Camden hosts exhibition of beep baseball, allowing blind to play national pastime
Sounds pretty hard, doesn't it? Maybe even impossible?
And yet some 50 or so fans at Campbell's Field Saturday afternoon got to witness players who could not see playing baseball — actually beep baseball, a version of the game specially designed to allow the blind and visually impaired to enjoy the game despite not being able to see it unfold.
"I can't even really put it into words, the experience that I've had with these guys," said Bob Ciecierski, volunteer head coach of the New Jersey Lightning. "A lot of people don't give them credit for what they can do, what they can accomplish. They're regular citizens, they just don't have vision.
"Some of them lost their sight more recently, they played Little League ball, college ball, even softball. Suddenly they lose their sight and can't play a game they love any more. To see these guys come out and ... get a new lease on life, so to speak, with this sport ... is very, very rewarding."
The game is a simplified version of baseball, with six-player teams on a smaller field with just two bases 100 feet from home plate. The pitcher and catcher, both sighted, are part of the batting team to help the hitters, and fielders and batters alike wear blindfolds to even the playing field between those who are just visually impaired and those who are completely blind.
Beep Baseball for the visually impaired in Camden, May 24, 2014
Long Island Bombers vs. New Jersey Lightning National Beep Baseball Association game for the visually impaired at Campbells Field in Camden, Saturday, May 24, 2014. (Staff Video by Joe Warner/South Jersey Times)
The game was dreamed up in the 1960s, but technology didn't come along until the 1970s that made it more reliable and accessible to all. The National Beep Baseball Association was created, and it now features nearly 30 American teams across the country as well as a Taiwan national team.
The Long Island Bombers came down for Saturday's exhibition against the Lightning, a team that just began play in 2010. Sherlock Washington, a former Paralympic medalist in the high jump, helped found the Matawan-based team after spending years before traveling all over to play beep baseball.
"I've been playing for awhile, since 1995," Washington said. "I played with teams all over the country, from Chicago, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado – I think I've been part of every growing team in the NBBA. I was tasked through the ABANJ, the Association for Blind Athletes of New Jersey, to try and start something here in New Jersey."
"It's keeping me young," said 61-year-old friend and teammate Doug Winthrop, a four-year member of the Lightning who traveled from his Florida home for the game. "I hadn't played an organized sport since college, so this was ... It was a godsend. I don't mind being the oldest one, because I can compete with these guys. As long as you're physically fit ..."
One of the youngest members of the team is 22-year-old Lamont Bordley, a Pleasantville High School graduate who played basketball and ran track and is one of a few rookies on the team. He travels nearly two hours from Atlantic City to practice on Sundays because finding the game has meant so much. Saturday was his first real game with the team against an NBBL opponent, and friends and family in attendance.
"Especially since I lost my sight just a year and a half ago (in an accident), just to be out and running again, full speed, that's a joy, to sit on the bench with ... my team," said Bordley after the game as the teams relaxed in a Skyline Suite before the Riversharks game. "I'm an athlete.... We have the same drive as people with sight. I was hyped. I was a little mad I couldn't get on base, but it was a good experience."
The people hosting the event wholeheartedly agreed with Bordley.
"It's really neat stuff, it's something I never heard of before," Riversharks general manager Adam Lorber said. "I think this is something our fans would enjoy watching ... the effort, determination and dedication these guys have. It's still a form of baseball. It's hard enough hitting a baseball when you can see."
"I saw something in a paper ... and I gave it to Karen," said Ed McDonnell, Deputy Director of the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders, who helped bring the game to Camden along with Karen Weidman, Director of Programming for Disabled Citizens and assistant Michael Brennan. "What we try to do in the program for disabled children and adults is open doors to stuff they maybe couldn't do before.
"A couple of the players on the Riversharks have offered to help us. We're thinking ... maybe if we can find enough people who live in South Jersey who want to play, we could have our own team."
A South Jersey team would be a big help to someone like Bordley though he admitted he'd hate to leave the Lightning, who scored two runs in the final inning to pull out a 5-4 victory over the Bombers.
Both teams will be in Haddonfield July 12 for a tournament hosted by the Pennsylvania Wolfpack of Philadelphia and Upper Darby, Pa., and the annual Beepball World Series will take place Aug. 3-10 in Rochester, Minnesota.
While Ciecierski would miss having Bordley if a South Jersey team does eventually result from events like Saturday's exhibition, he would love it too because it would further draw attention to the sport and expand opportunities for people who might not be able to see but want to live their lives with their eyes wide open.
"That's our main goal, to see the sport grow," Ciecierski said. "I'd love to see every state have at least two or three teams. Any town, city or county that wants to try to promote beep baseball or start their own team, God bless them. That's what it's all about."
BASIC RULES OF BEEPBALL
• 6 players per team
• 6-inning games
• two bases, first and third, each 100 feet from home plate
• pitcher and catcher are sighted, and on same team as batter
• batter may take one pitch during at-bat; four strikes and a batter is out; three outs per team per inning
• players must hit balls past a "foul line" 40 feet from home plate (and in between foul lines) for ball to be in play
• six opposing players make up defense, playing in zones they are responsible for
• when ball is hit, buzzer is activated on one of two bases; batter must run to that base
• if fielder locates ball and picks it up away from the body before batter reaches base, it's an out; if batter reaches base first, it's a run
• spectators are asked not to cheer or clap until play is over so players can hear the beeping ball and buzzing base