Pitchers and catchers. It used to be a magical phrase. It buried the past. It meant that this might be the year for Royals and the Pirates. It erased the last memories of a World Series that, most of the time, I cared less about. It promised renewal.
It’s different this year. I can’t get last year’s Series out of my mind, even though it ended in the last week of July, when Taiwan took two from Austin on a rainy Saturday in Ames, Iowa, to win the title in the 37th annual world series of blind baseball.
I haven’t cared a whole lot about the professional game ever since I asked Seth "Bam Bam" Clark of the Bayou City Heat – big, bald and blind since the shooting accident at 13 – what it was like to play this game, and he smiled and said, "It’s allowed me to see another side of the world."
After that, I had no more questions, except what he was doing when he wasn’t playing, which is currently pursuing a Ph.D in American History at UC-Davis. Seth’s dissertation will examine the origins of slavery.
The Heat had been eliminated by the Chicago Comets, led by Gilberto Ramos, a 37-year-old who played a little Single A in the Royals’ system 14 years ago before a random bullet passed through one side of his head and out the other as he was driving home at 1 a.m. from the late shift at the Tyson Chicken packing plant in Chicago. The bullet missed his brain but severed his optic nerves. He’s a big man, and other than a little pockmark on each of his temples, and a few extra pounds, he still looks like a baseball player.
"Things happen," Gilberto told me. Which is more or less what I heard from all of the players I talked to on the 17 teams who made the pilgrimage to the Midwest. Which is why when the Giants snuffed the Tigers last October, I barely noticed. Not after watching the sport played by men who play it for all the right reasons, and refuse to complain about bad calls, no money, no fame and no eyesight, and live for the one week, every year, when they can play the game against the best in their sport.
In other words, baseball players.
In the ’60s, when baseball really was a pastime – unlike now, when it’s past its time – lots of blind guys wanted to play the game. So in 1964, Charles Fairbanks, an engineer with Mountain Bell Telephone invented a baseball that beeped, and bases that emitted a sound, and after a decade of tooling the mechanisms, and hashing out the rules, the first World Series took place in St. Paul in 1976.
Thirty-seven years later, the rules are pretty much the same. The sport is baseball, with a few twists. The pitcher – he’s sighted – is pitching to his own blind team. The underhand pitch isn’t fast-pitch, but it’s quick, and delivered with advance verbal preparation ("Set, ready, ball"). If the blind batter swings and misses, it’s not his fault; the sighted pitcher hasn’t put the ball in his batter/teammate’s wheelhouse. (In blind baseball the pitcher with the highest ERA is the Cy Young of the league.) The pitcher’s mound is only about 10 yards from home plate, which brings a whole new meaning to, "They’re hitting him hard." It’s not unusual for a pitcher to be felled by a ball hit by his own guy – the guy’s he’s trying to help get a hit.
The ball is a little bigger than a softball (and it beeps). The blind players must all wear blindfolds, both at bat and in the field, lest those who are legally blind by Social Security Administration standards, but can still distinguish light, have an advantage over the completely blind. They play on a baseball field, but there are only two bases: first and third, positioned slightly in foul territory so that blind runners don’t collide with blind fielders, and they aren’t actually bases, but things that look like padded tackling dummies. Which buzz. Out in the outfield, the opposing team, positioned from the deep infield to the deep outfield by two sighted "spotters," have lowered their heads, the better to hear the sound of ball on bat, and help guide them toward the beeping ball.
At the sound of bat hitting ball, a scorer instantly hits a switch on a little box that looks like it’s from a Lionel train set from Christmas 1959, setting one of the bases abuzz. The batter cocks an ear – his hearing is invariably more acute than that of the sighted – and immediately intuits which base is buzzing, and then takes off, hoping against hope to slap or scrape the base instead of meeting it head on, tumbling and tearing an ACL or a rotator (it happens). For blind people, running full speed at something, even if it’s padded, is slightly intimidating, if not completely scary.
Meantime, one of the two spotters shouts exactly – and only – one word to help guide his or her outfielders toward the ball: usually, the number of one of the six theoretical "zones" most teams divide their field into, left to right. While the hitter is sprinting down the line, fielders – one or two going straight for the ball, one generally backing up – run toward the designated zone and try to gain control of the ball by diving, sliding, rolling, grasping sometimes at a ball, sometimes (in this 100-degree week) at straw – before the runner hits the base.
