When Mike King approaches home plate for his turn to bat, a spotter will walk with him part of the way before the catcher finishes the job. Once King is in the batter’s box, he listens to the pitcher’s instructions for where he should stand.
In Beep baseball, a league for blind, low-vision and legally blind players, the pitcher and batter work together. And King, who is legally blind, says he trusts his pitcher to deliver the ball, which is embedded with a speaker, directly in front of his bat as he swings.
When he stands at the plate, King sometimes can smell the exhaust from cars driving on nearby streets. For games at Rainier Beach High School, where the Seattle South King Sluggers Beep baseball team practices, the action occasionally must pause if an airplane overhead disrupts the silence. But usually, King just hears the rustling of the crowd and the quiet sounds of nature.
When a small pin is removed from the ball, a high-pitched beeping sound breaks the silence and the pursuit begins. King and his teammates’ objective is straightforward: to win.
“With blind people, we’ve been relegated to being participants (instead of competitors),” said Kevin Daniel, the coach of Seattle’s Beep baseball team.
Daniel doesn’t want his team to simply play, and he doesn’t want to hear spectators say, “Oh, that’s so sweet, look what they’re doing.” The goal is to play well, to hit the ball hard and far, and to eventually win the Beep Baseball World Series.
“That gives the public a chance to go, ‘I’m celebrating blind people rather than pitying them,’ ” Daniel said. “That’s what the goal of Beep baseball has always been.”
When Daniel founded the Sluggers, he remembers saying, “If I’m going to do this, it’s got to be with the understanding that people who are blind in Seattle are going to have to want to be champions.”
He wanted players who carried that mind-set through everything, from the way they raise funds to how they walk down hallways at hotels.
The Sluggers soon will make their second trip to their sport’s World Series in West Palm Beach, Fla. Last year, Seattle’s team finished 18th, and it’ll start the tournament on Tuesday seeded No. 14 out of 22 teams, Daniel said.
“It’s no different than the Mariners going to the World Series and winning it,” King said. “We want to do that. We want to show that blind athletes can do the same thing and compete.”
Daniel founded the team five years ago after moving to the Seattle area from Spokane, where he also created a Beep baseball team. Daniel has been legally blind since birth, and he played the sport from the time he was 13 years old. Beep baseball gave him a community and a reason to be outdoors where he could feel the sun beat down on him.
“All the things I loved at 13 is why I do it right now,” said Daniel, who has X-linked juvenile retinoschisis, which left him without vision in his left eye and only peripheral vision in his right eye. “I can see me in some of these guys.”
In six-inning games, teams of six players take turns batting. Batters are allowed one pass ball, meaning they don’t swing, and four strikes result in an out. All players wear blindfolds to keep the game fair because some players have limited sight.
After a hit, players run toward either first or third base, which is decided randomly. The athletes listen for base pylon’s beeping sound to know which way to run. If the batter reaches the base before the defender grabs the ball, it’s a run. If not, it’s an out.
The pitcher, the catcher and the spotter provide sighted support. The spotter calls which defender’s zone the ball lands in, a way to make sure players don’t collide. The defenders communicate with each other on the field, so if the ball rolls closer to another player, they know who should go for it.
Defenders count on listening to the ball, but the key to batting well is listening to the pitcher.
“Your pitcher has to sync up to your swing, and you’ve got to try to keep your swing consistent,” Luz Avalos said.
At practice, the players don’t have to worry about feeling pitied. King has been part of the team since its inaugural season in 2013, and he said Daniel lets players know when they aren’t doing something right.
After Avalos and teammate Dylan Pleasants didn’t communicate well enough about who should chase the ball, a few of the players on defense quickly found themselves doing jumping jacks on the field.
But when the game is going well, Daniel said he’s quite enthusiastic.
King remembers his coach picking him up in celebration after he scored a run in a game against the Colorado Storm in 2013. The Sluggers were getting beat badly, but King’s run erased the team’s zero on the scoreboard.
“Being part of a competitive sport is nice — not recreation, competitive,” King said.
A confidence boost
In the team’s five years, just two of Seattle’s players have hit a home run. It’s a rarity in Beep baseball, so uncommon that it counts as two runs. First, Dino Sanchez hit one a few years ago, but that wasn’t too much of a surprise. Sanchez is the team’s “biggest, brawniest player,” Daniel said, and he frequently hits the ball far.
A few weeks later, King hit a home run, too. This one, however, was more of a shock. Daniel didn’t realize King could swing that hard.
King knew it was a good hit as he sprinted toward the beeping first base. But he didn’t know the ball had gone the full 170 feet until the umpire said, “Home run.”
King remembers how excited his coach was, but Daniel also noticed a change in the other players. Even though King doesn’t know if he’ll ever hit a home run again, he now serves as proof that it can be done.
“You’ll notice your players’ posture is a little different when they get to the plate,” Daniel said. “‘Mike did it. I want to see if I can get it out there, too.’ ”
Avalos, a 24-year-old, has been blind for two years. His Type 1 diabetes caused a retinal detachment, and after he became blind, Avalos said he kept to himself for about a year. He would stay at home in his room. He had always liked to travel but suddenly felt unable to explore new cities.
“I wasn’t the same as I was before,” Avalos said. “I just kind of gave up hope.”
He moved from Maryland to Seattle and enrolled at the Orientation and Training Center (OTC), a school that teaches life skills to people who are blind or have low vision and helps them find jobs.
Daniel, the Sluggers’ coach, gave a presentation at the OTC about the sport. Avalos and Pleasants, his roommate, decided to give Beep baseball a try. And gradually, thanks to the school and the sport, Avalos’ perspective started to change.
Before, Avalos felt like he was simply drifting through life. Now he sees goals and chases them.
In their second game at the World Series, the Sluggers will face the Boston Renegades, the No. 2 team in the country, in what is the final game for seeding purposes before the double-elimination bracket. Avalos sees the game against Boston as an opportunity. Plus, he said, this is sports, so “anything can happen.”
‘Changing what it means’
At first, Avalos was skeptical of Beep baseball. As someone who grew up playing soccer, he worried that the new sport would be too easy or that it wouldn’t spark his competitive spirit. When he played for the first time this year, Avalos realized that would not be the case.
Avalos remembers running toward the base for the first time at practice. The space between home plate and first base became a 100-foot stretch where he felt liberated and empowered.
Nothing stood in his way, and he didn’t have to worry about accidentally colliding with a wall. Avalos hadn’t run full-speed like that in two years. But finally, this sensation — an independent burst of joy — had returned.
“You just get this self-confidence,” Avalos said. “You become more sure of yourself. If I can do this on the field, I should be able to do it out in real life.”
At a recent practice, Avalos and many of his teammates wore the same shirt. The front featured a team logo, and the back read, “Changing what it means to be blind.”
In a sense, that’s what this team hopes to accomplish.
“We don’t want anybody feeling sorry for us,” King said.