The 2007 National Beep Baseball World Series -- baseball played in the dark, so to speak, specially adapted for those who can't see -- starts today in Rochester. And it might be the only major sporting event that creates as many challenges for players in the hotel lobby as on the field.
With a certain awed fascination, Rochester is being invaded this week by 14 teams averaging 20 players each -- men and women who find their way around with their noses, their toes and their canes, situating themselves by the smell of a Starbucks, or by the place in the hotel lobby where the carpet gives way to something smooth and hard.
Thousands of miles from home and the memorized routines of home and work, "we are way out of our 'comfort zones,' " said Frank Facio, of San Diego, who plays for Houston.
Everyone coming in for the games is from out of state: No Minnesotans are taking part. A Minnesota team won the first World Series, in 1975. But the sport fizzled here in the '90s.
"If we played against one of these teams with our team, we'd look sick," said Tom Heinl of St. Paul, who played on the first national championship team in '75 but now makes do with a recreational team.
Beepball is based on a 1960s invention at Mountain Bell, a predecessor of Qwest, which is sponsoring this year's games.
In essence, a player -- pitched to by a sighted teammate -- has to detect the beeping, softball-sized ball, strike it and then race toward a buzzing base, reaching it before a fielder manages to grasp and control the beeping ball, having been alerted by its sound.
As in golf, spectators must be silent during the action, so that players can hear the sounds -- and hear any warning from sighted helpers that players are heading for collisions.
Preparing for the series
To help prepare the players, the national beepball group offered them an Internet-based "virtual tour" of the main headquarters hotel and the area around it. Steve Guerra, of New York, visited in March as an advance scout and produced the audio broadcast.
"I'm the type of person, if a group of blind people are standing in a circle, I'm the person outside the circle figuring out, 'OK, how do I guide these guys?' " he said. "I'm like a bull in a china shop unfortunately. I won't say 'trailblazer' but the guy out ahead of the group, leading the way."
At the Kahler Grand Hotel, ground zero for tournament participants, vases on the check-in desk were removed for this week after Guerra bumped into them on his winter visit. Stickers will go on key cards -- a way for the blind to know which side is which.
About 50 people who work in and near the hotel attended an entertaining session on things to keep in mind in responding to blind customers, said Julie Haldeman, sales manager at hotel. For instance: "If a waitress brings a Coke, don't just walk away; they would like to know if you did set it down, so they don't knock it over with their elbow."
Conversations with blind athletes themselves, now that they are arriving, suggest that theirs is an inside-out world in which, for instance, a national chain of identical stores, criticized by others for the sameness, comes as a relief to them -- a familiar layout in a strange place.
Even the chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, lamented earlier this year in a leaked memo that his chain has come to be seen as "sterile" and "cookie cutter." But beepball players don't mind.
"If you're familiar with how a Starbucks is set up," Guerra said, "it's a relatively easy maneuver."
Similarly, the presence of a Perkins restaurant within close range of his hotel came as a relief to Paul Trujillo, of the Denver team, who knows the chain from his hometown.
Beyond that sort of help, he said, "I just do it. If I get lost, I get lost. ... Unfortunately, just about the time I've familiarized myself, I'll be leaving."