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Image credit: National Beep Baseball Association

In the baseball literature course I teach, I’m always looking for something new to bring to the class, something to shift expectations while also telling a really good story—an interesting one. A thoughtful one. Something my students (and I) haven’t seen before. Imagine my delight at discovering Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind, a book that tells a cracking good story and is itself filled with players and personalities that understand the appeal of a tale well told. Researched and written by David Wanczyk (who is, in the spirit of disclosure, a former graduate school colleague), Beep is an exciting and intriguing investigation of baseball, but baseball from a distinctly different vantage than Baseball Prospectus readers might anticipate. In the interview and excerpt that follow, Wanczyk was kind enough to answer a few questions about Beep and to share a portion of the opening chapter.

BP: The game of beep baseball is, to my mind, inherently fascinating, but how did it arrive on your radar? When and how did what might have been simply an article or a series of articles coalesce into the book?

DW: I read about the rules of Beep Baseball in Harper’s Magazine in 2012. But that was the entire item in the magazine: the rules. I’d been writing about off-the-radar sports at that time—24-hour bike racing and wife-carrying—and Beep Ball seemed like a possibility for an article. Just by coincidence, I happened to be taking a trip from Ohio to Idaho in the summer of 2012, and the Beep Ball World Series was in Iowa that year. I stopped with a friend and wrote a quick piece for theclassical.org. I put the sport away, but the next year, looking for a bigger project, it announced itself again as rich terrain. There was competition, human interest, an international rivalry between the Austin Blackhawks and Taiwan Homerun, and—it became clear to me—some unforgettable redemption narratives. At the same time, all that high-drama sports stuff—the kind of thing that gets soundtracked by Fox’s anthems—got undercut beautifully by the sense of humor of the game and its players. There’s a kind of offhanded, reckless sense of glee in Beep Ball, and a number of the players swagger humbly. All of this told me a book was in order.

BP: In Beep, you discuss the highs and lows of your relationship with baseball, from playing as a kid to that magical moment for Red Sox fans in 2004. Indeed, that’s where the book begins: with the encompassing thrill of triumphs, the mythic metaphoric potential of baseball as applied to a writer’s life. You also explore the tempering effects of graduate school, fatherhood, work, and so on, on your fandom, but, of course, during the process of writing this book, beep ball obviously occupied a lot of time and space, and the energy of the game, the intense competitive drive of so many of the players reads dynamically, infectiously. Where are baseball and beep baseball in your life now?

DW: Baseball will always be a part of me. A parent almost. Something I go back to, cherish, feel as though I have mistreated or underappreciated. Something that was my childhood and is still a big part of how I think about the world, even though it can’t be quite as big as it was then. I don’t think that’s overstating it. I can’t remember a time when I learned the rules of the game. They were something I knew almost inherently, and I realize that as I try to explain to my six-year-old daughter what a stolen base is, or an infield fly rule, or even how to throw someone out. The language is kind of complicated, but it was a first language for me.

Right now? I don’t keep up as well as an ideal David would, but I watch a dozen games a year and add a new ballpark every two years or so—Pittsburgh being the most recent. As for Beep Baseball. It hasn’t replaced baseball, though I suggest in the book that it was a sort of replacement for my old love, a way to get back to competitive fandom. It’s true that it was. But I don’t root for a team the way I rooted for the Red Sox. I can’t have that unadulterated passion anymore. Still, there’s not a week when I don’t hear news about the game, and I’ll be going to my 5th World Series this year (July 30th – August 3rd, in Tulsa, Oklahoma).

A big part of writing a book in this decade—a book about people—is social media. I became friends with dozens of people online to gather background and make connections. I continue to be fond of their lives. I know who they’re marrying and divorcing, even if they’ve long forgotten me. One of the Taiwanese stars just had a baby and it hit me pretty hard. And their posts are intriguing corners of my internet world that let me into some knowledge about blindness, but also about life in different parts of the country/world. In a large way, the players are my main experience of class diversity, racial diversity, political diversity, location diversity. All this in addition to what I’ve learned from them about life with sight loss. I’m grateful to the sport for all that. And I have nine Beep Baseball T-shirts, so I literally carry the game with me.

BP: During the 2013 series, you actually filled in for the Athens Timberwolves, playing third base for a bit and trying your hand at batting. Could you talk a little more about that experience or, more broadly, the contrast you experienced playing a sport as a sighted person and then playing this sport blindfolded?

DW: I’d played third base in high school, so I had muscle-memory of that heavy, fun fear. The ball was going to come to me quickly, or off the end of the bat and therefore curving in a particular way toward the backhand. And there’s very little that matches that feeling of unconsciousness, when you just have to react and flash a glove. It was all-consuming.

