For nearly 40 years, teams from all over the country, and even as far away as Taiwan, have traveled hundreds of miles to play Beep Baseball, a sport for the legally blind.
This year, 22 teams embarked on a journey to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to compete in the National Beep Ball Association World Series. Joe Quintanilla, a player for the Boston Renegades, said the best part about the tournament is meeting people from all over the world.
“A lot of the guys on the team have become really great friends of mine,” he said. “Some of them have never played sports before, or even picked up a bat or baseball and to see them improve and be leaders on our team, it’s really cool.”
For many of the players, this is the first time they are able to play on a team sport. Growing up visually impaired, most of them were not able to play competitive sports, until now.
Beep baseball is similar to baseball, just with a couple different rules.
The game is six-innings long with three outs and four strikes. The ball is a size of a softball with a built-in speaker that constantly beeps to help players identify where it is going. There’s also only first and third bases that are four-foot-tall foam cylinders with speakers that buzz once the ball is hit so the hitter knows where to run.
When a player goes up to bat, the pitcher says, “Set, ready, pitch.” Once the hitter hears the end of “pitch,” they know the ball is coming and to swing. If they hit the ball, either one of the bases will start buzzing and they run as fast as they can to hit the base before the outfielders catch the ball. If they get to the base first, it’s a run and they score. If the fielders catch the ball before they reach the base, they’re out.
For some, swinging a bat and hitting the ball can be hard enough, and Beep Baseball players do it while blindfolded, regardless if they are completely blind, or only partially.
Ethan Johnston, a player on the Colorado Storm, said he would play different sports in gym class and outside with his siblings, but never on a competitive team. When his friend told him about the sport, he expected to go to his first practice and hit the baseball off of a tee. He couldn’t believe how intense and competitive the game actually was.
“I went out there for practice in a Kobe Bryant jersey and basketball shorts and learned after practice that was not the proper attire because I had a bunch of bruises and scratches.”
Even though Johnston has always played sports, he appreciates there is a league that accommodates him and his needs.
“It gives you the freedom and ability to hit the ball and you just take off without being hesitant at full speed,” he said. “It’s just a great feeling to have that freedom, because the worst part for blind people is having to rely on someone else.”
Quintanilla grew up in Boston and baseball was, and still is, a huge part of his life. He said it was frustrating not being able to play baseball as a kid and he always felt left out.
But that all changed when he was 25 and a league for beep baseball was created in Boston.
“It really gives us an opportunity to have a part of our lives that we might not have had as kids,” Quintanilla said. “I thought, ‘My gosh! I can finally hit a ball being pitched to me and finally be an outfielder for a Boston team.’ So it’s been really great to finally play a sport I’ve loved since being a kid.”
He emphasized the only reason they are able to play this sport is because of the coaches and volunteers dedicating their time to set up and plan tournaments and games.
Kelli Brandenburg is a member of the Independence Lions Club. She said her organization received word the World Series was in Eau Claire and they were looking for volunteers to be line judges, help with scoring, and many other things to make the tournament happen. She never heard of the sport and thought it would be a great opportunity to come out, learn about the game, and give back to the community.
“Now that we’re out here, we see how amazing these people are,” she said. “I mean, just the fact that they’re able to run full speed ahead, not being able to sense anything but the sound, I just found that it was unbelievably amazing.”
Quintanilla said athleticism should not be discredited if someone has a disability. He said people who are blind can do the same things as a sighted person, just in a different way.
“You can have the same fulfillment that other people have and it’s great to come to a place like Eau Claire and be welcomed and to compete at a high level.”