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Jun 09, 2008

Visually impaired ballplayers keep their ears on the ball.

By Tara Kyle

When Matthew Puvogel was a college junior, doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa. He has no night vision, his peripheral sight is steadily diminishing and he walks with a cane.

But he can still hit a line drive.

Puvogel is one of over 200 members of the National Beep Baseball Association, a league in which visually impaired adults play a modified form of the national pastime. Through six innings, they are guided by a beeping ball, buzzing bases and volunteer spotters who steer them around the field.

“I used to play baseball, so this lets me continue with it,” Puvogel says. “The feeling is a little bit different, but I love it now.”

Fifteen official teams from across the U.S. and one in Taiwan are competing now in tournaments that will culminate in August’s World Series of Beep Baseball in Houston.

The fundamentals of the game are similar to regulation baseball. Batters hit live pitches—pitchers and catchers are sighted—though they get four strikes.

Once a hitter puts the ball in play, he runs toward one of two bases (located where first and third are on a regular diamond) that buzz to help batters locate them. Fielders record an out if they gain possession of the ball before the batter gets to the base. If the batter reaches base safely, it counts as a run. In order to avoid mid-field collisions, there are no baserunners (and no second base).

Because some players, like Puvogel, are classified as “low vision,” while others are completely sightless, there’s another twist: everyone wears a blindfold. Players rely on volunteer spotters in the field to tell them where the ball is.

“The job in and of itself is actually very challenging,” says field spotter Christopher Mitchell, who got involved because his brother-in-law plays the game. “The thing is that you have to call the right spot, and also because they are blind, they sometimes move out of position when you’re not watching them. So you have to yell out, ‘oh wait, move to your right or your left.’”

Watch our short documentary of the Bombers, a unique baseball team, as they practice and go to competitionBlind Bombers

When Ted Fass founded the Long Island Bombers a decade ago, his team consisted of just three athletes playing in the back of an elementary school. Today, the Bombers have grown to ten players and practice weekly at a local recreation center.
“Each year, we get better and better, and it becomes like a family,” says Fass, who lost his vision at age 11 to a tumor blocking his optic nerve. “To me, the reward is just keeping everyone together.”

Financing, resources and recruitment, however, pose lingering challenges for teams like the Bombers.

New beeping balls run $35—nearly three times the cost of a Major League baseball. It’s not uncommon to go through five to ten balls per game, as when they’re hit hard, the beep of a ball can weaken, slow or stop entirely. And at present, no company is making the foam cylinder bases, which cost nearly $500 per set.

Because the players can’t drive themselves to games, teams rely on volunteers who are willing to give up their free time to provide transportation to and from three-hour practices. And since there are so few teams nationally, those commutes can be long. “My brother’s team in Texas, I think some people travel an hour and half just to come to practice,” says Andrea Eliason, whose brother plays for the Austin Blackhawks.
Finding enough players to field a team can also be an obstacle.

“Some blind people are fearful of the game,” says Bombers captain and shortstop Jim Hughes. “Some people we’ve gotten involved with, they had never run at full speed in their lives.”

For the athletes who do sign up, many say that the most rewarding moments come when observers and sighted teams they play demonstration games against get past the novelty of their impairments and appreciate the sport for itself.

“That’s the beauty,” says Hughes. “When people forget that you’re blind, and they’re just watching an actual sport.”
Read our second floor text about the telephone engineer who invented beep baseball, and how the sport has evolved since.In our interactive feature, learn how to hit what you cannot see. Each position in the field and the unique rules of the game are explained.From blind distance running and skiing, to swimming and goalball, our how-to guide to visually impaired sports lets you in the secrets of the games.

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