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Build it, and they will come. Indeed. For thousands of blind and visually impaired athletes, baseball was once a game playable only on a field of dreams; until the early '70s, that is, when Telephone Pioneers of America volunteers came up with the idea to place a sound-emitting device and a tiny speaker . . . inside a softball. And so, Beep baseball was born. Suddenly, the national pastime became a game for the sighted and sightless alike. "It's every bit a dream come true," says Joe Wood of Atlanta, first baseman with the Fastar Comet beep baseball team. We talked with Wood as he packed his bags for the 1998 World Series of Beep Baseball, held last month in Oklahoma City. "Thanks to the Pioneers, we can enjoy baseball just like everybody else," said Wood, who is also vice president of the National Beep Baseball Association. "Being able to compete, to be part of a team, to be winners - it's a blast!".
The centerpiece of the game, and the Telephone Pioneers' primary contribution, continues to be the beep-ball itself-a minor marvel of engineering. From the outside, the beep-ball is much like any other softball, except for its 16-inch size, a removable on/off plug and a cluster of small speaker holes punched into the leather cover. Inside, however, the ball contains two electronic circuit boards, three nickel-cadmium batteries and a speaker from a telephone handset. Recharging the batteries is the only required maintenance.
The modern beep-ball was introduced in 1973 by Pioneers at Lucent Technologies' Merrimack Valley Works in North Andover, Mass. The beep-ball is produced exclusively by Telephone Pioneers, a non-profit volunteer organization of 800,000 communications industry employees and retirees. The original beep-ball dates back to 1964, when Charley Fairbanks of Mountain Bell (now US WEST) first inserted a rudimentary sound device into a regulation-size softball. While this prototype served to bring the game of baseball closer to a reality for blind people, the first Pioneer beep-ball had one serious drawback-"It just didn't hold up very well when struck by a bat," laughs Wood, "which is kind of key to the whole thing. But it was a start."
Today's beep-balls, which are made in assembly line fashion by teams of Pioneers at Lucent Technologies, U S WEST and Southwestern Bell, can last an entire season or more. More than 20,000 beep-balls have been distributed to teams in every state and province in the U.S. and Canada. Balls have also been sent to South America, Europe, the Far East and Australia.
Pioneers begin the production process by unstitching an area of the ball and removing a section of its core. Over subsequent weeks, circuit boards are built, speakers are affixed and batteries are added. The internal components are then soldered together and seated in a small plastic cylinder, which is filled with an epoxy adhesive. Once the potting agent has been allowed to cure, the cylinder is hand-fitted into the beep-ball's open core. A circle of small holes is then punched in the leather cover and the ball is re-stitched and readied for distribution.
It's still three outs per inning, and a ball that clears the outfield perimeter at 180 feet is a home run. But, as one might expect, the game does have some unique differences from regular baseball. For instance, in beep baseball there are only six players per side, all blind or visually impaired. To ensure complete fairness, each player wears a blindfold. Batters are also allowed four strikes instead of only three, and fielders don't wear gloves. Every hit scores a run.
Also, there are only two bases - 1st and 3rd, and each is a four-foot padded cylinder with speakers. The bases, which are produced by Pioneers at Southwestern Bell, are placed 100 feet down their respective baselines. In order that the players can hear the ball and the bases, spectators must be remain quiet during the play. All cheering is reserved for when a play is completed. Perhaps the biggest difference between beep baseball and regular baseball is that both the pitcher and the catcher, who are sighted, are part of the offensive team.
The action in beep baseball begins with the catcher, who is familiar with where his teammate at the plate likes to hit the ball, setting the target for the pitcher, who stands 20 feet away. Before each pitch, the pitcher calls "ready" to alert the batter and those in the field that the ball is about to be released. As he begins his underhand toss, the pitcher calls out "pitch" or "ball." The batter then knows to allow a split second to pass before swinging at the sound of the beeping ball. When contact is made, a sideline official throws a switch that causes one of the bases to sound with a high-pitched whistle. The batter must quickly identify the direction in which to run and, in order to score, must reach the base before the ball is fielded and held up by the defensive player.
In the field, teams use a numbering system to identify the players' defensive positions. The first baseman is 1, right fielder 2, middle fielder 3, left fielder 4, third baseman 5 and back fielder 6. On each side of the field is a sighted spotter who, once the ball is put in play, calls out a number indicating the general direction to which the ball has been hit.
Many teams keep individual statistics, and it is not uncommon for teams to have several players with batting averages above .500. Playing defense, however, can actually be the most challenging part of the game. Good defensive players perfect the skill of using their bodies and the ground to block or trap balls. "We don't snatch balls out of the air," says Wood, "but any player will tell you there's almost nothing better than diving left or diving right to field a ball cleanly and get the out."
Perhaps beep baseball's greatest contribution is the bridge it is creating between the sighted and the sightless. Certainly, the sport owes much to those who can see: to the pitchers, catchers and coaches, to the umpires, scorekeepers and other officials . . . to those who provide transportation to practices and games . . . to those who make the ball. If there is a debt, however, it is repaid inning after inning. "There is a lot of athleticism and the competition is pretty fierce," Wood said. "Sighted people tend to walk away from a game with a new appreciation for what blindness is all about." Indeed. And with that appreciation comes the understanding that beep baseball, despite its different rules, isn't really about seeing or about disability at all. It's about believing. It's about ability.
By Bob Toye