OHIOalumni Q & A

may 2018


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"Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind "

 

"Beep" was published in March by Swallow Press, the trade imprint of Ohio University Press. Press sales manager Jeff Kallet pitched author David Wanczyk — who works in OHIO’s creative writing program — a few questions.


Baseball for the blind? How is that even possible?

 

That was my first question, too. The ball is filled with old payphone parts and sounds like an old switchboard, which is how players track it. Pitcher and hitter are on the same team, and they work together with spoken cues. “Set, ready, ball.” And then a swing. Once the hitter makes contact, he has to reach base before any of the six fielders—all of whom are also legally blind—pick up the ball. But here’s an extra catch. After the ball’s in play, an official behind the plate can choose to activate a buzzing sound on either first or third base. So hitters have to listen hard before they book it for the bag. And the bag is four-foot tall tackling dummy. Talk about a bang-bang play. Right when fielders are trying to smother a ball they can’t see, the hitter is plowing into a base he can’t see as hard as possible. It’s wild, and there’s no such thing as a routine out.

 

I’ve never heard of Beep baseball. How long has it been around?

 

I found a mention of baseball for the blind in an obscure academic book from 1894, but back then the hitters were swinging at a silent ball and listening for grounders in the grass. And, in the earliest recorded conversation about the game, a pair of teachers from schools for the blind talk about using trees for bases, which they admitted was pretty dangerous. As the years went by, there were versions with bells in tin cans and where the bats were hockey sticks so the blind players could hit jingling pitches. In 1963, Charlie Fairbanks, who worked for a telephone company, invented an "audio ball" by using parts from his family’s rotary phone. That’s when the sport took off. Through the 60s and early 70s, volunteers and players worked together on what would become beep baseball, but the game was too safety-conscious at first. It was actually illegal to run. Finally, in 1976, a man named John Ross developed new rules that valued excitement over caution, he announced the rules in a Braille newsletter, and the first beep ball world series took place in Minnesota of that year.

 

So, it started in the U.S. Is beep ball played anywhere else?

 

There are different versions in Europe, but beep ball itself is growing. It’s made inroads in Italy, the Dominican Republic, Canada, and, most importantly, in Taiwan. In the book, I highlight the powerhouse team, Taiwan Homerun, which has won multiple championships. In the 2012–2015 seasons, Homerun played in three finals against the Austin (Texas) Blackhawks, and that rivalry was the story of the sport for those seasons. The game is definitely international now, and that’s great for the players.

 

You profile a bunch of athletes in the book. Does anyone stand out?

 

I met Ching-kai Chen, Taiwan’s star, on a trip I took to Taipei. He was incredible, a foot masseur and an exercise whiz who’d lost his sight in a motorcycle accident. Before that, he was a star handball player, and he was easily the most fluid player I saw while I was watching the sport. It was fascinating to cross a language barrier to get to know him (with the help of translators), and to think about the sight barrier as well (people translated my gestures for him, while they translated his Mandarin for me). On the American side, Lupe Perez of Austin is determination personified, a guy who says beep ball saved his life, and who also says he wants to die on the field. He’s half Cal Ripken, half William Wallace, and about the most balls-to-the-wall person I’ve ever met. Following these two guys as their teams battled was one of the great joys of writing the book.

 

How can we find out more about beep ball?

 

The book covers the history and the action I’ve talked about, but those who want to know more should check out their local teams. There are beep ball hotbeds in Massachusetts, Indiana, Texas, and a bunch of other places. nbba.org is the best place to find that info, and a full list of teams. Also good to know: the annual World Series will be played this year in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at the end of July. In the meantime, I hope people will check out "Beep," just in time for baseball season.



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