By Jessica Baker, Contributing Writer
It’s a beautiful Sunday on October 13th at the Sunset Hills Athletic Complex in South County. Four fields have games, crowds are cheering, and in the distance a faint beeping can be heard from each field. A batter steps up to the plate on field three with assistance from the pitcher. The batter requires assistance due to wearing a blindfold, along with almost every player on the field. This isn’t a crazy drinking game; this is Beepball.
Beepball is a modified baseball game for the visually impaired. MindsEye, a nonprofit for the blind located in the Metro East area, hosts two local Beepball tournaments a year. The National Beep Baseball Association has been in place since 1976 and currently has 37 official teams across the United States. They also have a national tournament, which will take place in Iowa this year.
Beepball, also known as Beep Baseball, was created to provide stimulating physical activity for the blind community while also providing an even playing field. “Many players were athletes before losing their vision, and Beepball gives them a chance to remain active,” said MindsEye President and CEO Jason Frazier. “But it’s also a fun team-building exercise for all! The majority of our teams for tournaments are actually fully-sighted people.” Teams range from donors, staff members, other nonprofit organizations- even a realty team takes the field.
Out on the field, there are two foam bases that are each set up on the first and third plate. These handmade bases have a square foundation which holds a speaker, and a foam cylinder protrudes from the top at about four feet so that the blindfolded runners may run into it without pain. The base has a nylon cover to protect it from damage and the elements. The MindsEye staff handmakes these bases based on the official bases used in the National Beepball League. They have found that by making the bases at a fraction of the price, they can keep costs down for their tournament participants.
Aside from the players on the field are a field general, a head umpire, another umpire, and the base flipper. The field general’s job is to make final decisions on calls if the umpires cannot agree and to keep score.
As far as calls, there are no balls in Beepball, only foul calls and strikes. Four strikes equal an out, and three outs concludes the time at bat. The head umpire instructs the teams on when to lower their blindfolds and makes fair or foul calls. The other umpire is in the outfield, and also helps to make fair or foul calls that the head umpire cannot see. The ball must clear the infield (ten feet between the batter and outfield, the same distance between the pitcher and batter) in order to be considered fair, and it can roll over the fair line.
The base flipper’s job is to turn on the bases- which produce a loud sound when the switch is flipped- when contact is made with the ball, but they have to be careful to turn on the base away from the direction the ball went. In Beepball, you do not automatically run to first base. The outfield players are blindfolded, and they must rely on two spotters located near the baselines and in the outfield. The spotters are two players who are not blindfolded, and their job is to call out which player must try to find the ball. They are not allowed to give directions such as right or left; they can only call out the name of the player chosen to chase the ball. Because the outfielders are blindly and frantically searching for the ball, it’s important to have the baserunner go to the base farthest from where the ball landed to avoid a head-on collision.
I was the field general on field three at this tournament, and it was my first time witnessing anything like Beepball. Our first two teams were Cowboy Bebop, a group of friends that learned of the sport from their friend who happens to be the fundraising chair for MindsEye, and Amyx, a donor. The president of MindsEye’s board is also on this team.
It’s important to note the pitcher and batter are on the same team, so teamwork is of the utmost importance. The pitcher pulls a pin in the baseball, which is slightly larger than a softball, and the ball begins to beep. The pitcher instructs the batter to prepare for the swing with a “Ready, set, SWING!” and they work as a team to make contact. This is a phrase I heard over 50 times in one hour. Cowboy Bebop is up to bat and Nick is the first batter. He lowers his blindfold, and swings wildly. The pitcher, Matt, ducks after each pitch because he is only ten feet away and if Nick makes contact with the ball with that swing, it’s going straight at Matt’s face. Nick makes contact on the second swing, the ball is declared fair and the Base Flipper activates the base furthest from the ball as Nick tries to find the base by sound alone.
On the field the blindfolded Amyx outfielders are spinning in circles with their arms out, trying to identify where the ball has landed. Debbie calls out a player’s name, and they begin scrambling frantically on the ground trying to locate the beeping ball. If they touch the ball before Nick touches the base, he will be out. Nick runs directly into the base and takes him down with him, eliciting laughs from his friends and team members. One point Cowboy Bebop. Cowboy Bebop proceeded through the tournament until they faced the STL Firing Squad, who ultimately knocked them out of the tournament.
STL Firing Squad is the only nationally recognized Beepball team playing in this tournament, and they have visually impaired players. They travel across the U.S. competing in Beepball tournaments during the season. Some of their players travel to other states to play on their teams, like Atlanta, Georgia. The Firing Squad is one of two teams that have visually impaired players. They are the most enthusiastic of all of the teams, and their cheers could be heard from every field. Lighthouse for the Blind is the other team with visually impaired players, and they have custom made their own tournament shirts. “We have teams that go all out,” said Beepball Program Coordinator Mike Curtis, “They make shirts with nicknames, they invite their friends- it’s something they look forward to. It’s a fun team-building exercise because the blindfolds put everyone on the same level, and requires teamwork to win.”
The winner of the Fall Classic tournament was STL Firing Squad for the second year in a row. They defeated the STL Redbirds and Tournament MVP pitcher, Ashley Rench 5-4. Food and beer trucks were present throughout the day, and at the end of the tournament people from all teams sit together under the pavillion enjoying sausages and beer, teasing each other over their worst plays.
Although the official Beepball tournament season is over, Mike continues to give demonstrations of the unique sport at schools, businesses, and by request. “We hope to have an official Metro East team by spring of next year!” Mike said, “Beepball is growing in popularity, and that’s a great thing.”