A shotgun blast to the face blinded him, but it didn’t keep him off the ballfield

At a time when his hometown East St. Louis Flyers were winning the Class 6A state football title being crowned national champions, Anthony Easley held a passion for basketball and baseball.

He played both during his sophomore year at East Side and wanted more than anything to be a professional baseball player. But two years after graduating in 1985, all of his athletic dreams ended on an East St. Louis playground.

Following a pickup basketball game, the then 20-year-old took a shotgun blast from point-blank range. Easley was on the cement court with a hole on the side of his face “big enough to put both your fists” into and fighting for his life.

“The doctors told my parents I wasn’t going to make it,’’ Easley said. “My mom has a lot of faith and is a true believer. She said to the doctors, ‘You do what you can for my son and we’ll leave it in the Lord’s hands.’’’

After having a replacement jaw bone inserted and numerous plastic surgeries, Easley left the hospital a little more than a month later. Left permanently blind, Easley’s life was changed forever. But his love of baseball remained constant.

On a recent Saturday 30 years later, Easley, a member of the St. Louis-based Lighthouse for the Blind Beep Baseball team, competed in the 12th annual MindsEye Ultimate Beepball Tournament.

He was the tournament’s most valuable player when he led Lighthouse for the Blind to the championship in 2016. Easley wanted that award again.

“When I won the MVP in 2016, I went 9-for-10 in my last two games. My goal is to win it again this year,’’ Easley said. “That’s what I am shooting for.’’

With temperatures in the upper 90s, Easley led Lighthouse for the Blind to its third straight championship. The 16-team tournament, played at Assumption Parish in South St. Louis County, ended when Lighthouse for the Blind defeated Blind Luck 7-4. Easley went 3-for-3 in the final game and once again was the tournament’s MVP.

Among the spectators on hand for the tournament was Easley’s 18-year-old son, Anthony Jr. who also was his dad’s guide for the day. A 2018 graduate of Althoff who plans to soon join Air Force, the younger Easley beamed with pride as he sat in the shade behind home plate while watching his dad play ball.

“My dad loves playing Beepball and he’s very good at it,’’’ Easley said. “Watching him play makes me very proud. Him being out here shows me that no matter the obstacles, that a person can accomplish anything if he wants it enough.’’

What is Beep Baseball?

Beep Baseball was founded in 1976 so that the visually impaired can play baseball. Tournaments are held throughout the world, including Taiwan. The 2018 Beep Baseball World Series will be played July 29-Aug. 5 at Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The game is played with a 16-inch softball which beeps, and all players, including blind players and those with full sight, must wear blindfolds on both offense and defense. The team on offense uses its own pitcher, who tries to aid the batter in making contact with the beeping ball by saying “swing” or some similar verbal cue as the ball crosses home plate.

Each batter gets four strikes, and when contact is made, the batter runs toward either posts (bases) which are set up down the right first- and third-base lines. Both posts make a buzzing sound to let the hitter know where to run. If the batter touches the base before one of six defenders gains control of the ball, the team on offense scores a run.

In addition to the pitcher and catcher, there are two defensive spotters without blindfolds who are on the field. These spotters are allowed to say the name of the player closest to where the ball is hit. They are not allowed to give any directional instruction.

Brian Houser is the director of sales and marketing at Lighthouse for the Blind and has been a member of the staff for 15 years. He also has served as the Beep Baseball coach for the eight years that Lighthouse for the Blind has had a team. Lighthouse for the Blind has been very successful, winning five times in seven tournament appearances prior to Saturday. Houser has no doubts Easley is the best player on the team.

“I have a really good team. They are committed. They love playing, they are focused, they are dedicated and they are all really good athletes,’’ Houser said. “ We have people on this team who are 100 percent blind and we have others who are legally blind. They may have tunnel vision, or they may have peripheral vision, and we have those who may only see shadows or different types of light.

“Anthony is our best player and he is our most consistent player. He’s a great teammate. He roots everybody on. Anthony has been at Lighthouse for Blind for over 20 years. He’s always so active and he’s always been so athletic.”

Houser also knows how difficult the sport can be. It was a few years ago when he was asked to fill in when a couple of his players could not attend the event.

“Hitting the ball is one thing, but running to a base that you can’t see is terrifying, as is when you’re playing in the field and you hear your name called and you don’t know how fast the ball is coming at you,’’ Houser said. “But it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy working with the guys. We practice when we can. They do it well enough and they’ve done it long enough that this is the highlight of the year.’’

‘I thought my ball-playing days were over’

Easley and his wife, Yolanda, have been married 19 years and live in East St. Louis. A mail carrier in suburban St. Louis, Yolanda and Anthony drive to St. Louis every workday where she drops him off at Lighthouse for the Blind. Anthony then returns home on MetroLink at night.

Easley said he was introduced to Beep Baseball about 12 years. ago. Since then, the sport has given him a chance to play the game he loves so much.

“Beep Ball has been very inspirational for me. When I lost my sight, I didn’t think I would be able to play baseball any more,’’ Easley said. “When they introduced me to Beep Ball, I was like a child at Christmas. It was great to play baseball. Man, I didn’t think I would be able to swing a bat or hit a ball ever again.”

He added, “Playing Beep Ball makes me feel like I‘m playing baseball again. Just to be in a dugout again ... that was amazing. That was a great feeling.’’

At Lighthouse for the Blind, Easley works on the assembly line and has been employed by the company for the past 21 years. He helps make aerosol cans, spray cans and soap.

“I work in the soap department. I do dish soap, and I’ve done different things since I started working here. I like it here. They treat us good,’’ Easley said. “Growing up, I wanted to play hard ball. I wanted to be a major league baseball player. That didn’t happen for me, and so I wanted a nice wife and children. I wanted to be able to take care of them. Working here I’m able to do that.’’

Still, Easley recalls vividly what happened the day he was shot. He still carries some of the shotgun pellets under his skin.

“I honestly think the person who shot me came to the playground that day to start something. The way they were running into me and fouling me. Why else would you bring a sawed-off shotgun to a basketball court? I’m blessed to be here,’’ Easley said. “When my parents saw me, they could identify me only by my birthmark.

“There were so many pellets they had to scrape out of me. There are still a bunch of them still there. I had to have a replacement jaw bone and I had countless plastic surgeries.”

Easley is also no longer bitter about what happened on that East St. Louis playground.

“When It first happened, I was young and of course I wondered, ‘Why me?’’’ Easley said. “But I am a true believer and I trust in the Lord. I had to pray about it and then pray about it some more. I’ve even forgiven the person who did this to me.

“I’m happy that I have a job, first of all,” Easley said. “I’m able to get out and provide for my family. That’s what a man is supposed to do. You deal with obstacles every day. But by getting out and going to work every day, hopefully I have set a good example for my son.’’

Easley said the shooter ended up serving a prison term, but died a couple of weeks after his release.

The 12th annual MindsEye 12th Annual Ultimate Beep Baseball Tournament included the help of more than 50 volunteers. Belleville businesses Allsup and Derm Associates Ltd. sponsored teams in the tournament. Proceeds from the event benefit MindsEye’s Beep Baseball program to bring the sport into public schools throughout the year.