalled. "I just told him that wasn't good enough. No way. I said, 'You can still do it. We'll help you.' "
The pep talk became the turning point.
"That's what I needed to hear from somebody," McCoy said. "Nobody gave me the tough love. He did."
As others learned of his condition, McCoy got e-mails from readers and writers around the country. The kind words helped him through his tough adjustment.
"Now I feel I can't quit because I'll be letting too many people down who have been behind me," he said. "Every time I got really down, I'd get an e-mail from somebody pushing me."
He has learned to cope with his limitations. He had his scorebook enlarged, uses a magnifying glass for small print and follows the game by TV monitor and instinct.
Tests determined that he has two small spots in his vision where he can see clearly. He has no peripheral vision.
"Looking straight ahead, I can see as far as I always could," he said. "It's just that it's dark and blurry. It's like my glasses are filthy dirty all the time."
He can follow the ball from the pitcher's hand to the plate. When the batter swings, McCoy watches to see which way his head turns, an indication of where the ball is headed. He then watches to see how the outfielders react. He watches a TV to see replays.
He writes about it on a large-screen laptop with enlarged print.
"It still gets frustrating," he said. "If I read too long or work too long on the laptop, it fuzzes up. The lines start jumping up and down, the words run together. I have to look away for 10 or 15 minutes.
"Other than that, I've adjusted well. They told me it would take six months to adjust to the way I am."
There are no more thoughts of quitting.
"I just love this job too much to give it up," he said. "When I leave, I want to leave on my own terms."