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Book Bag: ‘Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind’ by David Wanczyk


Friday, July 06, 2018

by Steve Pfarrer

BEEP:INSIDE THE UNSEEN WORLD OF
BASEBALL FOR THE BLIND

By David Wanczyk

Swallow Press

davidwanczyk.com

Greenfield native David Wanczyk grew up a diehard Red Sox fan and says he once fancied being a future baseball star himself. Then, as a Little League pitcher, he gave up 27 runs in one inning (“My lifetime ERA was 243.0,” he says). As he writes on his website, that was the day he first began realizing “that my future in sports was going to depend on a pen rather than a bat.”

Today a writing teacher and literary journal editor at Ohio University, Wanczyk has made good on that early vision, writing about sports and other subjects for a variety of publications. He also recently published his first book, “Beep,” about an unusual sport: baseball for the blind.

Beep Baseball dates back over 40 years. It’s a variation on the grand old game in which visually impaired players try to hit and field a softball that beeps steadily. A few sighted players assist, both by pitching the ball (from just 20 feet away) to blind batters and giving six blind fielders a basic idea where a batted ball is headed.

Batters and fielders also wear blindfolds (some players have limited vision). Batters, after hitting a ball, run to one of two roughly five-foot, vertical foam bases — sited 100 feet down the first and third base lines — one of which is activated to buzz once a ball has been hit. If a batter reaches a base before a fielder can find and grasp the ball, one run is scored.

In 2012, Wanczyk went to Ames, Iowa for a magazine assignment to write about the Beep Baseball World Series. By that point, he was married, had a young daughter and was working full time, and his youthful baseball obsession seemed very distant.

But as he watched players from Austin, Texas and Taipei, Taiwan playing their hearts out, he says he felt his old “childhood single-mindedness again … As I watched guys who’d mostly grown up without baseball, I saw that they could still approach the game as a kid could.”

What follows is a chronicle not just of the game but close portraits of the players. There’s Ching-Kai Chen, for instance, a young Taiwanese who was blinded in a motorcycle accident and is playing his first year of Beep Baseball. He’s so good that some of the Austin players wonder if he’s somehow cheating; even some of Chen’s teammates “chant ‘Drugs, Drugs, Drugs’ in Mandarin, jokingly implying that he’s juicing.”

And Joe McCormick, who plays for the Boston Renegades, is a high-spirited, crew-cut guy in his early 20s who’d been a soccer player and standout student at Malden Catholic High School before he lost his sight to a rare disease, Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. But with Beep Baseball, writes Wanczyk, “it’s clear he’s regained something … that he thought he had lost.

“He describes the feeling of running to the base as a feeling of freedom, flying, and for Joe, hitting the ball is an unexpected and powerful release,” Wanczyk adds. “It's not as if he’s had a come-from-behind, grand-slam-in-the-ninth victory and his life is a total celebration now. But when Joe’s out there, it feels like he’s getting a rally started.”

Some players have gone through almost unimaginable hardship. Ethan Johnston, also known as Esubalew, who plays for the Colorado Storm, was kidnapped as a boy in his native Ethiopia by captors who forced him to become a beggar; they poured chemicals in his eyes to make him more pitiable and effective. Now, adopted by a family in Missouri, he loves sports, basketball and Beep Baseball in particular.

For his book, Wanczyk interviewed about 100 people, from players and their family members to coaches and other support staff, and he went to the Dominican Republic and Taiwan to follow the teams. He also played some Beep Baseball himself: wearing blinders like the other players, he once took a fly ball off his nose in the field (“This is what I’d been waiting for. Suffering! Authenticity! Beep Ball Passion! But also Helplessness! And Nostril Pain!”).

In the end, “Beep” is a story not just about sports but about a particular community whose members refuse to see themselves as figures to be pitied, but rather as competitive athletes and teammates. “That makes them just like anyone else,” Wanczyk writes. “They want to win. And they’ll run through anything, or anyone, standing in their way.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To see a short video on how Beep Baseball is played, read the online version of this story at gazettenet.com.