Being at third for a beep ball game was related to that. The game is a little bit slower, the ball won’t come at you quite as fast. And then again, there’s no visual context to remind you that it’s not always headed for your nose. Every thud of the bat—and it’s more of a thud because the ball is big—means that the ball could be upon you in about a second. So, “Thud,” “FOUR” [that’s the call of the spotter], ball-in-your-bread-basket. It’s exciting. I was able to make three plays on six balls hit my way. I got one in the nose. I had one scuffle with a teammate—this happens because both players go for a ball—that resulted in a run for the Long Island Bombers. All in all, it was a scary blast. Not as encompassingly scary as playing third base in high school, but there was a lower-level constant alertness. Constant opportunity and recalculation and storytelling-to-oneself about how the game was going. It calls for a kind of consistent reflection so you don’t get lost.

BP: During the course of the tournament narratives, you give some small glimpses into the statistical world of beep baseball, particularly for batting averages; some of them are staggeringly high, and it certainly speaks to both the players’ skills and the carefully coordinated dance of pitcher and batter. Are there any other metrics in play for beep ball? I’m thinking about how something like fielding percentage might be calculated, for example. Do you know of anyone who’s doing work in that area?

DW: I used to know better about typical batting averages. The best players hit in the .600s, the .700s, so that’s obviously different. But your median players are down in the range of normal baseball averages.

I know teams also record put-outs, defensive percentages, spotting statistics, pitching accuracy, plate-to-base-speed, even bat angle. Rob Weissman of the Boston Renegades is the Billy Beane of Beep Ball. I know he has charts from the last 15 years about where particular players hit the ball. On this topic, Weissman says, “I have tried to come up with a fielding percentage stat that looks at ‘chances’.  What I do is have a coach watch the play and record the players who had a chance on a ball. So if a grounder gets by the left shorty and the third baseman and the rover makes the out, all three players get a chance, but the rover gets the out.  I think this is a way of seeing what positions get the most action, what levels of the field are getting action. I can also tell you that the players don’t like it because they think it’s too subjective. I will say this: when we play well, the stats are tight. When we play like crap, there are a lot of missed chances.”

BP: One of the standout features of this book is the way you render people, the personal histories (like Ethan Johnston’s) and the outsized personalities (like Lupe Perez) that bring the book so much of its life. But Beep is very much about the arcs of seasons, teams, wins and losses—as you and the players on these pages make explicitly clear, beep baseball is a sport and winning matters. How did you go about balancing these elements in the writing process?

DW: It’s a difficult balance and I’m not sure I always pulled it off. I guess I had three main modes. Game action. Off-field background info. And both at the same time. And as the book goes, you get to see individual games and meet individual players in their lives, with the idea being that all that funnels to the final of the 2014 series, chapter 9. Then we get: at-bat, life, at-bat, life, at-bat, life. I knew every player on the field—their joys and grievances—and so I wanted to let the reader know everyone on the field.

The worst kind of this storytelling would be like watching a baseball game and having the announcer kick it down to the color-reporter for a sentimental tale after every pitch. I didn’t want to do that. So, the hope was I’d provide unsanitized stuff of that variety. Instead of watching a player hit and then hearing about how he delivered turkeys to orphans on Thanksgiving, you’d see the player hit and then learn about a fight he had. In that way, I wanted to transmit my feeling that the players’ lives were a part of the game. Not in a cliche way that they were passionate and leaving it on the field. But in a real, tangible way that their particular fears, injuries, experiences, triumphs in life might actually impact the way they approached a groundball. As sports fans, we implicitly accept the idea of sports-as-metaphor. If it didn’t mean something more than who scored the most runs, we would probably lose interest pretty quickly. At the same time, we don’t usually investigate that metaphor because we’d rather eat cracker jacks. I didn’t want to get all academic about athletic meaning, but I did think beep ball was an entrance into understanding what we’re playing for, and why we’re fans. It’s a little bit about overcoming. But it’s also about will. And that doesn’t just mean that the players will themselves to win. It’s that their personalities get expressed within the game, and more purely because of its particular adversities.

BP: Your project took you to a lot of exciting places, not the least of which were Taiwan and the Dominican Republic, where one of the Austin Blackhawks pitched to Pedro Martínez during a kind of beep exhibition event. In that moment, you had the opportunity to both encounter a beloved sports icon and also to discover, again, beep ball and the athletes who play it framed as an inspirational story (mostly for the benefit of sighted, able-bodied people). Do you have any advice for fans, writers, or even potential volunteers?

