See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 2: Beeping Pitches, Perfect Pitches


Photo: Lykowski Studio

Player: Darnell Booker

Blind baseball players learn to use the sounds of a beeping ball and buzzing bases for their hitting, running, and fielding.


         “C’mon Blake, smack the beep out of the ball!” calls one of the Houston Heat players. Blake swings, and hits a searing grounder to left field. He tears off for first base and arrives there safely. His teammates clap and cheer. Bobby, who is about 25 and has a classic ball-player’s physique, is up next. He approaches the plate slowly swinging his bat to loosen himself. “Close-in on the plate Bobby” his coach suggests. The pitcher takes the ball and . . . “Time out – airplane overhead – can’t hear the ball”, one of the fielders yells. Members of both teams relax and mill about like kids waiting for a car to pass before continuing their street stickball game.

        It’s at this point that I’m reminded of just how different beep baseball is. From a distance the game looks like regular softball: A pitcher, catcher, and batter; one team in the field, the other waiting to bat. But from nearby, you notice that there are two large padded bases, the ball emits a pulsing beep, and all the batters and fielders are blind. What little vision these players might have is eliminated by the mandatory use of blindfolds.

        The plane passes and the game continues. “Hit that plane Bobby—make sure it never comes back”, a Houston teammate urges. One of the opposing Austin Blackhawk players in the field claps: “C’mon, guys let’s stop that ball.” Another fielder responds, “Phil, you’re too close to me, move back a few feet.” It seems that the chatter and clapping typically used to keep up enthusiasm, has the added purpose in beep baseball of helping players maintain their bearings.

        Fonzi, the sighted pitcher, is holding the beeping softball, “Are you ready Bobby?” Bobby nods. Fonzi draws his arm back past his hip and then calls “Ready, set, ball” as he throws a firm, accurate, underhand pitch. Bobby hits the ball, at which point the left-side base, located roughly at standard third-base position, starts emitting a loud, sustained buzz. Bobby runs towards the base as the ball bounds down the middle of the outfield. The closer of the two Austin center-fielders dives onto his side to block the oncoming ball. Bobby runs closer to the base and extends his arms to the side in order to whack the base’s large cushioned post extending up four feet. But before he arrives, the Austin fielder holds up the ball and yells “Got it!”. Bobby is out.

        Beep baseball has been played in the U.S. for over thirty years. There are currently fifteen teams across the country, and there is a growing league in Taiwan. The number of games played by each team varies, but the season culminates in all teams congregating for the Beep Baseball World Series in late July. What is most striking about watching beep baseball are not the blindfolds or camaraderie, both of which I expected. Instead, I’m most struck by how seriously the players take the game, and particularly their own performance. As Bobby walks back towards his dugout, he tells his teammates that if he had run straighter toward the base, he would have been safe. A teammate responds, “Next time Bobby. We’ll work on that next practice.”

        Besides the audible softball (which beeps continually throughout the game) and bases, there are other differences between beep baseball and regular softball. The sighted pitcher is actually on the same team as the batter to whom he’s pitching. (The same is true of the sighted catcher.) The pitch is timed and placed with the intent of the batter connecting with the ball (players’ batting averages typically run from .500 to .750). This is the reason for the pitcher’s “Ready, set, ball” warning, as well as why he pitches from just 20 feet in front of the batter. Each batter gets four strikes rather than three, but each team gets three outs, the one exception being if a fielder actually catches a ball on the fly. This does happen occasionally, and when it does, the batting team’s inning is over regardless of how many outs its accumulated. If a batter gets a hit, he must run to whichever of the two foam-rubber bases is buzzing, which is randomly determined as soon as the ball is hit. The batter must reach the base before one of the opposing team’s six fielders has control of the ball, defined as the moment the fielder raises the ball off the ground and away from his body. Three sighted umpires make these and other determinations. Runs are counted whenever a batter makes it safely to a base, so that final scores are often in the teens, despite the game lasting only six innings.

        Michael, a 57 year old with a broad smile, is up next for the Houston team. He has been playing for over 25 years and was part of the group that traveled to Taiwan to teach them the game. Michael laments, “They knew nothing when we got there. But within two years they were beating most of the American teams. It’s their speed - those guys are fast.”

        Fonzi confirms that Michael is ready, and calls “Ready, set, ball” as he throws. Michael hits a pop fly and runs toward ‘first’ base. A few of the fielders yell “pop-up” and the ball drops between the two right-fielders. Daniel is running to the base with impressive hustle for a man his age. Just as he hits the base, one of the Austin fielders yells “Got it!” and holds up the ball. It’s close. The members of both teams are silent as they await the verdict. Only the beep of the ball is heard as two umpires confer on the play. Then, after a minute, one of them yells “Safe!” and the Houston players cheer. An Austin player shouts, “Hey Ump – Ya wanna borrow my glasses? Extra-strong prescription.” Everyone laughs.