The Palm Beach County Sports Commission hosted the National Beep Baseball Association's World Series this past weekend, which brought between 400 and 500 blind and visually impaired athletes from across the U.S. as well as Canada, the Dominican Republic and Taiwan to Wellington, Florida.
In the adapted sport, a sighted pitcher tosses the ball to his teammate, who listens to the noise to decide when to swing. If he connects, one of two bases (columns that look like punching bags, at the first and third base positions) will start buzzing. Meanwhile, the defense listens for the beep to figure out where the ball landed. Whoever’s closest dives for it, trying to grab it before the runner touches the base.
Then, on top of that, everyone is blindfolded.
“It just basically evens out the playing field,” said Blake Boudreaux, players and president of the National Beep Baseball Association, “because some of our folks have usable vision, as we call it, and others are totally blind with no vision whatsoever.”
Boudreaux has been playing since he was 9. He lost his vision around 5, from cancer he had as a baby.
“I played t-ball and soccer to the best of my ability, but by the time I was 6 or 7 years old I kind of ran out of options of competitive sport,” he said.“A lot of these men and women lost their sight later on in life and had played sports prior to losing their vision. So it was their way to find that competitive outlet again.”
"At first it was a little scary. Balls are going to come flying your way," said Rebecca Lewis, who plays for the Indy Thunder with her husband. He convinced her to try the sport five years ago. "But you know what? I think that I would be more scared if I could see the balls. Since it’s just noise, it’s like, 'Hey, let’s go get the noise,' you know? It’s not as scary.”
The Beep Baseball World Series came down to the Indy Thunder vs. the Taiwan Homeruns.
Vincent Chiu, captain of the Homeruns, also plays adapted bowling – and was on the Taiwanese national team for goalball, a popular sport for the visually impaired.
“All those who are blind – blind is only one organ,” he said through a translator. “Other parts, they are all OK. So actually most of things we can do, and just need help for the directions. So we can do anything other people do because…your hands, your legs, they’re all fine!”
Back home he is a clarinet player, but about half of his teammates are masseurs. For years, Taiwan reserved the job specifically for the blind and visually impaired.
Chiu said it’s a treat for them to come play in the U.S. “It’s a very good experience because everything here is vast,” he said. “Also the field itself is just excellent. In Taiwan we cannot find anything close to this.”
For Wayne Sibson, this was his 34th World Series. He was inducted into the Beep Baseball Hall of Fame for his work spreading the sport, and was part of the group that brought Beep Baseball to Taiwan in the 1990’s.
“We sent them a set of bases and some balls, and then before we knew it, their government asked us to come over there and teach them,” recalled Sibson. “So it’s pretty fun playing against them and knowing we helped start that program over there.”
This year, the Dominican Republic came to the World Series for the first time, joining Taiwan and Canada as the only other countries in the NBBA league. Three years ago, Sibson and his team, the Austin Blackhawks, became the first American beep baseball team to play in the Dominican Republic. League president Blake Boudreaux said attendance far surpassed what they were used to in the U.S.
“That game, the first game the Dominican ever played against a United States team there was almost 6,000 people in the stadium, including former major league baseball players and the vice president of the Dominican Republic,” said Boudreaux.
In comparison, between 100 and 200 fans gathered for this World Series in Wellington.
The Dominican Republic’s increasing involvement has sparked interest in other Latin American countries. “Over the past month or so we’ve gotten calls from Venezuela, Argentina, PR [Puerto Rico], and we’ve done outreach in Mexico and other areas,” said Boudreaux. “We’re hoping that with these national teams attending we will have more interest in other countries.”
He said more countries would need to join the sport for it to ever be incorporated into the Paralympics, which is the league’s ultimate goal. For now, they are trying to bring in younger players at home.
“A whole lot of the time, it’s the parents that are afraid their kid’s gonna get hurt,” said Sibson. “Well, hell – every kid that goes out is gonna get hurt. It doesn’t matter if they're sighted or blind.”
The Indy Thunder beat Taiwan to win the World Series for the second year in a row.
Note: The original version of this story was updated to include the game of the Indy Thunder vs. the Taiwan Homeruns, as well as the conversation with players Vincent Chiu and Wayne Sibson.