beepbaseball

Roger Keeney, 74, wears his eye mask and uniform during practice. Scenes from the beep baseball team The Timberwolves' practice at Trail Creek Park in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, March 2, 2019. Led by Roger Keeney, the team practiced setting up the field, batting, fielding, and started to train a new pitcher, which is the only sighted player on the team. (Photo/Caroline Barnes, http://carolinembarnes.wixsite.com/photography)

The Athens Timberwolves start off practice with a chant. Someone yells “Timber-” and gets “-wolves” in reply. But the formula becomes more practical when they start to play. 

Call and response — the formula for so many American sports chants — is necessary for the Timberwolves, but not as a chant. 

Before every at bat, fielders sound off “one-two-three-four-five,” denoting their position and location. Personal calls of “Where are you?” followed by “Here I am,” ring out between adjacent fielders. 

It is all necessary when you are playing baseball blind. 

Traveling to Tulsa

The Timberwolves, currently Georgia’s only team in the National Beep Baseball Association, were formed in 2013 as a part of Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports. Beep baseball is an adaptation of America’s pastime which allows visually impaired athletes to play.

Before they were the Timberwolves, team captain Roger Keeney founded the first Athens beep baseball team in 1997, a year after he moved to town to pursue a doctorate from the University of Georgia. 

While In Aderhold Hall one day, Keeney ran into another blind man. 

“Cane to cane, a guy coming the other way with a white stick. We ran into each other, literally,” Keeney said. “After we got through our introductions, I said ‘Where do you play beep ball?’ He said, ‘Where do I play what?’” 

After that, Keeney began the Lobos, the first beep baseball program in Athens, which eventually became the Timberwolves. 

This summer, the Timberwolves are practicing for the annual NBBA World Series, the association’s international tournament. Teams from across the baseball-playing world convene on one city for a week of beep baseball. This year, 19 teams will be in attendance. The Timberwolves have been attending since its inception. 

Playing the game

The rules of beep baseball do not deviate too far from the sighted version of the sport, but fielders and batters must be visually impaired to play. Since some players may have partial vision, everyone wears a blind fold to make it fair. 

The electric ball is turned on and continuously makes a high-pitched beeping sound. There are only two bases — first and third. The bases make a low buzzing sound.   

On offense, a sighted pitcher and a sighted catcher play on the same team as the blind batter. The pitcher and catcher are trying to make it as easy as possible for the batter to hit the ball. 

The batter is given four strikes and one pitch they can pass on. Once the batter hits the ball, one of the two bases activates — the batter runs to that base. 

There are five blind fielders waiting in the outfield with a sighted spotter. The spotter calls out where the ball is hit, so the fielders can react before the ball passes them. 

If the ball is fielded before the batter reaches the base, the batter is out. If the batter reaches the base before the ball is fielded, the offense earns a run — three outs per inning, six innings. 

Committed to greatness

Going to the World Series will cost the Timberwolves about $870 per player. With their coach, players and the rest of their entourage, the Timberwolves will bring 17 people to Tulsa, and between transportation, hotel and team fees, the total cost of the trip will be about $10,000. 

The Timberwolves get funding from several different sources, but everything not paid for by donations comes out of pocket. 

The Challenged Athletes Foundation offers grants to individual athletes. Jackson EMC donated $7,500 to the Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports program, some of which will help pay for the Timberwolves’ trip. The team also receives donations from individuals, and the University of Georgia’s Delta Gamma sorority puts on a philanthropy event to raise money for the team. 

But with the World Series weeks away, Keeney said the Timberwolves are still looking for sponsors to alleviate the cost of the trip. The way Keeney and the rest of the team talk, the Timberwolves were never considering foregoing the World Series.

Life changes  

This year, 19 teams are currently signed up to attend the World Series. That’s down from about to 25 teams attending the past few tournaments. The Timberwolves are going. The tournament gives them a chance to challenge themselves playing against some of the world’s best beep baseball programs. 

