Blind Atlanta Braves fan takes in new SunTrust Park in his own way at home opener
Joey Stuckey "meets" one of his favorite Braves players ever, Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. The giant bobblehead is one of 10 found around SunTrust Park during the Braves inaugural season. Photo by Jill Vejnoskafirstname.lastname@example.org
He’d already climbed on Bobby Cox’s statue to give The Skipper a bear hug. So when Joey Stuckey turned a corner at SunTrust Park last Friday night and encountered maybe his all-time favorite Brave, it just made sense he’d rub his hands all over John Smoltz’s face.
"Wait, does Smoltzie have a beard?" Stuckey asked excitedly as his fingered the whiskers on the life-sized bobblehead of the Hall of Fame pitcher located on a lower concourse at the new stadium. "I never knew that! I have a whole new image in my mind of what he looks like now."
That wasn’t merely a figure of speech. Stuckey, 40, is blind, a fact that hardly seems to weaken the bond the Macon resident enjoys with baseball.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I love the statistics, but I really love the heart of the game," Stuckey said. "It's the idea that you can lose a game today, but be a winner tomorrow."
He paused briefly.
“If that’s not a wonderful reflection of my life . . .It just really speaks to me on that level.”
Like much of Braves Country, Stuckey and his wife, Jennifer, had eagerly anticipated Friday’s first-ever home opener at the new stadium. Hours before ace Julio Teheran delivered his first pitch at 7:53 p.m, it was standing-room-only around the Pete Van Wieren and Andruw Jones plaques and the display case containing Sid Bream’s knee brace from Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series.
Stuckey was just as determined as the sighted crowd to drink it all in. If that meant clambering up on the base of the Cox statue located near the first base gate in order to feel the bronzed folds of The Skipper’s uniform, so be it. “I understand how to be blind,” says Stuckey, who was a toddler when a brain tumor took away his sight.
Anyway, he’s got bigger ambitions than that where baseball’s concerned.
Stuckey wants to sing the national anthem in every major league ballpark.
“It’s the only way I will be able to give something back to baseball,” said Stuckey. “I will not ever be able to participate as an athlete. The game means so much to me, I want to be able to say ‘thanks’ somehow.”
A publicist has begun contacting baseball’s Southern-based teams on Stuckey’s behalf to start the application process. But lest you think this pitch is some tone-deaf gesture on the part of a poor deluded superfan, think again. A classically-trained guitarist since age 17, Stuckey has released six studio albums and tours with his self-named blues rocker band -- including a stop at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta back in January.
"Music is a natural extension of my spirit, and I wanted to sing and be joyous and exuberant," said Stuckey, whose video for "Blind Man Drivin'," off latest album, shows him -- yep -- humorously commandeering a car to drive. "I want to break down barriers between people with different abilities or disabilities."
Still, the idea of him doing it in a baseball stadium would once have seemed about as far-fetched as the Braves worst-to-first season in 1991. When he was growing up in Macon, Stuckey’s parents were into music, not sports. Meanwhile, he was only 18 months old when a nonmalignant brain tumor destroyed his optic nerve and created other health issues he continues to live with today (he has no sense of smell, or functioning thyroid and adrenal glands).
Another sense logically took over.
“Sound is truly my universe,” Stuckey explains.
He landed his first job as a sound technician at a planetarium at age 15. Word got around and within a few years, garage bands were recording at his house. Stuckey now owns and operates Shadow Sound Studio, a state-of-the-art recording facility in Macon, plus a pair of music publishing companies.
His love for baseball arrived unexpectedly, hand in hand with Jennifer. A mutual acquaintance set him up with the curly-haired certified nurse midwife who’d grown up in Nashville (she is not blind). A die-hard Braves fan who’d made the long drive with her dad to games at the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Jennifer couldn’t help but naturally infuse her future husband with her love for the game.
OK, so maybe she cheated a little with the gummy bears.
Early on, in order to help Joey better understand baseball, Jennifer would have him mimic a pitcher’s motion by hurling a small stuffed animal. She’d create the layout of a ballfield on top of their bed, using checkers for the bases, straws for the baselines and gummy bears for the players.
“Here’s what a double play is, here’s what it means when (the announcers) say ‘he went first-to-third,’” Jennifer recalled.
“And every time one of the players was ‘out,’ I got to eat him,” Joey chuckled.
Married for 14 years this June, the Stuckeys catch almost every Braves game on radio or TV, unless they’re there in person (as many as eight games per season at The Ted). But this was to be their first ever home opener and they’d left nothing to chance.
They drove up from Macon on Thursday and spent the night in a nearby hotel. Around 4:15 p.m. on Friday, an Uber deposited them in the designated zone at SunTrust Park; after stopping to pay homage to the Cox statue, they were part of the first wave of fans entering when the gates finally opened 15 minutes later.
First stop was at Monument Garden, a collection of Braves plaques, historic jerseys, memorable artifacts and more. For almost 45 minutes, the couple seamlessly slipped into a routine of Jennifer narrating and Joey following up with questions and hands-on observations.
“They have home plate, and then his outstretched bat connecting with the ball as he swings,” she told him as they stood in front of the new statue of Henry Aaron.
“Oh, wow, you can actually feel the stitches on the ball,” he marveled after using his hands to trace the path of Hammering Hank’s swing.
Seeing a game with Stuckey is unique. He doesn’t bring a radio with him, preferring instead to listen to Jennifer’s descriptions and the “unfiltered” sounds coming from the crowd and the field. He sometimes knows a ball is foul almost before it leaves the bat, just by the sound it makes; he can’t really do the wave (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), explaining, “I’m not very good at the timing.”
In many ways, though, he’s a classic fan. He arrived toting his own, game-used foam rubber tomahawk. He gave Aaron a standing ovation even before the pregame ceremony announcer got the home run king’s name out. He dropped hot dog mustard on his shirt, booed a couple of calls by the umps and hung around long after the Braves’ 5-2 win over the San Diego Padres for the postgame fireworks (Jennifer really likes them).
“Being in this stadium on this night is really, really important,” Stuckey. “Because life is about experiences, especially shared moments when we can all feel a little less alone.”
Just like that, though, he went from philosopher to purely biased observer:
“And the Braves won. It doesn’t get any better than that!”