Editor’s note: Gimme 5 is a five-question interview on a topic of local interest.
Who: David Wanczyk, author of “Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind,” English instructor at Ohio University and editor of the literary magazine New Ohio Review.
Talks about: His book and the Beep Baseball World Series, which will be played this week in Eau Claire.
Details: Twenty-two teams from Taiwan, Canada and the United States will compete from Tuesday through Saturday at Eau Claire Soccer Park, 3456 Craig Road. Tuesday round robin games are planned at 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Bracket play begins Wednesday. A special women’s game is slated for 6 p.m. Wednesday. The championship is scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday, with a pregame ceremony at 10 a.m.
How did you come to write about Beep baseball?
I got into it in 2012. I had been working on some articles about strange sports and was having fun being at those events and writing about them. I thought it would be fun to write about baseball for the blind and figured there must be more to this sport than just the rules. I set out to show this was more than just a novelty.
I went to the World Series in Iowa and realized there was more to it than just a game. There’s a lot of camaraderie and a lot of humor and a lot of competitiveness. There was enough in this one game to write 30 pages and not just three, so I wondered what else I could find if I dug into it and learned what these guys’ lives are like. I attended four World Series and estimate I interviewed over 100 guys to try to capture the culture of the sport.
Can you describe what this sport looks like for those who haven’t seen it?
First, the ball beeps, so that’s how all the players can track it. It’s filled with old payphone parts and it makes the game sound like an old switchboard. Pitcher and hitter are on the same team, and they work together with spoken queues. “Set, ready, ball.” And then a swing. Once the hitter makes contact, he has to reach base before any of the six fielders, who are all legally blind and also blindfolded, pick up the ball.
But here’s an extra catch. After the ball’s in play, an official behind the plate can choose to activate a buzzing sound on either first or third base. So hitters have to listen hard before they book it for the bag. And the bag is 4-foot-tall tackling dummy. Talk about a bang-bang play. Right when fielders are trying to smother a ball they can’t see, the hitter is plowing into a base he can’t see as hard as possible. It’s wild, and there’s no such thing as a routine out.
Rather than being like a traditional baseball game atmosphere, it’s more like a tennis match atmosphere because the fans have to be quiet. Airplanes, police sirens and even barking dogs can stop play because the players have to be able to hear. It is a game of sound. Then when each play ends, you will hear an eruption of sound as players celebrate.
What kind of athletes are these players? Are you surprised by what they can do despite their vision impairment?
I am always surprised by what they can do. One thing that’s great about this sport is its inclusion. Some players are not very athletic but make up for it with their ear and still get a chance to participate, while others are very athletic and have a real smoothness to their swing.
There is one guy who’s about 5-foot-2 and was blind when he was born and played as a kid with his dad. Now he’s a lawyer and a colorful, hilarious guy. He’s not a classically athletic guy, but he’s one of the best players. He’s kind of what you imagine a professional baseball player was like in 1908.
Another player was a self-described young guy who had all the confidence in the world when he was in a car accident that caused his blindness. In the intervening years he’s clearly gotten in touch with his spirituality and become a positive guy. He’s the fastest beep baseball player and an incredible player.
What’s in store for Eau Claire spectators who check out the 2018 Beep Baseball World Series?
I think people who head to the Series in Eau Claire will be surprised and impressed by what they see and hear. It’s definitely surprising and exciting and I think people will get wrapped up in it.
Spectators will witness a game they’ve never imagined.
It’s amazing to see the sighted pitcher and visually impaired hitter work together. Though the players have a certain limitation with their sight, they still display their grit and passion for baseball and are willing to make sacrifices.
That makes every play a kind of human drama.
What does this sport mean to participants?
For some it means their first chance to play competitive sports. For some it’s a networking opportunity. For some it offers the chance to forget their blindness for a few hours a week and be treated just as competitors — to not be congratulated for doing a minimal thing when they know they can do a maximal thing. It’s a chance not to get patted on the back but to get rough and tumble and compete.
It means a lot for some of these guys to do something that’s not just fun, but feels both risky and free.
When you lose your sight people are always telling you to slow down, but this is a chance for them to go all out.