Oct. 28, 2011
By Jon Cooper
A common hitting tip in softball or baseball is “See the ball.”
That’s impossible for the visually impaired and, logically, would render any chance of them playing the game impossible as well.
But given a chance, nothing is impossible; Even the visually impaired playing baseball — or at least a reasonable facsimile.
Today at Coan Park and Recreation Center in Kirkwood the Georgia Tech softball team will see just how possible it can be, when they take part in an exhibition game against the Atlanta Eclipse Beep Ball Team. The game begins around 10 a.m.
The team was actually introduced to the offshoot of the sport last Saturday.
“We had a Georgia Blind Sports exhibition game, which included baseball, kickball, and goalball and the Georgia Tech women’s softball team agreed to help us out,” said Judy Byrd, who has volunteered at the Center for the Visually Impaired for three years and formed the Atlanta Eclipse a year ago. “They did a wonderful job. They were so pleasant, and had fun and they got to watch the Beep Baseball game. [Today] they’ll get to come back and play the Beep Baseball team.”
If last Saturday was any indication, getting an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of the visually impaired players while sharing their passion to compete on the softball field should be an inspirational experience.
“Being a part of Beep Baseball was a tremendous experience for our team,” said Georgia Tech assistant coach Shaina Ervin. “Not only did we get to support such a great event, we were able to connect with the talented players on the Atlanta Eclipse and get to know them in a way we will always remember.”
Saturday should create even more memories, as the Tech team will don blindfolds, take a position on the field and play the game.
While Beep Ball has some elements of baseball, there are some obvious differences and will be a departure from the game they’re used to play.
Games are six innings and each team fields six players. The pitcher, who is sighted and is provided by the hitting team, stands 20 feet away from the batter and lofts a ball the size of a softball. The ball beeps as it approaches the plate and continues to beep once contact is made.
The pitcher is key to the game. He must shout two clear audible commands, to guide the hitter as well as the fielders. The commands are along the lines of “Ready,” then ‘Pitch!” or “Ball!.” The former serves as a warning to the team in the field that a pitch is coming. The latter lets the hitter know a pitch is on the way. The batter is allowed four strikes, but the fourth must be a clean miss.
Once contact is made, the batter attempts to run to either first or third base (there is no second base) depending on whether he or she is a left- or right-handed hitter, before the fielding team gets possession of the ball. The batter must touch the base, which is a four-foot tall padded cylinder with speakers (to help the runner) that is located 100 feet out from home plate and 10 feet off the foul line.
The goal of the defensive team is to pick up the batted ball — every hit ball must travel at least 40 feet to be considered in play — before the batter/runner reaches the base. There is no throwing the ball to another player.
The six players are assigned a number according to position (one for first base, two, right fielder, three, middle fielder, four, left field, five, third base and six, back fielder). There are two sighted spotters on the field, who call out a number to indicate in which direction the ball is headed.
While it’s not impossible to catch a ball in the air, there have been only five recorded instances of a ball being caught in the air in the history of the National Beep Baseball Association (N.B.B.A.), which dates to 1975.
The current game has come a long way from its origins that actually go back 10 years earlier. The first Beep Ball was designed by Charley Fairbanks, an engineer with Mountain Bell Telephone, to help find an activity for a local school for the blind.
“Beep Baseball rules back then that just didn’t fly,” said Byrd, the Eclipse’s manager. “They were too restrictive. They wouldn’t let people run, they just weren’t letting people have fun. It didn’t go anywhere until about the mid-70s, when they redesigned the rules and made the ball better. Then, all of a sudden the sport just took off.”
Byrd, who took the Eclipse to the Beep Ball World Series in Indianapolis over the summer, and whose son, Michael, is the pitcher for the team, believes awareness of the game through events like Saturday will open doors and offer hope to the visually impaired of all ages who may have felt they would never get an opportunity to experience the run and dive on a baseball infield or roam outfield grass.
“A lot of the people playing Beep Baseball now are older teenagers and adults who, as a general rule, had to sit on the sidelines for years and years and years until Beep Baseball came about,” she said. “So it allows them to get out on the field and enjoy the sport they’re used to hearing about.”
Seeing the game and the fervor of the players impressed Ervin and made an impression on Tech’s softball team.
“Their hard work and joy for the game of baseball despite not being able to fully see revamped our love for the game we are all so fortunate to be a part of,” she said.
There is no charge for the event, although donations are encouraged, and all proceeds will go to the Atlanta Beep Baseball Team.
You can friend Atlanta Beep Baseball and BeepKickBall on Facebook.