Play It by Ear

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 23, 2015

“I love the winning; I can take the losing; but most of all I love to play.”
Boris Becker

If you read my column regularly you know that I love baseball. I grew up playing it. The smell of the glove, the crack of the bat, the feel of the ball, all bring back countless childhood memories. On the farm where I grew up, we made a softball diamond in the area where there had been some old apple trees. But when they came down, we found enough space to put up a back stop and have enough distance to have a nice outfield. 

Many evenings we hurried our milking and feeding chores with the animals so we could hurry to that old softball field where we would play with some of our neighborhood friends until it was too dark to see the ball. I am not sure where we got all the energy but we seemed to have an ample supply for work and play.

I enjoy the fine points of the game, like stealing bases, bunting, the coaches signs, tagging up from third base on a fly ball to the outfield, and even explaining what a “balk” is. Just being around the game connects me deeply to places of long ago. 

Of course, eyesight is extremely important to baseball. Bryan was drafted into the major leagues just as he graduated from high school in Reading, Pennsylvania and eventually became a substitute for Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Chicago White Sox. Unfortunately, a bean ball hit him in the face and almost blinded him in one eye immediately ending his professional baseball career. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learned there was such a thing as baseball for the blind. According to a cover story by Mark Strassmann (Nov. 2, 2014) it is called “Beep Baseball.” He tells the story of Brandon Chessor, a 32-year-old father of four who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease.

In his younger years when he could still see, he loved competing in sports. But eight years ago when he met his future wife, Pam, who is also blind, he told her of his love of sports. It was then that she told him about the Austin Blackhawks and “beep baseball” – baseball for the blind.

Beep baseball began 40 years ago. A telephone engineer named Charles Fairbanks created a ball, slightly larger than a softball, incorporating an old telephone speaker and a circuit module that beeped.

Today more than two dozen teams compete in the U.S., Taiwan and the Dominican Republic, using rules adapted for blind athletes. The National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) was organized in 1976 with the World Series held each year in August.

There are only two bases, first and third, each marked by a padded pylon. When a batter hits a fair ball, a random beep tells him which base to run to. If he touched the base before a fielder gets hold of the beeping ball, it’s a run. If not, it’s an out. 

In this game, the pitcher — the only player who can see — is on the same team as the batter. The pitcher calls “get ready” and the batter listens for the beep and times the swing.

Beep baseball generally has six innings. The extra-innings rules used in major league baseball generally apply to beep baseball. There are no age or gender-based restrictions on beep baseball; people as old as 70 and as young as 12 have played.

Lest you think this game is for the faint of heart or passionless, Strassmann asked how competitive it really is. Chesser replied, “You’re talking about grown men and women playing a sport where they’ll do anything to get that championship title.”

No wonder Babe Ruth said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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