If it all sounds slightly through-the-looking-glass, it is, in theory – until you watch your first at-bat, at which point it becomes instantly obvious that what should be chaotic, if not even comic to the novice spectator, turns out to be a seamless sport to the athletes on the elite teams. After your first couple of games as a spectator, it goes from Bizarro to downright balletic.
It’s called the National Beep Baseball League. Which, honestly, marketing-wise, is unfortunate, and makes me think about how much more famous, say, Flesh for Lulu would have been if the band had chosen a different name. One day I almost tell the president of the NBBL that he ought to rethink his branding – that "The National Blind Baseball League" would bring out more fans. But Dan Greene, himself blind from birth, a Hall of Famer, the man who will wield the Lionel switch for the finals, needs no advice on how to run his league.
Here, where urban street violence meets deep-woods shotgun accidents, where Retinitis Pigmentosa meets Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, where blind high-school seniors meet blind Ph.Ds, the sighted who think they know the first thing about playing the sport are to be politely indulged. This is the athletes’ space, and they cherish it.
"Growing up in a small town, it was always just me – no one else was impaired or anything. People would mess with me, pick on me," Jason Walters told me. Jason’s mom died of an overdose of pills this past March, during spring vacation of his junior year at Dayton (Tex.) High School. His dad was in prison for most of his childhood. "That’s when I knew life would be different. So that when something like this comes along, you jump at it. Here, they’re the same as you are. It don’t matter if you’re sighted or not. It’s just athletes getting after it."
Frank Facio of the New Jersey Lightning, a huge man with a thick, braided ponytail dropping down his back, explains the game’s allure to me this way: "No special treatment. If I hit the ball, that’s me doing it. If I run to the base, that’s me doing it. Chasing the ball in the outfield, that’s me." Frank is the only blind mail sorter in the U.S. Postal Service. He also fronts a country-rock band called Steelehorse Country ("We do it different ‘round here, that’s right… but we do it real good, and we do it all night," goes the refrain on a song they love to cover, "Dirt Road Anthem").
For four decades they have gathered to play their sport against, and amid, their brothers – and sisters, though there are few women in Beep – and their blindness is not a factor. Like all of the games any of us play, this one is played, at the end of the day, solely, and urgently, to win. Vying for any competitive edge, anger at a misplay, fury at a mental mistake, these are all very real here.
"We all play baseball," Braulio Thorne of the Long Island Lightning tells me. "One ball beeps, one doesn’t. But they’re both baseballs. The only difference is they can see, and we can’t."
When they’re off the field, the teams in the Series revel in a weeklong family reunion. In towns like Strongsville, Ohio, and Stockton, Calif., they renew friendships that, in some cases, have lasted three decades – an elite cadre, bound by the singular love of a beeping baseball. The endless slog of a 15-hour bus ride to the heartland (including, on occasion, a midnight stop in a city en route to pick up a shortstop) pales in comparison to the reward: six days in clean hotels, hugs with old friends from Indy and Cleveland and Boston and Mattawan, and, always, some new ones. Telling bad jokes and drinking good beer.
"I tell my wife: `I know I’m being selfish here, but I want one week out of the year for myself,’" Craig Cotton, 41, an Austin Blackhawk, tells me. Some years ago, Craig shot a deer down in the woods of East Texas. When it hopped over a fence, he decided to pursue. He carefully leaned the rifle barrel-up against the other side of the fence, carefully stepped over the fence, and heard a blast at the micromoment when his sighted life came to an end (as well as his nascent career driving a Hot Stock ’71 Camaro at a dirt track outside of Waco.)
Craig still doesn’t know what happened – maybe a twig had reached into the trigger space? But to a man they’ll tell you that looking back is just a waste of brain cells, anyway. "I’m up for a challenge," Craig Cotton tells me. "When I first went to a rehab, I was depressed because I was thinking about all the things I used to do and I couldn’t do now. Then I started finding out about all the things I still could do. I just turned it around and made it a good thing."
Unlike major leaguers, who are sighted but sometimes fail to actually see beyond gated walls or that night’s cable highlights, blind baseball players are free of the neon-billboard, plasma-screen behavioral cues that seem to be steering us away from the actual point of the games. So that while I find myself wincing at the sight of the sprinklers irrigating the emerald turf of the Iowa State football team’s empty practice field a few yards away from a field where the Lightning are playing the Scrappers on an expanse of baked straw, with foul lines spray-painted onto the grass, the players see nothing. When I see the Big 12 Conference’s Jack Trice Stadium looming mockingly like a Star Trek cruiser directly across the street, the blind players can’t see how ugly the contrast is.
