In Beep Ball, Umpires Aren't Blind, But the Players Are
West Coast Dawgs, in League's World Series, Demonstrate Their Ear for the Game
By BEN WORTHEN
STOCKTON, Calif. -- At the crack of the bat, Mike Finn says he knew he had a chance to make the play. He took a few steps to his left as the ball bounced in front of him, reached up with both hands and snagged it when it short-hopped into his chest.
For most baseball players, the key to such a catch is watching the ball all the way into the glove. But Mr. Finn, 40 years old, says he instead "focused in on the sound and tried to hear the thud" the ball made when it hit the ground. He has been blind since he was 2 years old.
Mr. Finn is one of the top players of beep baseball, a version of the national pastime for the blind. The game he was playing in recently was beep baseball's World Series, where his team, the West Coast Dawgs, was competing in the finals against Homerun, a team from Taiwan. After a brief pause, as sighted spectators told blind ones about Mr. Finn's catch, the crowd burst into applause.
Because teams play with balls that beep, fans are expected to remain quiet. Guide dogs are cared for by volunteers, and players often use canes to find the field.
Players have heard all the jokes -- and tell many of them. When players elect not to swing at a pitch, teammates yell "good eye." They compare themselves to Major League Baseball with one-liners: "At least our umpires are sighted."
For all its quirks, beep baseball is a challenging and physically demanding sport. "People don't think it's serious until they see a game or participate in it," says Joe Wood, vice president of the National Beep Baseball Association. "They have a preconception about what a blind person can do, and this shows them we can do a hell of a lot."
Andre Dawson, who hit 438 home runs during a 21-year big-league career with teams including the Chicago Cubs, witnessed beep baseball about 20 years ago and walked away with respect for the game. The idea of hitting a baseball without being able to see seemed impossible, he says. "The courage to go out and attempt it speaks volumes for their love for the sport."
Beep baseball in its current form was invented by some blind ballplayers in Minnesota in 1975. The first World Series was held the next year, and it has since become an annual midsummer event. Under the game's rules, players use an oversized softball that's rigged with parts from decommissioned pay phones that emit a steady beep. Batters time their swings by listening to the balls, which weigh about a pound.
Since the game's inventors figured blind people running around a traditional diamond would have too many collisions, beep baseball is played with two 4-foot-tall, foam-padded bases, each 100 feet from the batter and situated in the same direction as first and third base in a traditional game. When the batter hits the ball, one of the bases buzzes and the batter races toward it. If the batter reaches the base before a fielder picks up the ball, he scores a run. Otherwise, he's out.
The rules promote reckless abandon -- fielders diving in the direction they think the ball is headed, and batters barreling full speed into the bases because they aren't sure where to stop. "It's easy to run into each other," says Lupe Perez, a Dawgs outfielder. Players rely on sighted coaches to yell "stop!" when a collision is imminent, but the system isn't perfect. Late in the finals, Mr. Perez hyperextended his knee when he tripped over a diving teammate.
But while the sport is more than 30 years old, there are only 17 registered beep baseball teams in the U.S., according to the NBBA. Many teams find it difficult to land new recruits. "It's hard just to find blind people who aren't afraid to come out of their houses, let alone risk injury by playing a sport," says Jennifer Boylan, who helped found her beep-baseball team, the Stockton Stingrays, in 2003.
When trying to put the Stingrays together, Ms. Boylan said she recruited "any blind person who could walk upright." In order to field a team at first, the Stingrays had a player who was also deaf. A liability on the field, "he was a real trooper," Ms. Boylan said.
The Dawgs, the team Messrs. Finn and Perez play for, are widely considered the league's top club.
Dawgs players practice all year for the World Series. Chance Cranford, a Dawgs member who started playing beep baseball in 2001, says he lifts weights almost every day and takes fielding and batting practice twice a week. The World Series "is the week I spend all year waiting for," says the 26-year-old, who was blinded in a hunting accident 12 years ago.
Preparation for this year's World Series began in 2007 and involved extra logistics. The Stockton Sports Commission spent more than $30,000 for buses to transport the players and sponsored events. Volunteers had to be recruited to look after guide dogs, help players find the fields, and fix broken balls and bases.
Staffers at the nearby Hilton hotel, the official World Series digs, had several hours of sensitivity training in advance of the contest, says George Kaplanis, the general manager there. Workers were told to replace clothes and other items in the exact spot a guest left them, and to always put the shampoo to the left of the conditioner. The hotel stocked its restaurant with Braille menus and set aside a grass-and-gravel area outside for dog walking, says Mr. Kaplanis, the hotel manager.
The games kicked off on the last Tuesday of July, with 13 U.S. teams and the one from Taiwan playing a double-elimination-style tournament.
The competitive juices flowed. On one particularly close play between the Taiwanese team and the Kansas All-Stars, a batter from Taiwan hit a sharp ground ball that an All-Stars fielder bobbled but eventually corralled. The batter reached the base a step ahead of the catch, and the umpire ruled the batter safe. "What do you mean?" the blind fielder protested, demanding the umpire check with other officials.
"It's funny at first" when people who can't see question a call, said Kenneth Bailey, the tournament's head umpire. Players say it's funnier when a teammate who isn't involved in the play questions a call. That happens, too.
In the finals, the Dawgs got revenge on the Taiwanese team, which had beaten them the last time the teams played, in 2006. In the first inning, the Dawgs scored eight runs and nine in the second, and then relied on defense to close out the game 17 to 11 to win the World Series.
Mr. Finn went four for four and recorded six outs in the field, including the catch of the ball that short-hopped into his chest. He also closed out the game, smothering a fly ball with his body, and prompting other Dawgs to jump on him in celebration. "I just lay there and took it all," says Mr. Finn.
Write to Ben Worthen at firstname.lastname@example.org