Image via Telecompioneers.org.
Image via Telecompioneers.org.
On a day that Ames, Iowa saw its first rain in who knows when—corn-slaking, picnic-ruining downpours—I tried to watch the World Series of Beep Baseball, tried to see it clearly as a sporting event and not just an inspiration. Beep Baseball is a modified national pastime for the visually-impaired, and the championship games of the 36th World Series between the Austin Blackhawks and perennial contender Taiwan Homerun began with a sweet, octave-down national anthem and a rousing version of “Zhōnghuá Míngúo gúogē,” during which I teared up with misplaced patriotism and wanted desperately to sell some American weapons to the homeland of Homerun.
One of the Taiwanese players, Jack Lai, had been led to the microphone by his team's pretty, sighted volunteer, and as he sang, joined by Taiwan's three dozen traveling fans, the squad seemed jazzed to take home their first World Series title since 2006. Lai, a visually-impaired piano tuner, was one of ten all-star players that the Taiwanese government sent to Iowa to contest the World Series. They load up and spend big kuài to win the title, but they've had a long dry spell, and the Austin Blackhawks were looking to extend that drought. Even at an event that's chock-full of sportsmanship and charitable feeling—what's more wholesome than a baseball tourney sponsored by an Iowa Lions club?—there's a little rivalry, some jingoism, and a dash of chest-thumping sports bluster. Baseball is baseball.
Austin, a seven-time champ itself, was ready to win Beep Baseball gold for the U.S. of A. It had already been a notable day for visually impaired athletes. There was talk around the field of South Korean Im Dong-hyun, who'd broken a world record in archery at the Olympics. But the focus was on these guys in black and red. In order to stand atop the podium, Austin needed only to win one game, while Taiwan needed to beat the Blackhawks twice. Other eliminated teams—the Indy Thunder and Wichita Sonics, but not, sadly, the St. Louis Firing Squad—had stuck around to cheer on the Texans.
Led by Danny Foppiano, Axel Cox, and Lupe Perez—“He always hated his name,” his mother said—the Blackhawks hadn't lost all week, in either the round-robin or the championship rounds. “We're defensive specialists,” Foppiano boasted, as he was guided by fellow player Mike Finn before the game. I was about to see, and hear, why he thought so.
The Beep Baseball World Series began in 1976 during an era when the visually impaired were being offered more opportunity in general. “Beginning in my college days in the late 1970s,” Kevin Barrett of the Cleveland Scrappers told me, “there were a lot of advancements that started to come out about vigorous physical exercise for the visually impaired.” There'd been a form of baseball for the blind for a few decades, but the padding involved and the caution with which the sighted proponents treated the players, had sapped the fun out of that game. “It became clear that we needed a more challenging form of baseball for the blind that was more like the real game,” Barrett said. “As close as possible to the real McCoy.”
Enter The Pioneers. People around a Beep Baseball game talk about The Pioneers the way actors talk about Stanislavski; it's just assumed that one must know the importance of these figures and it's embarrassing to ask why they're notable. When begged for a crash course, Jan Traphagen, the first Vice-President of the National Beep Baseball Association, told me about the Telephone Pioneers of America, a group that began in 1911 and was instrumental in the sport's history. A philanthropic wing of the Bell system, the Telephone Pioneers devoted themselves to charitable causes for the disabled in the 50s. And in 1964 an employee of Mountain Bell, Charlie Fairbanks, invented the first Beep Baseball out of phone parts and a good, old-fashioned Wilson. Later, a Beep Baseball (which can now cost $35 a pop) was presented to John Ross of the Braille Sports Foundation. Ross tweaked the rules of softball to create a hybrid game, and that was, and is, Beep Baseball.
Those tweaks: in Beep Baseball, the pitcher, catcher, and batter play for the same team. The pitcher does what he can to throw the ball right where the batter expects it, and through a series of spoken signals and mitt-smackings, all three play a part in an incredible display of timing. If the batter makes contact, an umpire pushes a button that activates a blaring sound at either first or third base. The batter has to sprint to that sound and tackle the base—a 48-inch pedestal of foam standing 100 feet from the plate—before any fielder picks up the ball.
The batter runs and the six fielders scramble for the ball as it doppler-effects its way towards, and then usually past, them. Like the batter, the fielders are blindfolded to erase any possible advantage (many players have been blind since birth, but others have various levels of sight-loss). If they can't smother the ball in time—they usually have about six seconds before the batter gets to a base—they give up a run.
Playing defense seems about as frustrating as trying to kill an especially elusive cricket by dropping a piece of paper on it. Or, if you prefer, start a fire in your house and close your eyes. Spin around a bit. When the alarm goes off, attempt to deactivate it before you can say “Don't mess with blindfolded Texans” three times fast.
That's the kind of challenge elite Beep Baseball players face on every pitch, and it's why Foppiano, a compact scrapper of a player who's been at it since 1987, wanted me to know he's a defensive specialist. He's good at it, too, which takes tactics, and patience, and guts. It also takes risking collision. When a batter hits the ball, a spotter can call out a number for the fielders, but that's it. “1” indicates that the ball is headed down one of the lines. “2” or “3” or “4” means it's a gapper. “5” or “6” tells the fielders that the ball has been ripped up the middle. After that call they're on their own.