DW: In 2014, a foundation in the DR partnered with the government to bring the Austin Blackhawks down to teach Los Huracanes del Caribe some lessons about the game. Mostly, though, it was a PR event. Beep Ball, as you say, used as inspiration. And that’s better than nothing I think, better than ignorance. There were 4,000 people in a stadium, after all. It was a great party, and great for awareness. But it also reinscribed a lot of stuff about hierarchies and about who gets to be a run-of-the-mill competitor. As you alluded to, Pedro—whom I love and who was wonderfully generous—talked to me about beep ball as a kind of social lesson. It is. It has been a lesson for me. But that’s, of course, not all it is. The game is a reminder that, as Samuel Beckett might have paraphrased it: we’re stuck in our circumstances; we’re not stuck in our circumstances. And I guess I’d want to advise people who don’t know about the game not to be stuck in preconceptions. There’s a story to be told about inspiration, just like there would be at the end of the MLB World Series. And there’s one about togetherness. But those might be the easiest-to-see stories. Because there’s also one about sort of buying the championship by amassing a bunch of stars even if they’re not from your region. There’s one about the hurt feelings and the losers and the unfair legs-up and the umpires. About who’s drinking too much even or who didn’t play well because of a personal problem. There’s a story about culture clash, class, education, health care, race. You could see all of these in any wrapup article, or comprehensive book, about any major sporting event. And they’re there in beep ball, I think in an even more intriguing way. It just takes some listening. And I’m not saying I listened well enough, because I know there are stories I missed. I just listened for awhile, so the typical stories started sounding like a one-hit wonder to me. It’s a great tune, but there are other tunes.

____________________________________________________________________

An Excerpt from Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind

ONE: The Eyes of Texas

Base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character. Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen—generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism. We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race. We want to go out and howl, swear, run, jump, wrestle, even fight, if only by doing so we may improve the guts of the people: the guts, vile as guts are, divine as guts are!

—Walt Whitman

THE SOUND OF baseball is different on this field. It has to be. There’s less “crack of the bat” and more alarm-clock beeping. Less “I got it” and more “Where is it?” But “Play ball” is always “Play ball,” and after the umpire makes that call, you can close your eyes and listen. You can still imagine your first visit to a major-league park. The mist lifts off the impossibly green infield at Fenway. You can almost see it.

You hear the action differently here, though. There’s the familiar baseball patter—comin’ to you, kid, here we go, kid. But then the pitcher, Kevin Sibson of the Austin Blackhawks, activates the “beep baseball” by pulling a pin out of it. The ball beeps fast like a daredevil’s EKG and Sibson delivers, shouting, “Set, ready, ball.”

Brandon Chesser’s at the plate, blindfolded to cancel out what remains of his vision. With his uppercut swing and outlaw’s intensity, he’s aiming to knock the beep out of the audible ball. He and Sibson, hitter and pitcher, traditional antagonists, are on the same team here. They have to be.

“Set, ready, ball.”

Chesser connects and he chugs down the baseline, breathing heavily while the fielders on the opposing team, the great Taiwan Homerun, fan out like detectives of sound. The beep baseball, a sixteen-incher chock full of spare parts from old pay phones to make it ring, rolls quickly toward and then past the fielders. But how far? A spotter shouts, “Three,” which corresponds to a zone on the field, but Taiwan doesn’t know where the ball is, and if they can’t pick it up in time—they have five seconds, tops—Chesser will tackle a four-foot-tall buzzing base and score the run. He goes at everything head-first.

On this Saturday afternoon in Columbus, Georgia, Chesser, whose eyesight deteriorated when he was a teenager, plows forward on a couple of tight hammies. He’s a brash guy, goateed, thick in the middle. The dog tags he wears to honor each of his kids tangle under his uniform as he runs, but he doesn’t let up. All that’s left in his campaign to stick it to those who underestimate him is to add “World Champion” to the end of his name. He’s a warehouse worker for the Marines, a father of four, a husband, a run-scorer. He just needs that last title.

“Everyone has always told me you can’t do this because you’re blind,” Chesser says. “But I went out and proved everyone wrong.”

He’s halfway to the bag and the beeping ball rolls beyond the edge of the infield arc. It needs to go at least forty feet or it’ll be ruled foul—there’s no bunting in blind baseball. As it crosses the line, Ching-kai Chen in a pale blue uniform, number 9, runs toward it. His nose points at the sky like he’s a sprinter breasting the tape.

