This article originally appeared in the Metropolitan Monitor, October 2012

 

The NBBA’s Long Island Bombers and the New Jersey Lightning faced off at Central Park during an exhibition game hosted by New York City’s Parks Department and the mayor’s office for People with Disabilities.

 

Dressed full in Yankee-styled pinstripes, 29-year-old Matt Puvogel digs his shoes into Central Park’s grass, and bends down to feel for the base between his feet. He finds it, slightly shifts his stance and waves his bat back and forth, preparing for the baseball that will soon come his way.

He listens. Beep, beep, beep, beep.

He concentrates on the sound emanating from in front of him. He yells, “Set!” and a baseball flies his way. For a fraction of a second the buzzing gets louder: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP—smack! His bat makes contact, and the ball shoots forward like a bullet and lands 20 yards away. His hit triggers a longer buzzing sound from one of the two bases. Puvogel runs toward it, his arms outstretched, feeling for the cushioned tower he hopes to reach before the players on the opposing team grab his downed baseball, which is still beeping.

Puvogel and his team, the Long Island Bombers, faced the New Jersey Lightning on Sunday afternoon in Central Park’s North Meadow as part of an exhibition game of the National Beep Baseball Association, a league for blind and vision-impaired players. New York City’s Parks Department and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities hosted the game, dubbed, “Hear the Ball”—which is literally what the game is built upon: sound.

Beep baseball gets its name from the sound that emits from its 19-ounce baseball and its stand-up tower bases. The NBBA was organized in 1975 to allow blind adults to play baseball, and the league hosts an annual World Series for its 26 national teams and international team in Taiwan that will be held in mid-summer this year in Columbus, Georgia.

The spirit of the game is the same as traditional baseball, but the rules differ. Each player is allowed four strikes instead of three, and they have only two bases— the equivalents of first and third. If a fielder gets to the ball before the batter reaches base— it’s an out. If the batter reaches base first, a point is scored for the team. At 16 inches in circumference, the beep baseball is larger than a baseball’s nine inches or a softball’s 12. And since not all of the players are completely blind, the batter and fielders all wear blindfolds to make things fair.

“When we’re playing, it’s like I don’t have a disability,” says Puvogel after the game, his Bombers taking it 7-2 in beep baseball’s standard six innings. He’s been playing for nine years, but still remembers his debut game. “The first time I ran to a base, I was like ‘where is this thing?’ It feels like it’s in another country!” he joked. “You get used to it.”

Playing the game, however, involves much more than simply adapting to beeps.

“The two major obstacles, if you never played blind sports before, is realizing you’re in a safe environment—that there is nothing on the field that could hurt you and everyone else that is sighted is there to help you,” says the silver-ponytailed coach of the New Jersey Lightning, Bob Ciecierski, who has led the team for three years and isn’t blind. “The second is letting your inner fortitude take over and allowing yourself to rely on your senses, especially your sense of hearing.”

Since hearing is a major factor to the game, Ciecierski routinely stops the game when there is sound pollution, such as an aircraft overhead—something many sighted people may not notice.

The Lightning, which were founded in 2010 as New Jersey’s only beep baseball team and are known for their blue and yellow jerseys and pinstriped pants, will host a beep baseball tournament at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J., in June, where they may face the Bombers once again.

“Besides being awesome and phenomenal, it’s the best personal experience I’ve ever had,” Ciecierski says of coaching his team. “Watching these guys play the way they do and getting out there and playing with all their heart because they love the game.”

“Some of these guys play with more heart than the Yankees,” he added.