And so the diving begins. On a typical play, at least one player falls to the ground to stop the ball, which beeps like a particularly troubling EKG. On the best plays, you'll see a third baseman dive to his left, a shortstop dive to his right, and a left-fielder dive forward in a desperate attempt to slide on, kick, or smother the ball. Foppiano and Perez and Taiwan's Vincent Chiu are just about the best at this. They give new meaning to “getting in front of it.” And when a player does find the beeping ball, he struggles to gather it up in time to record the put-out. These are the tensest moments. The batter barrels, the fielder grasps, each of them inextricably suspended in their respective task.
The poet Wilfred Owen, writing about reaching for a gas mask during World War I, described this kind of action as “an ecstasy of fumbling,” and though the stakes are obviously lower here, watching a blind baseball player athletically flail for a beeping ball has a similarly elevated, extreme quality. Years of watching baseball tell sighted fans that this should be an easy task. The ball is right there, after all. But this is not that, and time is running out and, finally, the fielder has it. Or he doesn't. This makes Beep Baseball a thrilling spectator sport, much more than a novelty or a subject of some vague sentimental uplift. On each play, there's the potential for run-scoring, and each put-out involves a sprawling, clutching effort by a team of fielders. There is no such thing as a routine play. Watching it hurts.
“It's the most competitive form of slow-pitch softball,” long-time Long Island Bombers star Frank Guerra told me. “We just happen to be visually impaired.”
No sense in avoiding this. I figured I had the market cornered on Beep Baseball reportage, and had assumed that I could do my part in helping a friend relocate from Ohio to Idaho and then write this article, chatting up every player on every team, setting up a test-game for myself in the backyard, revising my dropping-paper-on-a-cricket metaphors. I took notes: 1) A Taiwanese player had proposed to his sighted assistant and she would say 'yes' if they won the World Series; 2) A couple of seeing-eye dogs, the noblest creatures, seemed to be getting equally romantic in deep right field; 3) Back-slapping baseball camaraderie is even more chummily-touching when it ends with a blind man laying his hand on his teammate's arm; 4) Baseball sausages smell even better when you're hyper-aware of your other senses; 5) Lupe Perez's mom just loves the crap out of Lupe Perez and kept imploring him to “Recharge, Perez, recharge.” My wife was at home, pregnant, in Ohio, and I was here, watching, noting, writing, and it was worth it.
Then a dude in dark-rimmed glasses asked me, “Who you with?” I mumbled something about freelancing and I asked him which site he was with. He was with Grantland, and he seemed like a pretty cool guy, and you should read his article when it comes out. This was not going to be a scoop or an exclusive. I was, I might as well admit, a bit jealous of him, and of the Taiwanese fans with their poncho tarp, as I tried to keep my note-pad out of the rain by wedging it further down my pants.
But the players kept going in all of that unexpected Iowa rain (Ames had 2.44 inches in July, almost half of it on the day of the tournament final). And though Austin had fallen behind by seven runs, they kept plugging, kept communicating, kept guiding each other to rousing put-outs. Every inning included a great play. Batters tackled the bases as though they were linebackers drilling a wrong-footed Brett Favre. Taiwan's faithful chanted, “Taiwan…Homerun…Taiwan…Homerun.” (In addition to the help they get from their government, the Taiwanese players sell crafts during the year to get here, and they were making the most of it with their voices). And the Austin Blackhawks—named after a speedy bird that can see eight times better than humans—circled the Beep Ball with a keen ear.
In the top of the sixth inning, Austin found themselves down by five runs, 23-18. Taiwan, thanks to the weird inversion of the coin flip, were the home team; they would bat last, but Austin would need to tie it up or take the lead just to make that bottom half of the inning a necessity. It was their last chance. Mike Finn scored, Lupe Perez scored, Zach Arambula scored, Danny Foppiano scored, and Mike Finn scored again with two outs, to tie the game at 23.
“When I started, I didn't even know [Beep Baseball] existed and most people don't know it exists,” Traphagen told me. “And it doesn't make any difference if [the players] were born blind or if they were robbed of their vision because of a disease—we have a couple gunshots, drive-bys, hunting accidents—if they've never seen or they have seen, it's just a marvelous game. It may be a sad story, but the ending's great. It gives them a chance to play America's favorite pastime.”
The sad story for the Blackhawks was that Taiwan scored with one out in the bottom of the sixth to win 24-23. And after four rain delays and four bags of kitty litter around the plate—it's a terrible day for a ballgame; let's play two—Taiwan Homerun took Game 2 as well, coming from behind to win their fourth World Series.
And so what do we say. That Austin's happy ending is that they're playing baseball to begin with? No. It's not: it's not an ending, and it's not happy. They want to win, and they're not thrilled by moral victories or international camaraderie. Still, the teams congratulated each other after the game, and though Taiwan was jubilant and Austin worn down, there were warm greetings. “You know, when they first came over,” Traphagen said, referring to the Taiwanese, “we found out at the very beginning that you didn't hug them. That just isn't their thing. Oh my God, now they're hugging everybody. They've taken over our ways of greeting. We're just all good friends now.”
Some 25 years into his career, Danny Foppiano made both the offensive and defensive tournament teams, proving that he's a specialist in both. And as for Lupe Perez, who hates his name? He hit .600 for the tournament. “When we found out he was going to lose his sight,” his mother Mary Ann told me, “we were devastated. He loves sports: basketball, biking. When they presented him with this game, it saved him. From feeling useless.”
She shouted to her son again. “Recharge,” she said. “Recharge.”
It kept raining, and he kept playing. Feel about it however you want to feel about it. He will recharge, and he will play.