On April 6, baseball teams all over the U.S. laced up their cleats for the first games of the season, setting the sports world abuzz with excitement.
But it wasn’t Opening Day for all baseball players. For the men and women of the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA), there is no distinct Opening Day. Their seasons start anywhere from March until May. But their passion level is absolutely as high as anyone in the MLB.
Beep baseball, or beep ball, is an adapted version of baseball for players who are blind or visually impaired. According to an article by Texas Monthly, its humblest beginnings go back to 1964, when a telephone engineer stuck a circuit board and a speaker into a gutted softball, creating the beat ball, which emits a sound like a backing up moving van when thrown. Eleven years later, John Ross–an ambitious blind man who wanted real, challenging baseball for blind athletes–took the beep ball and fashioned a sport around it. A year later, in 1976, the NBBA saw its first World Series in St. Paul, MN.
Since then, beep ball has continued to grow, with this year looking to be its biggest yet, according to NBBA Second Vice President and Public Relations Chair Blake Boudreaux.
“This year we have more teams than usual. We have 34 registered teams this year,” Boudreaux said. “Those 34 teams include teams from Taiwan and from Canada.”
But, what actually is beep ball? How have the NBBA taken a sport based around keeping your eye on the ball and adapted it for those who can’t?
First, all players wears blindfolds, to make sure the blindness level is the same for everyone. There are six innings instead of nine, with three outs per inning, and four strikes instead of three. And then, there is the issue of pitching and batting.
Pitchers and catchers in beep baseball are fully sighted. And, unlike in traditional baseball, the pitcher and batter are on the same team. So, instead of trying to strike out the batter, the pitcher is trying to get a hit.
“When you’re up to bat, the pitcher’s going to give out a cadence like, ‘ready, set, pitch.’ And, depending on what your pitcher’s timing is, you’ll know when to swing and he’ll know where to place the ball. So, it’s kind-of a teamwork between your pitcher and the batter,” Boudreaux said.
The bases are also different. In beep ball, there are two instead of three and they are 4-foot-tall padded columns instead of plates. When a player hits a ball, a base operator flicks a switch that prompts one of the bases to start buzzing. Like with the ball, players then train their ears to know which base to run to.
“You have no clue which direction you’re going to until you hit,” Boudreaux said. “And then when you run to that, it’s 100 feet away, so you have to run to that base that’s buzzing and actually hit the base before someone in the field picks up the ball in the air.”
Defensively, players try to find the ball and lift it in the air before the batter makes it to the buzzing base. To help them do this, two or more sighted volunteers called Spotters call out a number, 1-6, to signify what part of the field the ball is on. If a player lifts the ball in the air before the batter hits the base, it’s an out. If they don’t, it’s a run. Baseball, in one play.
Aside from being pure fun, beep baseball also has a cultural impact on members of the blind community.
“Beep baseball is a really good sport as a role model to younger blind people that there are adapted sports that are available to them,” said Rusty Reams, Austin Blackhawks beep ball team PR woman and mother to the team’s founders, Wayne and Kevin Sibson. “And some people who have lost their sight later in life–if they played Little League or something like that when they were kids–this is something that they can certainly do.”
Mariano Reynoso, an Austin Blackhawk player, agreed with Reams: “I know most kids, sighted kids, at some point play baseball. And for most blind kids, that’s a good thing to try to be doing the same activities as the sighted kids.”
Reynoso added that beep baseball can also serve to help blind adults understand what is possible for them.
“It is a good social activity and it makes people feel like, ‘Well, I can play this at the same level as anybody else, as long as they’re blindfolded,’” Reynoso said. “Some people don’t know or don't think they can do anything. And playing beep baseball is quite far from not being able to do anything.”
Boudreaux thinks that beep baseball can also work to help sighted people change their ideas about the capabilities of blind individuals.
“Blindness is actually the most feared disability in the world,” Boudreaux said. “So, a lot of people have their stereotypes and their perceptions of blindness and what beep ball does [for] the people who come out and watch or get to see the sport [is] it gives them a whole new perspective on what people with disabilities and individuals who are blind are capable of.”