by Kevin Burton
What some could see as just a game has enriched me as a person with low vision, in ways I could not have anticipated.
The sport is called beep baseball. It has been played in the United States since the 1970s and is now played in Canada, Taiwan and the Dominican Republic as well.
It is a version of baseball with rules modified to allow blind athletes to play.
Growing up in the 70s at the Ohio State School for the Blind, I knew everything about baseball, nothing about beep baseball.
My local team, The Cincinnati Reds was at the peak of its power. Who wouldn’t love baseball growing up in the shadow of the Big Red Machine?
Baseball was one of a very few things my father and I could talk about peaceably. That gave it a special resonance I didn’t grasp until years later. But it fueled my love for the sport.
Like many boys I spent hours throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall, dreaming of baseball glory, but with no real way to pursue it. I had partial vision, but not enough to play baseball in high school.
I loved everything about being an athlete. I distinctly remember after the final wrestling tournament my senior year, not wanting to take off the uniform.
“Once I take this uniform off, it’s over,” I thought.
Fast forward a few years. I have finished college and now exist at the outer edge of journalism, working part time for a weekly magazine. One day my editor calls me and says, “There is a sport called beep baseball. Go get me a story on beep baseball.”
I show up at a practice, with a notebook, not a bat. I ask the proper questions and mention to the coach as an aside that “I’m visually-impaired myself.”
After I’ve got my story, Randy, the coach says “Why don’t you just step in there, put on a blindfold and take a few swings.”
Randy is laughing up his sleeve, not because he thinks I’m going to look foolish, but because he knows just as sure as little boys love hotdogs, that once I hit the ball – even once – I am going to be hooked and he is going to have another player.
The rest is history, a very long history, but let’s look at parts of it here.
Beep baseball is a game where blind people and sighted people interact closely and depend on each other. The pitcher, catcher and two defensive helpers called “spotters” are sighted. The position players must be legally blind. They all wear blindfolds during the games to erase any unfair advantage partially-sighted people like me would get over players who are totally blind.
Having sighted people get to know blind people in a context of high achievement for the blind is a lesson that in no way stops when the last out is made.
A lecture on the achievements and potential of blind people is fine. But how much better to take a travelling baseball team around the country, or even the world, and make the case that way?
How many times have I heard it: “I never knew blind people could play baseball!” That was my opening, “Well there are things in the world of work that blind people can do, with some adaptations, that you probably didn’t know about either. Let’s talk about those things…”
Because running a beep baseball team is like running a small business, I and many other blind people got chances to lead, create and manage a budget, do fundraising and community outreach, public relations, all the things needed to keep a business afloat.
Given the reluctance of sighted hiring managers to hire blind people, those chances are few and far between in the work world.
Add to all this the benefit of staying in shape mentally and physically and you’ve got a sport that can be a huge part of a life well lived for blind players regardless of their physical abilities.
Just think, all this happened because a coach “tricked” me into jumping into a lifelong passion filled with joy, friends and memories.
Now that coach, Randy Stalcup, and I are team mates once again, on the USA Legends, the new team I mentioned Saturday (Let’s Hear It For Geezer Beepball, May 8)
I don’t know how all this will turn out, but I do know that beep baseball will always be at the very heart of me.