Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sight Unseen -- Blind Woman Throws First Pitch at Dodger Stadium

Lorri Bernson delivers the first pitch as her guide dog, Carter looks
on prior to the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. Many local guide dogs in training were on hand to
watch the event. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

by Dennis McCarthy
L.A. Daily News
August 30, 2011

Lorri Bernson was having a bad case of game day jitters on Monday.

In a few hours, the 48-year-old Encino woman would be walking out to the mound at Dodger Stadium - accompanied by her guide dog, Carter - to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

She's been practicing with friends at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park - listening for the catcher's voice and the sound of the ball hitting leather to judge the distance and arc of her throw.

It's tough enough for sighted people to make the throw from the front of the mound to home plate. Imagine not being able to see home plate at all.

But Bernson knew she'd have some help out there. Carter would be at her side to nudge her in the right direction if she got turned around.

Guide dogs in training line up along the first base line as Lorri
Bernson delivers the first pitch with her guide dog, Carter prior
to the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

Monday was a big night for Guide Dogs of America, the Sylmar-based nonprofit organization that teams up 50 dogs a year with people who have lost their sight.

Bernson lost her sight to diabetes in 1995, and came here in 2002 to train with her first guide dog, Nigel, a golden retriever she retired last year at age 10.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but it was time," Bernson says. "He was slowing down, losing his reflexes and quickness to respond.

"He did his job for eight years. He protected and loved me."

She often gets asked if Nigel - now back living with the couple who trained him as a puppy - ever saved her life?

"Every day I walked out of my apartment," Bernson answers. That's how important guide dogs are to the blind.

When Ned Colletti, the Dodger's general manager, visited the Sylmar facility late in 2009, Bernson asked him if the Dodgers might be interested in sponsoring her and her new guide dog as they went through training together.

It wasn't cheap - about $40,000 for a dog bred to be trained as a guide dog, along with room and board for a month together at the facility and miscellaneous training costs.

"I was looking to donate to a group that makes an impact on lives and that's what Guide Dogs of America does," Colletti says.

"I have it written in my contract that I get to donate to the charity of my choice every year and the Dodgers will match it.

"Carter was our first and we had our second dog graduate in April. My goal is a third one by the end of the year."

So, officially, Carter is the first, real-life Dodger dog, says Bernson, trying to find a laugh to cure her game day jitters.

"At first I thought I'd have Carter take the ball in his mouth and bring it to the catcher," she say. "But that's not what guide dogs do. It would have sent the wrong message."

So, she would throw out the first pitch. It was in the dirt, a little wide. But it was close.

Lorri Bernson pets her guide dog Carter prior to throwing out the
first pitch at the Dodgers-Padres game at Dodgers Stadium on Monday,
Aug. 29, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

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