Chen is blind from a motorcycle accident, this is his first World Series tournament, and his superior play has been the talk of the league. In the mind’s eye, he is Brooks Robinson diving toward the third-base line, an apparition of Luis Aparicio ranging to his left, and once the umpire makes the call that Chen has the ball cleanly, you hear the Mandarin cheer from his team. Chesser, who’s on the ground after tackling the pylon-base a split second too late, is out. He and Sibson are pissed—Sibson smacks his glove—and the Austin Blackhawks, just like last year, are running out of chances.

“Beat Taiwan!” Chesser’s teammate Lupe Perez shouts in a chest-thumping bass. “Yay-eh. Take it to Taiwan.” Chesser agrees. He’s a former bull-rider—a mount named Headhunter broke three vertebrae in his back once—and he doesn’t want to get thrown today. Not by Taiwan.

He flips up his blindfold and runs toward Chen, who’s standing about where second base would be in a conventional baseball game. He bumps him, seems to reach for his blindfold, and both guys lose their balance.

Is this a hug or a hazing, a rough recognition of another good play by the storied number 9 or an attempt to throw off the rhythm of a new guy? An umpire separates the two combatants but a question hangs in the air.

Is Chen somehow too good at beep ball? That’s the whisper from Austin, that he might be tipping his head backward so he can sneak a peek out the bottom of his blindfold. His vision is kaleidoscopic at best, but maybe he’s gotten some sense of the motion of the ball?

Chesser’s teammate Danny Foppiano will later make that argument: “Their number 9—my wife’s telling me not to say anything. Look, I can’t see, but from what I’m told from other people, number 9 jumped over one person, sidestepped another person, and picked the ball up cleanly. I’ve been playing since 1985, and it’s impossible. He’s only newly blind, and this is his first year playing.”

That’s one of the stories circulating on the bench, in the crowd, but these kinds of charges are common in beep ball when the stakes are high, when an opponent makes a string of defensive plays that sound incredible.

Another story is that Chen is one of the most nimble guys ever to play the game, a national handball star before his accident. He’s so good because of that history and because the thick grass of the infield has been stopping the ball dead, allowing him to isolate the beep and swoop in aggressively.

“I am a firm believer that there are some people who are just good players,” says Dan Greene, president of the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA). “We’ve had this argument since the league began.”

The umpires say Chen checks out. Still, the telephone-game rumor of an advantage for Taiwan has some of the feistier Blackhawks fuming.

Meanwhile, when I asked Chen how he felt about the 2013 National Beep Baseball Association World Series—the premier event in the uncanny world of baseball for the blind—he told me through an interpreter, “Everyone’s happy, everyone’s friendly.” He has a toothy smile and stands at attention like he’s not quite comfortable with his surroundings yet. Everything about his appearance screams “rookie.” Rookie at blindness, rookie at baseball.

His play tells a different story.

❍❍❍

Back in Ames, Iowa, in 2012, Austin had a chance to knock off Taiwan in the final, too. Chen wasn’t with Homerun then, but the powerhouse from the Pacific was still the favorite. Austin kept them close for all six innings, though.

Both teams had outlasted fifteen other squads over a week of play, and the Blackhawks had crushed Taiwan the day before in a battle of unbeatens, so they needed just one more victory to clinch the double-elimination World Series.

On a road trip through Iowa, I’d stopped off to check out this crazy blind baseball I’d read about in a Harper’s Magazine item that listed the rules: “A team is composed of a minimum of six blind or visually impaired players and two to four sighted people: a pitcher, a catcher, and two defensive spotters. There is no second base. First and third bases are four-foot padded cylinders with speakers that buzz when activated.”

My very first game turned out to be a classic, and the sport turned out to deserve more than two inches of print.

During warm-ups, I met Foppiano. He was walking with his arm on a teammate, and he loudly predicted a win for the Blackhawks. At age eight, he’d been struck by an errant baseball bat that hastened his blindness (he already had deformed retinas), and now he sounded off about being a defensive specialist. When I asked about his hitting, he brushed that off as a know-nothing question. Defense is where the game’s won and lost, he said, and I immediately saw that I would need to try hard to mix it up with blind ballplayers, to listen for their language of braggadocio and mythmaking. This was a whole new ball-game, and I had to learn.

In beep ball, pitcher and hitter are on the same team and the timing rituals make every pitch a held breath. Sibson taps his glove and shouts, “Set, ready, ball.” From 21.5 feet away, he throws to a predetermined spot in Brandon Chesser’s wheelhouse, and Chesser swings a beat after he hears the word “ball.” (For a hitter, there’s no use chasing the beep. That’s like swatting at a bee in a windstorm, and you can’t hit that way with any regularity.)

