Freshman Focus: St. John’s Jeff Belge

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It’s a good thing Jeff Belge has exceptional vision – 20/15 – out of his left eye because he’s legally blind out of his right.

Belge, who has scarring in his cornea due to a childhood accident, sees 20/200 out of his right eye. In essence, he can only make out the giant E on the eye test … and sometimes not even that, depending on the day.

A St. John’s freshman, Belge is a legit pro prospect. That’s what happens when you have imposing size (6-5, 230 pounds), throw with your left arm and can hit 96 mph on a radar gun.

The Syracuse native made second-team all-state last year at Henniger High and was considered a top-50 draft prospect. But because of his commitment to St. John’s, he wasn’t drafted until the 32nd round, by the Boston Red Sox.

“He has a world of potential,” St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer said.

But Belge nearly had his pitching career cut short before it even started, back in the fall of 2006. Belge and his parents, Tom and Karen, were at their lake home in Redwood, which is in upstate New York.

Belge, who was 9 years old at the time, and a cousin were skipping rocks on Six Berry Lake when the accident happened. Belge was standing behind his cousin, who wound up and accidentally struck Jeff with the rock, hitting him square in the right eye.

Karen said she had already been used to her son getting into accidents. When Belge was six, for example, he tried doing a “wheelie” on his bike and broke his jaw.

But this was different.

“I heard an awful scream,” Karen said. “My first reaction was to grab some towels because I thought I would be dealing with something like a bloody forehead.

“But when we ran out there, Jeff’s scared reaction was, “Am I going to lose my eye?’ “

With the family in panic mode, the situation grew even more tense because the lake house is in such a remote area that there was no phone service to call for an ambulance.

The family sped to a hospital in nearby Watertown, N.Y. But doctors at that hospital directed them back home to Syracuse – an hour away – where medical staffs would be better equipped to handle this type of emergency.

“I was in shock,” Belge said when asked his memory of the ordeal.

Ultimately, Belge had two surgeries that kept him from losing his eye.

It wasn’t until six months later that Belge got back on a field, but, even then, it wasn’t with baseball equipment.

“One of his Little League coaches would take a tennis racket and tennis balls and hit him fly balls,” Karen said. “That’s how he got back in the swing of things.”

Later, Belge’s father, Tom, would spend countless hours sitting on an actual bucket as his son threw him pitch after pitch.

Karen, who was a college pitcher at Division III Elmira, offered her support as well.

Pretty soon, relying on just his left eye for vision became normal for Belge, who tried using a hard contact lens on his right eye but discarded it because of a comfort issue.

And as his draft status can attest, Belge functions just fine with his one good eye.

“I’ve never had a problem seeing signs,” Belge said, “or fielding my position.”

The only issue for Belge, 19, came two years ago, when he was in a hotel room in Atlanta with his travel team, Baseball U.

Belge said he and a teammate were just having fun, playfully wrestling. But the other kid accidentally poked Belge in his right eye, opening the scars from the first two surgeries.

Karen was in another hotel room that day along with other parents when she got a knock on her door.

“Mom,” Belge said, “we’ve got to go back to the hospital.”

Another surgery was required for Belge, who wears protective glasses just about everywhere he goes.

“It was kind of frightening,” Blankmeyer said when asked his reaction to the second injury. “He had already committed to us. We would have honored that commitment even if he couldn’t pitch.

“But he has to be cautious with that eye. I know ‘boys will be boys’, but he has to be smart about how he protects that eye.”

Belge, a Sports Management major who is interested in becoming a baseball scout after his playing days are done, promises that a similar incident will not happen again.

In the meantime, his college career got off to a solid start this year as he earned a win in his first appearance, pitching 3 1/3 innings and allowing no hits, three walks and two runs against Richmond. He was even better in his third appearance of the season this past weekend at Liberty, working 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, striking out four. He’s still refining his command, of course, and Blankmeyer said sometimes the game can speed up on him, as his 6.75 ERA through 5.1 innings attests. But his future is undeniably bright.

St. John’s (12-2) is also off to an impressive opening, and the 19th-ranked Red Storm will try to keep its winning ways going this weekend in Norfolk, Va., with games agains Iona, UMass Lowell and Towson.

Blankmeyer said he is hopeful Belge, who also has a slider and a changeup and generally works his fastball in the 90-93 mph range, can live up to his potential.

“Jeff has the size, the arm, the frame,” Blankmeyer said. “Now the process has to take place. He has to develop, and that’s a combination of our job and his job.”

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