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For the love of the game: Blind athletes take to baseball diamond

Written by Bobby Vasquez. Posted in Sports

Members of the Bayou City Heat celebrate after a NBBA World Series Tournament. Despite their visual impairments, their sport has captured the hearts and minds of those who have seen them play. Photo provided by NBBA.org.

The first rule of baseball is to keep your eye on the ball. But for a group of area athletes, baseball is played under a different set of rules – and in complete darkness.

For the Bayou City Heat, Houston's contribution to the National Beep Baseball Association, there's no keeping their eye on the ball. They, like every NBBA athlete, are either blind or visually impaired.
 
Deer Park resident Helen Boudreaux and her husband Charles are volunteers for the Heat. Their son Blake is blind and is regarded as one of the top beep baseball players in the world. Helen Boudreaux was this week's guest at the Deer Park Rotary Club lunch meeting.
 
"Beep baseball is not a pity party," she said. "It's a sport where the men and women play very hard. These athletes don't feel sorry for themselves or each other. They are there to play ball."
 
Beep baseball's rules are modified to fit the needs of the athletes. There's a pitcher and catcher, both of who are sighted and on the same team as the batter. They work in together with the batter to develop a cadence and location for the pitched ball so the batter can hit it. The pitcher stands only 20 feet from the batter.
 
The bases are 100 feet from home plate, placed at similar positions as the first and third bases of a regular baseball field. The ball is larger than a regular softball and a beeping mechanism is placed inside.
 
The ball constantly emits a beeping noise, loud enough for every athlete to hear it. When the ball is pitched and the batter hits it, one of the two bases randomly sounds a loud buzzing noise. The batter must run to the buzzing base and tag it before the defense finds the ball. If the batter gets there first, he or she scores a run for their team. If the defense finds the ball before the batter reaches base, the batter is out. An out or a run are the only two outcomes of a play. There are no base runners.
 
The defense is stationed in somewhat similar positions on baseball field and the field is divided into numbered zones. When the ball is hit, a spotter – sighted player who takes the field with the defense – shouts the number of the zone the ball is hit to. The spotter cannot direct players around the field, even if two players are about to collide.
 
"It has happened a few times," Boudreaux said. "You have to remember, they can't see out there and they are going full force."
 
Because some players are completely blind while others have slight-to-serious visual impairments, all participating players must wear a blindfold. Doing so levels the playing field, Boudreaux said.
 
Sometimes games are high scoring; teams tallying 20 or 30 runs are commonplace.
 
Even though players cannot see, Boudreaux said there have been four documented times in NBBA history that a player caught the ball on the fly.
 
Founded in 1979, the Bayou City Heat has been a competitive force in the NBBA. They won the NBBA World Series in 2002 and came in third place in last year's competition. They play teams from Tyler and Austin, and they, along with the Heat, participate in the World Series. Teams from as far away as Taiwan participate in the league.
 
To participate in games and the World Series, the NBBA needs the special baseballs, which must be custom made and cost up to $35 each. Traveling and finding lodging can be difficult too. The Boudreaux family, along with other NBBA volunteers is constantly looking for assistance. For more information visit www.nbba.org.