Six fielders on the defensive side patiently imagine what they’ll do when the ball comes for them. If Chesser makes contact, he hauls ass toward that padded blue base a hundred feet from the plate (think tackling dummy). But here’s a catch. An umpire can flip a switch and activate the buzzing mechanism of either first or third base, so after the hitters make contact, they have to pick out the sound before they run. Because of this rule, one of the more common nicknames for beep ballers is “Wrong Way.”

While the ball beeps—three shrill notes per second—and the hitter listens for his direction, a sighted spotter can yell out only one number, a number that indicates an area on the field. Usually, “one” means the ball is headed to right field, “five” means left. “Two” and “four” are the gaps, and “three” is up the middle. “Six” is an S.O.S., and it means everyone had better run hard toward the outfield.

After the call, the search for the beep begins. Most fielders move well, and they sometimes pick up the ball quickly, but on at least half the plays there are cringe-inducing scrambles. They dive, one after another, and can’t quite stop the sound. The poet Wilfred Owen, writing about reaching for a gas mask during World War I, described this kind of urgency as “an ecstasy of fumbling.” When you’re watching a blind man try to pick up a beeping baseball, the stakes are lower but some of that suspense is there: the ball is right in front of him, after all. But time is running out, and, finally, he has it. Or he doesn’t. There is no such thing as a routine play, and watching the game hurts.

This sport is not a vehicle for vague sentimental uplift, either, not a consolation prize. When these guys show up to the field, it’s as athletes, and when they hit the ground diving, they want to win. Almost all of the players scoff at the idea that beep ball is some kind of isn’t-that-nice inspiration, and they sometimes mock “sighties” for noting their bravery. They’ll even congratulate us for being able to tie our shoes, many players told me. Screw sentimental uplift, they think. But potential warmhearted sentimentality is everywhere you look at a blind baseball World Series, especially in the early rounds, when every team’s still in it and just hearing the biographies of the players is hard to bear.

On field 4, there’s Joe McCormick of the Boston Renegades, whose Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy caused him to lose sight in one eye before his prom and the other eye after it. His girlfriend, Ashley, wore a wild strawberry pink dress at the dance, Joe remembers. She looked good. And he looks sharp on the field, often hitting over .600 in regional tournaments and the World Series.

On field 6, there’s Mike “Hoodlum” McGloshan, who began playing for the Chicago Comets on the advice of his parole officer. When the officer described the game, he didn’t quite understand. Blind baseball? “I told her she was high and I wanted some,” McGloshan said. He’s been known to hitchhike to practices from downstate, where he’s studying for a law degree.

On field 10, there’s Ethan Johnston taking ground balls at third. Ethan, or Esubalew, is part MVP of the Colorado Storm, part intentionally blinded Ethiopian street kid. After he was kidnapped from his home when he was a little boy, his captors wanted to make Ethan a more pitiable, profitable beggar, and so they poured chemicals in his eyes. He lived an itinerant life in Addis Ababa for two years before he was rescued and adopted by an American family. He loves the St. Louis Cardinals. He plays basketball by squinting at the white square above the rim. He wants to announce sports on the radio.

These are touching stories, but everywhere you look there’s competitiveness. Visually impaired? Yes, but that’s quickly forgotten during the course of an exciting inning. And then quickly remembered as coaches, volunteers, and other players vacillate between balls-to-the-wall effort and compassion for their teammates. The game, made necessary by disability, can almost eliminate the experience of that disability for a few hours.

It makes you feel normal, I heard. The players feel free as they do something as simple as running to a base with their arms spread wide.

An infielder, say Dave Benney of the Indy Thunder, can make a diving play on the field. Normal. But then he needs a hand to find his Gatorade on the bench. He can be an old-fashioned ball-playing loudmouth, so sometimes his volunteers give him a little grief with his drink. But back on the field, fully hydrated, he’s hurtling after the ball to make another improbable play on his next chance.

These guys get into the game with intensity, too, because many of them haven’t had much chance to play organized sports before this. Benney, blind at birth, fights for the opportunity. He’s had some clashes over the game, and his team’s rivalry with crosstown foes Rehab Hospital of Indiana X-Treme (RHI) remained hot a couple of years after on- and off-field rancor caused them to split in two (more on that later).

For these players—potential figures of pity for those who don’t know any better—sports-as-diversion becomes sports-as-obsession in a quick blink. But that makes them just like anyone else, they say. They want to win. And they’ll run through anything, or anyone, standing in their way.

Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind

David Wanczyk, 2018
A Swallow Press Book
Ohio University Press

This material is used by permission of Ohio University Press, www.ohioswallow.com.

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