01 June 2018

Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind

You may be unfamiliar with beep baseball.  If you are familiar with it, then you may perceive it as an activity inspired by baseball to provide those with vision disabilities functional therapy.  That concept though is outdated.  Beep baseball may well have been started decades ago to get blind kids to more effectively use their hearing, but that activity has grown into an international sport requiring genuine skill and athleticism.  To rephrase Charles Barkley, "They are not for your inspiration."  They play to win and "Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind" provides access to these players, to this pastime.

graphic from Popular Mechanics
The book covers the basics of beep baseball.  The team plays six in the field.  The players are all blindfolded (players have varying levels of vision, so the blindfolds equal it all out).  Additionally, each squad has two spotters in the field to provide assistance.  The ball must travel 40 ft to be in play and be in fair territory.  A 170 ft blast, however unlikely, is a home run.

On offense, a team pitches to its own batter.  The pitcher is sighted.  The pitcher's role is to comprehensively know each player's swing, give an audible command to swing, and then effectively hit that player's bat.  Once contact is made, a base, really a tackling dummy, in the field buzzes randomly.  The batter must reach base before the ball is controlled by the defense.  Oh, the beeping ball is a little larger than a softball and houses parts originally invented for use in telephones.

The book dives into the history of the game.  From where it emerged and how it turned into full-fledged athletic competition.  The author writes from a first person perspective and provides intimate contact with several clubs and the life histories of many players.  The core conflict in the book is the rivalry between a team from Austin and one from Taiwan.  It is a fascinating look at the struggle these teams go through to hold practices, get players to games, to train.  It looks into the support staffs of these clubs and how they help or, maybe, hurt their teams.  It is a fairly nuanced look at the sport.

Perhaps the only blight on this work is the choice of the author to place himself in the story.  The author did in fact play some beep ball for a team as a substitute in one tournament.  Maybe the idea arose from there.  However, he places himself into the mix without really providing any payoff.  He had some ups and downs as a manic baseball fan.  OK.  It does not go anywhere.  He speaks of family obligations pulling him from his covering of the sport, which maybe is to parallel himself to the players struggling to juggle things and stay on their clubs.  Probably not, though.  I am confused why it is in there.  He hangs out with the players and goes to Taiwan, which could have easily been written without him inserting himself into the story.  No, it does not distract from the game and the players, but it does take time away from them and suspends the flow.  Having read quite a bit of baseball non-fiction, I am astounded how common it is to place oneself in these works without really any decent recent to do it.

That said, this is a remarkable book on a rather remarkable topic.  It is fascinating how baseball evolved into beep baseball.  How beep baseball has boiled down elements of the game and yet remain true to the core principles of the game.  While people have grown accustomed to a fairly static game of baseball over the past hundred years, it is important to note how varied the game was in its infancy.  How when you traveled to another town to play another field of nine that it was indeed incredibly important to understand the field rules.  How standardization eliminated much of the uniqueness and experimentation in the game.  Through necessity, beep baseball ignored that strict honoring of baseball rule standardization and created something incredibly familiar, quite novel, and brilliant.  It found a way to push a player to the limit.  To cross out the need for one sense and push the others to the brink. 

The people who walk out on the field just like the pros who take the diamond every night to play baseball.  These beep baseball players are inspirations just like baseball players are inspirations.  They may not ask for it or want it, but there is a beauty and wonder attached to anyone who plays at an elite level regardless of the sport.  This book champions that: the elite athlete.  In this case, the athletes just happen to be visually impaired.


Beep: Inside the unseen world of baseball for the blind
David Wanczyk
246 pages
Swallow Press

1 comment:

Jan Frel said...

Cool and insightful. Thanks, never heard of this