Want to play baseball? You're blind? No problem
It’s the final inning of a World Series game. At home plate, the batter anxiously waits for a pitch. As the crowd watches in silence, the hitter listens for a loud beeping noise. Suddenly the pitcher yells, "Ready, pitch!" With the noise racing towards him, the batter swings, makes impact and runs as fast as he can. When he crashes into the base, the fans burst into applause.
Welcome to the World Series of Beep Baseball, a competitive national championship for blind athletes. The sport, a modified version of America's popular ball game, may be one of the most overlooked disability sports in a country where the number of blind athletes has risen over the years.
"Whenever I speak to people about the game, most have never even heard about it," said James Sciortino, president and pitcher of the Long Island Bombers. "When I tell them, they are intrigued. And when they see it, they are amazed."
The Bombers are one of 17 mostly male beep baseball teams based in cities across the country, including Cleveland, Columbus, Boston, Chicago, Austin, Houston, Indianapolis, and Stockton, Calif. The sport is not limited to the United States, though. There's even a team in Taiwan.
"If you look from New York in the East to San Francisco in the West to Houston in the South and Chicago in the North, you find tremendous athletes," said Stephen Guerra, the press secretary of the National Beep Baseball Association. "They just happen to be blind."
The blind version of baseball began in 1964, when Charley Fairbanks, an engineer with Mountain Bell Telephone in Denver, invented the first sound-emitting baseball. As spring training soon begins for the league's 32nd season, blind teams will sometimes play sighted ones for educational purposes. But most players prefer competing against other blind athletes. The season’s highlight is the World Series in Houston at the end of July.
Baseball isn’t the only sporting choice for blind athletes who want to compete and socialize with other blind people. Since 1976, the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA)--through educational programs and marketing campaigns--has reached out to over 100,000 blind individuals who often don't have the opportunity to participate in high school or college sports. The association currently has an all-time high of 3,000 members in eleven sports, including cycling, skiing and wrestling.
"There are 56,000 blind and visually impaired children in the U.S.," said Mark Lucas, executive director of the USABA. "Blind sports provide them with the abilities we take for granted."
Many blind athletes have found that the benefits of athletic training extend beyond the playing field. "Sports teaches them the skills to compete and be confident, which they are able to take with them in any employment situation," said Lucas.
Sports also teaches patience and tolerance. Members of the National Beep Baseball Association, which last year had 287 registered players, are used to explaining their sport to strangers.
The beeping ball is a key component. So are the two sighted players on each team: the pitcher and the catcher. Unlike regular baseball, the pitcher and catcher play on the same team as the hitter. Positioned 20 feet from home plate, the pitcher yells verbal cues to alert the blind hitter that he’s about to throw the beep ball, which is the size of a softball and about as hard as a baseball. The hitter listens for the approaching ball and swings.
A good pitcher is able to aim the ball to meet the batter's swing.
"It’s comparable to baseball in that you are using your skill of placement, but in the opposite way," said Sciortino, 51. "Each hitter is different and you have to know their style."
Hitting the ball is no easy feat, explained Ted Fass, 56, a hitter and executive director of the Bombers, who lost his vision to a tumor at age 11. "You can’t see it, so your swing has to be consistent. You can equate it to golf. The mechanics have to be exact every single time."
All players wear blindfolds so that those who see some light or shapes won't have an advantage. When the batter hits the ball, the team’s six defensive players try to field it by listening for the very loud, high-pitched beep that comes from its built-in speaker. Sighted spotters help guide them by yelling out the position closest to the ball. Fly ball catches rarely happen.
The fielding can be dangerous. Occasionally, players collide.
"I'm the crash man on the team," Fass said about his tendency to run into other players. He once dove headfirst into a teammate. "They heard my neck crack at third base. I thought I was paralyzed." Luckily, he wasn’t.
Hitters are also at some risk. After they hit the ball, one of the two 4-foot-high foam “bases” randomly releases a buzzing noise. (Beep ball has no second base, so either first or third will be sound activated.) The hitter has to determine which base is buzzing and sprint towards it before a fielder finds the ball. If the hitter reaches the base in time, he scores a run.
"Somebody ran into a fence once,” said James Hughes, 39, a beep baseball defensive all-star, who has been blind since he was three. “That was pretty scary."
Like other players, Hughes loves the challenge despite the risks. "I have gotten hit with the ball pretty solidly," he said. “Thank God, I had a cup on once. My wife thinks I am crazy or stupid, I don't know which one. But I want to get the ball."
Beep baseball offers blind athletes a freedom they rarely have elsewhere. "As a player it’s a tremendous thrill,” said Fass. “It's an unbelievable feeling to not hold a shoulder, a cane or a dog. You’re just running down the base knowing there’s no wall in front of you."