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Beeping Balls Allow Blind Players to Step Up to the Plate

Jessica Robinson

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 Yang to the plate.

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.

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. 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,” she said.

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. So they finally just said, ‘You're just the ball boy now,”’ Leeberg said.

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. 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,” he said.

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

“I don’t know, it’s like our own private little world. I mean, I hate to say it kind of 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,” Fimpel said.

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

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. 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,” Yangn said.

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

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.

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