Sometimes, it takes people a while to find what really means a lot to them in life. Other times, people know right away.
In my life, it didn’t take long. I have always been passionate about sports and anything athletic. As a kid, I could always be found playing some sort of game or sport. Even going as far as almost exclusively playing sports video games. Needless to say, I was a tad consumed by sports.
I played three sports throughout my childhood, all through high school and even a bit in college. Unfortunately, that came to a screeching halt when I entered the adult world.
Unlike most people who crave some kind of athletic experience, I wasn’t able to just jump into any rec league sport. As many of you know, I am legally blind. I have a small tunnel of usable vision, no color vision and very limited vision at night. So men’s league basketball and slow pitch softball were out of the question for me. That didn’t stop me from trying, but it wasn’t enjoyable. Plus, I really suck at basketball.
That all changed for me in the summer of 2015.
I was kind of in a dark place sitting in my mother’s house and googling around to see if there was something to scratch my itch to play sports. I was searching for anything that I could possibly do. Eventually, I took a shot in the dark (pun intended) and asked google if there were any sports specifically designed for people who are blind or visually imparied. Of course, I had heard of wheelchair basketball and seen a team of deaf football players, but I had never really heard of any blind sports.
After scrolling through a few pages, I stumbled upon the sport of Beep Baseball. For those who don’t know (like I didn’t) Beep Baseball is a modified version of baseball for the blind and visually impaired. How it works is, there are two teams full of visually impaired folks who are all blindfolded to level the playing field due to the varying levels of sight. As the name suggests, the ball is a modified softball that beeps so it can be located without vision. Each team has a sighted pitcher and catcher, who work to try and throw the ball where each player swings. The ball is then hit (hopefully) and the batter then runs to either first or third base, which are 3 foot tackling dummies 100 feet away from home plate that make a buzzing noise. The batter doesn’t know which base is going to go off until it does. The fielding team has sighted volunteers in the field that can a number (1 through 6) that tells the 6 defensive players in the field roughly where the ball is going. Then it becomes a race between the batter and fielders. If the batter touches the tackling dummy before the defensive team collects the ball, that is a run. If someone on the defensive team picks the ball up at least six inches off the ground and has full control before the batter reaches the base, it’s an out. Each game is 6 innings, and each inning contains 3 outs.
Needless to say, I had the same reaction you are having right now. I needed to find out more.
So, I googled if there was a team near me. Luckily there was.
I was prompted to the homepage of the Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades, a charity beep baseball team that was based in Watertown. I spent about 20 minutes surfing through the website and I stumbled upon a roster. The first player on the list was a name I recognized, so I reached out to him. Meanwhile, I took to social media to see if the Renegades had a presence there. Turns out they did. So I reached out and asked about the team.
I received a quick response and eventually set up a call with the team’s head of recruiting. I had a nice long conversation with him and he encouraged me to come to a charity game that was happening that fall.
That charity game was against the Woburn Host Lions in Woburn, MA. I showed up with your stereotypical baseball equipment. I had a hat, cleats, bat and a glove. As I walked towards what I presumed was the team, I saw a bunch of guys and girls with canes, sunglasses and hearing their phones reading their text messages to them. It was a tad overwhelming to be honest. I was the only blind person I really knew, and I had little experience with embracing the blind lifestyle.
I had a tremendous time that day. I was even injected right into the game and got a little bit of experience. I was hooked for the next season which started in February.
Then February came. I had a long…….long phone conversation with the head coach about practicing indoors. I was ready to go. Unfortunately for me, I woke up the morning of my first practice with a 102 temperature and some intestinal distress. I took the day off of work and was thinking that I needed to cancel on my first day of practice. I decided to say screw it and I took some ibuprofen and imodium and made it there. I got to a donated warehouse that was turned into a batting cage. Instead of the recreational sport I was expecting, I came into an intense practice with work on swing mechanics, fitness and defensive strategy. I was kind of taken back a bit, but I loved it.