This is not to suggest that the Heat and the ’Hawks and the Reapers and the Renegades couldn’t care less about fame; they’re athletes. Of course they wouldn’t mind if a video clip of a blind fielder catching a ball on the fly made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Week (it’s happened five times in 37 years). Or if a magazine show did a network feature on New Jersey’s Ohmny Romero, who played a year in the Pirate system before losing his sight, earned a masters in electrical engineering and now works for Bell Laboratories.
More realistically, they wouldn’t mind if someone – anyone – threw a few bucks at the league. As Paralympics gain in public stature, the beep guys still struggle. Doing a week in Ames this year cost, on average, 10 grand per team. The Blackhawks raised half of the money on one February night in a bowling tournament at the Highland Lanes Bowling Center out on Burnet Road. The Tyler (Texas) Tigers shared their bus with Bayou City, which used to get $2,500 a year from the Astros – "but the new owners haven’t come through this year," says Helen Boudreaux, a Bayou City backer. I’m guessing that the new owners of the Astros made more than $2,500 in the time it took you to read that sentence.
The Taiwanese government contributed 60 percent of the 30 grand it took to get The Homerun and its large, gleeful entourage across the Pacific and the Rockies into the airport in Omaha – a 26-hour airborne odyssey. The investment has recently paid off in national pride back in Taipei. For three years running, The Homerun have come within a whisper of this title; there is prestige involved for the country – as well as concomitant pressure on the players to come home with some hardware.
It is very easy to like The Taiwan Homerun. This is not just because their 50-year-old manager/pitcher, Leo Lin, is a taxi driver back home whose number is 60 because that’s his medallion number. Or that the team’s extended family includes a smiling woman pouching a baby whose quiet, peaceful smile seems a million years old. Or that The Homerun’s two best fielders are trained musicians: a street clarinetist on a busy corner on Zhongxiao East Road who favors Debussy, and the nation’s first licensed blind piano tuner, who favors Chopin.
Mostly it’s because here, in Ames, Iowa, the baseball players can be from Taiwan, not Chinese Taipei, which I’d forgotten until, the night before the finals, over at the bar in the hotel headquarters, I watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics – three millennia after the first Games, in which competitors did not reveal which Hellenic town or Aegean island they came from in the vast ancient Mediterranean domain, and competed against, say, hoplites whom they might be spearing on a Spartan plain two weeks later. Which is to say, in a sense, nationalistically and metaphorically, the first Olympians were competing … blind.
Now, on the flat screen behind the hotel bar, I watch the team from "Chinese Taipei" walk into the Olympic Stadium. In international sports events in which the Republic of China is also competing, Taiwan cannot fly its own flag or sing its own national anthem. It cannot declare itself a sovereign nation.
The Taiwanese came to blind baseball two decades later than the Americans, in the mid-90s, after a Blackhawk in an information booth in an Austin mall caught the eye of a Taiwanese student at the University of Texas who worked with the blind back in her home country. Taiwan subsequently invited a handful of American teams to conduct clinics on the game, all expenses paid. At the opening banquet, the Taiwanese performed symphonic music, including cellists in formal dress. Then the hosts asked the Americans to perform.
The Austin team, caught by surprise, took the stage and sang, "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You." Their hosts asked for more. The only other song they all knew was the theme from The Brady Bunch. They sang that, too.
In a fitting ending to a festival that happily flies in the face of all convention, Saturday dawned dark gray, with low-hanging clouds poised to unleash the first rain in Iowa in as long as anyone could literally remember (the stream behind one of the fields was bone dry).
By the time the Taiwan team had set up its double-sized tent to accommodate Taiwanese friends and fans from the near Midwest, rain was pounding steadily – terrible conditions for the defenders. While rain alone never delays a blind baseball game – only lightning can intervene – the sound of a driving rainstorm pelting stiff, hard grass will obscure the sound of the beeping ball as it rolls through the outfield, and make it slippery to corral. The wind will fool the fielders, since it will bend the sound waves.
Still, at 10 a.m., a couple of hundred fans had filled the bleachers to hear Steelehorse Country’s Frank Facio sing the American National Anthem, and then listen to the Taiwan contingent lustily, and quite beautifully, sing its own. It was double-elimination: a single win for undefeated Austin meant the Series; once-beaten Taiwan had to take two.
