Monday, September 2, 2013

'Beep Baseball' A Homerun With Blind Players

Originally posted on NPR.org on July 24, 2013


Ryan Strickland takes a practice swing. Even though most players are legally blind, batters, basemen and outfielders all wear blindfolds in Beep Baseball so that people who can see shadows, for example, don't have an advantage.

The air smells like cut grass and barbecue at Friendship Park in north Spokane, Wash. And Bee Yang is up to bat. The outfielders get ready. Yang is known as a power hitter.

But this is not your usual baseball game. There's a twist: most of the athletes on the field are visually impaired. Players know where the ball is by listening for it. It's called Beep Baseball, named for the beeping sound the balls make.

Yang listens for the pitch.

He swings.

He hits the ball and takes off toward first base, which has started buzzing. Over in left field, a player scrambles after the beeping ball. But Yang reaches the base first.

Twenty-six U.S. teams, plus one in Taiwan, make up the National Beep Baseball Association, and starting this weekend, 20 teams will meet in Georgia for the World Series of Beep Baseball.

Troy Leeberg is the coach of the Spokane team. Like many of the players here, the last time he was on a baseball diamond was in high school.

"But with my vision, I couldn't see the ball coming to hit it, so they finally just said 'You're just the ball boy now.' But now I'm 45, and this is our second season here," Leeberg says.

In this version of the game, you score a run by reaching a base before the opposing team's outfielders pick up the ball. In all of Beep Baseball history, there have been only five balls caught in mid-air. There's no second base. The infielders at first and third guard bases that look like blue foam pillars. And the pitcher, who has at least some vision, is on your own team.

Kelsie Weir is the pitcher for the Spokane Pride, one of the positions in Beep Baseball that requires some vision. The balls contain an electronic beeping device so blind players can listen for it.

The evolution of the sport mirrors a shift in thinking about disabilities in the U.S. Back when the game began in Colorado in the 1960s, there was no running. No diving after the ball. And players were bundled up in all sorts of padding. They found the game boring.

It finally took off in the 1970s when the rules of Beep Baseball were revised to be less protective.

Vivian Huschke lost her vision after college.

"If I did running, it was like, sighted guides holding on, chained with somebody. So when they said, 'Yeah, you're going to run from there to the base,' it's like, 'With no cane, no sighted guide, you just run free?' "

Beep Baseball games are full of jokes that might seem politically incorrect elsewhere. "Keep your eye on the ball" they'll banter. At one point, half the field cracks up when one player hits the ball — and her teammate unknowingly congratulates the wrong person.

Teri Fimpel says Beep Baseball is a rare place where she doesn't have to explain herself or her disability.

"So it's just, I don't know, it's like our own private little world. It's like our own private community where we can talk and be ourselves, but yet have the understanding that we're all equal," Fimpel says.

The Spokane team may take a break from practice next week to listen to the final game in the World Series of Beep Baseball on a live stream. For these players, it isn't blindness that unites the team — it's just a love of baseball.



Word Definitions:
  • impaired: damaged or not functioning normally
  • buzzing: to make a sound like a bee (making a continuous low sound)
  • scramble: to move quickly, especially with difficulty, using your hands to help you
  • baseball diamond: the space inside the lines that connect the four bases; also used to mean the whole baseball field
  • outfielder: a player in the outfield
  • pillar: a large round stone, metal or wooden post that is used to support a bridge, the roof of a building, etc, especially when it is also decorative
  • pitcher: the player who throws the ball to the batter
  • disability: a physical or mental condition that means you cannot use a part of your body completely or easily, or that you cannot learn easily
  • banter: friendly remarks and jokes
  • crack up: [phrasal verb] to start laughing a lot
Pronunciation MP3s:
= impaired
= buzz
= scramble
= baseball
= diamond
= outfielder
= pillar
= pitcher
= disability
= banter
= crack up