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'Beep Baseball' A Homerun With Blind Players

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'Beep Baseball' A Homerun With Blind Players

Sports

'Beep Baseball' A Homerun With Blind Players

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Starting this weekend, 20 baseball teams meet in Georgia for a world series that's a little different from the one you're used to. Most of the athletes who will be on the field are blind. These players listen for the ball, which is equipped with a special sound.

The Northwest News Network's Jessica Robinson takes us to Spokane, Washington, where a new team is learning to play this twist on America's pastime.

JESSICA ROBINSON, BYLINE: The air smells like cut grass and barbecue at Friendship Park in North Spokane. And Bee Yang is up to bat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Get them, Bee. Get them, Bee.

ROBINSON: Yang steps up to the plate; he gets some help from a teammate who has partial vision.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Keep going, 20 feet forward. Ten, five, home plate, tap.

ROBINSON: The outfielders get ready. Yang is known here as a power hitter. The infielders at first and third guard bases that look like blue foam pillars. Yang listens for the pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Watch. You watching?

ROBINSON: Yang swings. He hits the ball and takes off toward first base, which has started buzzing. Over in left field, a player scrambles after the beeping ball. But Yang reaches the base first.

(APPLAUSE)

BEE YANG: I was so shocked to hit it.

ROBINSON: Welcome to Beep Baseball, named for the beeping sound the balls make. Twenty-six U.S. teams, plus one in Taiwan, make up the National Beep Baseball Association. Troy Leeberg is the coach of the Spokane team. Like many of the players here, the last time he was on a baseball diamond was in high school.

TROY LEEBERG: But with my vision I couldn't see the ball coming to hit it. So, you know, they finally just said, Oh, you're just the ball boy now, you know. But now I'm 45 and now this is our second season here.

ROBINSON: In this version of the game, you score a run by reaching a base before the opposing team's outfielders pick up the ball. In all of Beep Baseball history, there have been only five balls caught in mid-air. There's no second base. And the pitcher, who has at least some vision, is on your own team.

The evolution of this sport mirrors a shift in thinking about disabilities in the U.S. Back when the game began in Colorado in the 1960s, there was no running, no diving after the ball. And players were bundled up in all sorts of padding. They found the game boring. It finally took off in the 1970s, when the rules of Beep Baseball were revised to be less protective.

Vivian Huschke lost her vision after college.

VIVIAN HUSCHKE: If I did running it was like, you know, sighted guides, holding on with somebody chained with somebody. So when they said, Yeah, you're going to run from there to the base, I go with no cane, no sighted guide, you just run free? You know.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready.

ROBINSON: Beep Baseball games are full of jokes that might seem politically incorrect elsewhere. Keep your eye on the ball, they'll banter. At one point half the field cracks up when one player hits the ball and her teammate unknowingly congratulates the wrong person.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What's up? Bee, good job.

That was Teri.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Teri Fimpel says Beep Baseball is a rare place, where she doesn't have to explain herself or her disability.

TERI FIMPEL: So it's just, I don't know, it's like our own private little world. It's like our own private little community that we can talk and be ourselves. But yet, you know, have the understanding that we're all equal.

ROBINSON: The Spokane team may take a break from practice next week to listen to the final game in the World Series of Beep Baseball on a live webstream. For these players it isn't blindness that unites the team. It's just a love of baseball.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Robinson in Spokane.

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