The ’Hawks were the Yankees of this league this season, heavily stocked with three free agents picked up from the West Coast (Sacramento) Dawgs, who, after winning the last four Series, disbanded because their pitcher wanted to be closer to home in Oklahoma. They were led by Long Island transplant Danny Foppiano, 5’4 of archetypal New York attitude who was born sighted until, in a pick-up game back in Farmingdale when he was eight, he was walking to the plate past a kid who’d just struck out when the kid swung his bat one more time, in anger, and the backswing hit Danny full in his face, and his retinas became history.
Foppiano is still a terrific athlete, if wound more tightly than a Slinky on crank. He routinely short-hops beeping grounders as he drops to the ground like a flailing goalie ("He hears like a dog," laughs his wife) – the kind of highlight that any true baseball fan deserves to see. Unfortunately, the only broadcast media in attendance that day was a team from KASI Clear Channel News Talk 1430, broadcasting from the 400-foot tower outside of town to the greater Ames, Iowa, metropolitan area.
As expected, heavy rain favored the offenses. In a sport where a typical final score might be 12-8, the runs were coming in clusters. Fielders couldn’t locate the ball. Vincent Chiu, makes the defensive play of the day, short-hopping a line drive for an out in the top of the fifth and preserving Taiwan’s 19-18 lead. The final was 26-23, Taiwan. There would be another, last game. For all of the marbles.
"I played the worst game of my life," Foppiano told me, a moment later. "Gave up three runs easy."
"How about five? But who’s counting?" said his pitcher Kevin Sibson, in jest.
"Fuck you," says Danny. Slightly in jest.
Over in the Taiwanese tent, there was no cheering. They were sipping Wong Lo Kat Herbal Tea, eating mini-Snickers, and stretching.
A lightning strike over beyond the football stadium prompted an hour’s delay after the first scoreless inning of the finale. When the rain had finally stopped, the fans had disappeared, too. Twenty or so spectators sitting in their cars, a radio crew and a baby Buddha would witness the championship of the world of blind baseball.
After the umpires spread several bags of cat litter from a nearby supermarket in the muck of the batter’s box and pitcher’s space, play resumed, whereupon Taiwan immediately scored five runs. Their pitcher, Leo the taxi driver, was in a zone: His every offering seemed to find a teammate’s bat, and the Taiwanese team’s legendary speed – there’s not an ounce of fat on any of them – was hustling them safely to the bases with time to spare.
Five runs was all The Homerun would need. Even after Taiwan’s right fielder, Vincent Chen, dislocated his shoulder, badly, diving to find a ball, and disappeared into an ambulance, his substitute was up to the task, and The Homerun’s superb defense claimed the day. The final was 9-4. Taiwan was the world champion. Not Chinese Taipei.
With the final out, with Vincent Chiu fittingly corralling a ground ball out in left field, one of the volunteer Taiwanese staffers ran out to the clarinetist, carrying the Taiwanese national flag, and jumped into Chiu’s arms. The volunteer was crying.
In front of the Austin bench, there were no tears. Anger cloaked the moment, although, in this sport, among these men/gentlemen, the emotion had to go hidden, at least for now, as the teams shook hands, as all teams had done after every game in this tournament. When both teams assembled for a group picture, the ’Hawks tried to smile sincerely. Most succeeded.
But when Austin returned to their bench to pack up their stuff. Danny Foppiano was livid. "All we are is first losers. We sucked," he said. "We picked the worst day to play bad. I blew a bunch of balls. Our pitcher just didn’t have it. You can’t strike out seven guys. Gotta put the ball in the air. You can’t get by on four runs," he said, and walks away.
"I didn’t get it done." Kevin Sibson accepted the diss with a frozen grin, cloaked in a scarily intense self-anger. "It hurts," he said, glancing around, eyes darting, sighted but soulless, trying to focus on something real, something tangible, but seeing nothing but defeat. "Didn’t get it done. That’s baseball," he said, in robotic monotones.
"Well, yeah," I offered, "but the hitters didn’t hit your pitches, so they have to take some …"
"Didn’t get it done," he said, biting off my words. "Got no excuses," he said. Then he looked at me with this look that wants to just shut me up, this sighted guy whose life is wrapped up in pitching to these blind guys, these guys he loves. With everything on the line, he’s failed them. He won’t get a do-over for 51 more weeks.
Over at the Taiwanese tent, some of the team was still weeping for joy, and as I approached them, I saw tears fall from blind eyes.
Photo Credit: USA Today sports images, Peter Richmond and the author photo is © Anne Day