Blind Athletes Step Up to the Plate in Local League

Courtesy of The Boston Renegades

Regardless of the extent of their blindness, all athletes on a beepball team are required to wear blindfolds for the duration of the game.

In Joe McCormick’s mind, his competitive sporting days were over during his senior year of high school. Aqil Sajjad never thought he would be able to play sports again after his 16th birthday. But for these two and for thousands of other visually-impaired individuals across the United States, the sport of beep baseball (“beepball”) has changed everything.

Both McCormick and Sajjad play beepball, a variation of baseball, for the Association of Blind Citizens’ Boston Renegades, a co-ed team composed of visually-impaired athletes and volunteer coaches. The Renegades give McCormick, a junior in Adams house, and Sajjad, a Harvard graduate student pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical particle physics, an opportunity rarely afforded to legally blind individuals—a chance to compete in athletics at the national level.

McCormick began to lose sight in his right eye in February of his final year of high school and was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) in the same month.

“I woke up one day, and I looked through a telescope and I thought the lens cap was on,” the Melrose, Mass. native said. “But when I put the other eye in I could see fine. That’s when I realized there was something wrong.”

McCormick eventually began losing sight in his left eye in May of the same year, and now has vision of what he estimates to be around 20/800. (Perfect vision is regarded as 20/20.) Although the engineering sciences concentrator is still partially sighted, his ability to play sports was one aspect of his life most affected by his disease.

“Basically [my] whole blocking group and group of friends are all about sports,” McCormick said. “All throughout school, we’d be playing something on the weekends—just pick up basketball or pick up football or something.… But after losing my vision, I really couldn’t keep up with them as much. I could play, but we’d always have to modify the rules…. It wasn’t the same.”

Sajjad also lost his ability to play the sports under standard rules as a result of his blindness. The native of Pakistan suffered a retinal detachment in his right eye at the age of 10, and at 16, his left retina also became detached. Sajjad, an avid cricket fan, played the sport throughout his youth until he lost all vision in both eyes.

“When I lost my sight, cricket was the game that I was most crazy about,” Sajjad said. “And when they told me about [blind cricket], it was so different from real cricket…. It seemed like it would be so much less interesting that I didn’t even feel like trying it out.”

Enter beepball into both of these men’s lives. There are six players on the field. Not only are these players legally blind, but they are all also blindfolded so everybody is on a level playing field. There are two sighted coaches, known as “spotters,” on the field as well, whose job it is to alert the fielders of the direction the ball is hit by yelling out a number corresponding to a part of the field.

The batter is also blindfolded, but the pitcher and the catcher are sighted coaches on the batter’s team. The ball—an enlarged softball with a 16-inch circumference instead of a 12-inch one—beeps as it is thrown. There are two four-foot tall foam pillars placed 30 feet down the first and third base lines that begin to beep once the batter makes contact with the ball. The batter does not know which pillar will beep when the ball is hit, and if he runs down the line and touches the beeping pillar before a player in the field picks up the ball, a run is recorded. If a fielder finds the beeping ball and holds it up in the air before the batter touches the pillar, then the batter is out. There are four strikes and one “ball”—one chance to not swing—afforded to a batter and six innings in a complete game.

Sajjad was first introduced to the sport in 2009 and played his first full season for the Boston Renegades in 2010, while McCormick joined the team this past winter.

“Like any other game, it’s competitive,” Sajjad said. “Once you get into it, you feel all the excitement. If things are going well, you’re jumping up and down with excitement, and if things are not going well, you feel like crying.”

The Renegades went 10-5 this season, and traveled to Ames, Iowa in August to compete in the Beepball World Series, where they finished ninth out of 17 teams. At the tournament, McCormick hit .643, an all-time Renegade World Series high.

But for McCormick, playing for the Renegades is about more than just winning or batting well. It’s about being part of a competitive atmosphere again and playing with people who he’s come to regard as close friends.

“It’s so much fun to just hit a ball and know that the defense isn’t going to make a play on it,” McCormick said. “My favorite feeling is just after hitting the ball and hearing the crowd cheer…. Pretty much before this I didn’t really know any other people who are blind…. This was the first time I met people who had vision like mine or much worse, so I was able to meet them [and] get to know all their experiences.”

Sajjad echoes his teammate’s sentiments.

“I think [beepball] is the whole package,” Sajjad said. “And it’s not just the game, it’s that I feel very welcome by the whole team…. The head coaches are amazing. I mean, these guys are all volunteers, and they do it for us…. Initially when I joined, I didn’t know how much I was going to enjoy it. But the team is so nice and awesome, and the game is fun. So I just gradually fell in love with it completely."

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