Baseball
8:47 am
Fri July 19, 2013

Beeping Balls Allow Blind Players To Step Up To The Plate

Loren Miller takes a few practice swings before coach Troy Leeberg starts the pitch. They're members of the Spokane Pride Beep Baseball team.
Loren Miller takes a few practice swings before coach Troy Leeberg starts the pitch. They're members of the Spokane Pride Beep Baseball team.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

For most Northwest baseball fans, the Mariners games against the Astros are where the action is at this weekend. But there's another set of games on Saturday like none you’ve ever seen in America's pastime. The athletes in this league are blind.

That's right: baseball for the visually impaired. At this field in Spokane, the trick isn't to watch for the ball – it's to listen.

It's a warm afternoon in Spokane. The smell of cut grass and barbecue is in the air. And Bee Yang is up to bat.

A teammate who has partial vision directs player Bee Yang to the plate.

“Keep going, 20 feet forward, 10, 5, homeplate, tap,” go the instructions.

There are six people in the outfield and two blue foam pillars that are -- in this game -- first and third base. Yang listens for the pitch and the beeping of the ball starts.

Yang swings. He hits. The ball goes left. Yang goes right, toward first base, which has started buzzing. An outfielder scrambles after the beeping ball. But Yang reaches the base first.

Welcome to “Beep Baseball,” named for the beeping the balls make.

The Spokane Pride is one of the newest teams in the National Beep Baseball Association. In all, there are 26 registered U.S. teams, plus one in Taiwan. It’s one of the few team sports that can be played by the blind. Vivian Huschke is now back on the baseball diamond for the first time since she lost her vision after college.

“I didn't think I'd ever play softball or baseball again," Huschke says. "And when I came here I just was like, “Wow!” It's challenging, it's fun. It's a way to feel like you're participating in a 'normal' quote-unquote sport, a mainstream sport again.”

The rules of Beep Baseball are a little different. You score a run by reaching a base before the opposing team's outfielders can get the ball. There's no second base. That's to avoid collisions between runners and outfielders. The pitcher and catcher can see -- but everyone else wears a blindfold to level the playing field for varying levels of sight.

Troy Leeberg, for example, has some vision. But back in high school it wasn't enough.

“I couldn't see the ball coming to hit it," Leeberg says. "So they finally just said you're just the ball boy now.”

Thirty years later, Leeberg is the coach of the Spokane team.

The evolution of Beep Baseball mirrors a shift in thinking about disabilities in the U.S. When the game began in the 1960s the rules were restrictive. No running. No diving to catch the ball. And kids were bundled up in all sorts of padding. They found the game boring.

It took another decade for Beep Baseball to be revived, this time with rules more like the traditional game. The result is that players sprint toward the base with no guide or a cane -- and that’s a huge adrenaline rush for Loren Miller. He lost his sight seven years ago in a construction accident.

“Pretty powerful," Miller says. "Because there's not too many completely blind people who will run all out. It kind of gives me a little bit of freedom, being here at baseball.”

Another player, Teri Fimpel, says Beep Baseball is a rare place where there’s not much advantage to having sight.

“It’s like our own private little world," Fimpel says. "I mean, I hate to say it kinda is. It’s like our own private community where we can talk and be ourselves. But yet, you know, have the understanding that we’re all equal.”

The games are full of jokes that might seem politically incorrect elsewhere. “Keep your eye on the ball” they’ll banter. At one point half the field cracks up when Teri hits the ball, and her teammate unknowingly congratulates the wrong person.  Laughter ensues.

Now, the Spokane team is looking forward to some nearby competition. A Beep Baseball team, called the South King Sluggers, just started in Seattle. Bee Yang says that’s good for both teams.

“That rivalry is going to be what makes us end up at the world series," Yang says. "Because we're going to compete against each other. And every time we win or lose, we're going to strive to do better the next time.”

Yang says blindness may bring these teams together. But in the end what they really have in common is baseball.

The Spokane and Seattle Beep Baseball teams will compete for the first time on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Walt Hundley Playfield in Seattle.

Copyright 2013 Northwest News Network