Keeney formally began playing beep baseball before he was blind in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1976, and he went to his first world series that year. It was only the second time the tournament had been held. He has played consistently ever since. 

“I’ve been with the game since the beginning. Watched it evolve. Watched it become international,” said Keeney.

Keeney was introduced to the game by chance. 

At 17 years old after growing up on a farm in New York state, he ran off and joined a carnival. He decided to head for California after working all along the East Coast, taking a stop to stay with his aunt outside of Phoenix, Arizona. 

Keeney ended up at Arizona State University, playing football under College Football Hall of Fame coach Frank Kush. 

At Arizona State, Keeney double majored in psychology and child development, and as part of his studies he had to do a practicum. They drew places of work out of a hat. He drew the Phoenix Center for the Blind. 

It was there Keeney was introduced to beep baseball.  

“I say God has a sense of humor,” Keeney said. 

After working as a therapist for 20 years, at age 40 Keeney was back working on a farm. One day, while shoveling corn, a piece of the pulley system on the silo elevator broke off and hit him on the head. He lost consciousness, later woke up, and realized he could no longer see.

Keeney had spent years working in Gestalt therapy, helping clients change their view of their difficult issues. But now, he had to learn how to live blind.

Keeney believes in the power of inclusive recreation — changing the way one thinks to be able to change how something is done, opening experiences up to more people. Tamara Hale is one of the many players who has benefited from this adaptation of sport. 

“I actually played in high school, and I’ve been loving it ever since,” Hale said. “[After playing in high school], I said, ‘Hey. When are we going to get an adult beep baseball team going?’”

It was around that time Hale was introduced to the Timberwolves. She has been a mainstay in the team ever since. Hale has fun while she plays, talking trash and smiling throughout practice, but the game also allows her to show a competitive edge. She made it clear that she wants to win a ring in Tulsa. 

Changing the game

Although Hale and the rest of her teammates are focused on winning, Keeney stressed the empowerment beep baseball gives, even when the team does not win. The adaptation of the sport allows the inclusion of those who could otherwise not play. 

Keeney said disability is “more about diversity than inability.” It’s a different world view, and providing new experiences to others can be life changing. In beep baseball, this happens with some practical rule changes, but in the real world it can happen with new technology working toward inclusivity.  

This is felt when speaking to Cody Jeffares. 

Jeffares is one of the team’s youngest members, and he works as a representative for Cyber Eyez, a branch of Cyber Timez, a tech company working in accessibility. 

Jeffares is not blind but visually impaired. With 20/300 vision, he requires help to complete tasks many take for granted, like reading a restaurant menu. He has trouble seeing objects farther than a few feet away, but Cyber Eyez changed that. 

The company uses a phone, like the one Jeffares owns, and a modified VR headset to amplify vision, essentially turning the phone into electronic binoculars. Jeffares says it allows him to clearly read when something is close; he can read a menu. At a distance, it’s life changing.  

Jeffares and his family regularly attend Atlanta Braves games. They sit down the third-base line. Before Cyber Eyez, Jeffares could barely make out the nearest player. 

“When [Ronald] Acuña was playing left field, I could barely make out Acuña standing there,” Jeffares said.  

Beginning to speak faster, Jeffares continued, “I put these on: I can read his jersey; I can read [Dansby] Swanson’s jersey; I can see the pitcher; I can see him throwing the ball to the catcher. I can see the freaking ball.” 

Accessibility can be as life altering as being able to clearly see something you have only ever seen in silhouette, or as small as being able to play a game you love.

Technology can drastically change how Jeffares actually views the world, but beep baseball itself gives players a different worldview, giving them the feeling of independence that comes from playing a sport.

It all falls under the motto of Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports: “Making the impossible possible.” 

“You give people an opportunity that society has told them, ‘You can’t do that,’” Keeney said. “You say, ‘Eh, let’s do it anyway.’ And lives change.”

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