Then we went outside to practice in Watertown in March. I really got my first glimpse of the real game. The intensity of blind people running at full speed and throwing themselves on the ground to stop a ball that weighs a pound by letting it hit them in the chest. I like to think I am a tough guy, but that prospect was a little nerve racking. Not to mention running to a base with a blind fold on and trying to touch it without killing yourself. That was tough to get a handle on.
Not only was I amazed at the sport itself, the players had some incredible stories. On the Renegades, they had people from all walks of life. From people who had lost their vision at birth, to those who lost it later in life. Not only that, these people had some incredible professions. There were computer engineers, stay at home dads, public transit experts and even a doctor in theoretical particle physics. I was amazed at how these people did all these things with very limited, or no vision at all.
What also amazed me, was the fact that the Renegades had a stable of great coaches, who were all volunteers. Helping these players from things as mundane as guiding them to the restroom, to advanced baseball swing mechanics. These people were incredible to see how much they loved helping out and coaching the team. They even put a ton of effort into helping me out, even though most of them had known me for about 12 minutes at that point.
I knew I was all in after that first outdoor practice.
My rookie season progressed and we went to my first World Series for the National Beep Baseball Association. Again, I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. FIrst things first, I had never traveled without someone I truly knew before. Now here I was going to Ames, Iowa with a bunch of other blind people and some coaches I knew for about 4 months. It was an experience to say the least.
Then we got to the actual tournament and I saw how intense the competition actually was. We had gone to a few local tournaments, but they were nothing compared to this. Teams from all over the country with impressive athletes and dedicated coaches. Not only that, but the tournament was five days long and consisted of an incredible amount of strategy. That week, I was in the starting lineup as the designated hitter, and we went on a miracle run that brought us all the way to the championship game. We did lose the game, but that run cemented my commitment to the team. My wife even joined the team as a coach and the backup catcher a year or so later. The whole house was involved in everything Renegade.
As the years went on, I had varying amounts of success. Like any athletic journey, there were ups and downs. Not only that, but in life there were inevitably ebbs and flows.
In the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, I was in a pretty bad spot. I had been let go from a teaching position and was honestly struggling to make ends meet. My fiance (now wife) and I were budgeting down to the last dollar and our families were helping us out a lot. Couple that with having one of my worst statistical years in beep ball the year before and it is a recipe for disaster. When practice started in February, one of my teammates and the league's best hitter began taking a real interest in fixing my swing. He and I worked for hours at practice to make little adjustments. He pretty much became my personal swing coach, even jokingly telling other coaches not to talk to me about my swing. We made great strides all winter and I was finally feeling good about something, but it wasn’t as good as it could be. Then the head coach came in clutch with a small adjustment that sent things to the moon.
In 2019, I had my best year ever. I was hitting for power and not striking out as much. Then the 2019 World Series came. The team started off slow, but we eventually hit our groove. My pitcher and I were in rare form. Even bad swings were resulting in foul balls instead of swings and misses. When the week ended, the team was in 3rd place, beating a team we never had to earn that spot. I had hit .717 on the week, when before that I was a .350ish hitter. All of the credit goes to the coaching staff and people who helped along the way. It also turns out that our team’s best hitter and I were both named to the offensive all star team for the whole league. It was an incredible time in my life.
Then, like everything else, Covid ruined it. All of our tournaments and practices were cancelled. Like many of my teammates, beep ball was one of the things that motivated me to get up some mornings. It gave me a reason to stay in shape and something to look forward to in the future. Also, all of the other players and coaches had become good friends of mine. We had spent long hours in vans and on planes together and shared some incredible moments (some good, some bad, some hilarious). That was all taken away by a dumb virus.
At long last, our first practice in almost 2 years is this Sunday. It’ll look a lot different than usual, but it will just be great to get back on the field. It means so much to all of the players and coaches to be back out there. We are all so passionate about the game and it was cruelly taken away last year, after a greatly successful year in 2019.
Our team is a non-profit and our budget is solely based on charitable donations. We get a lot of help from various Lions clubs in Massachusetts and some players get a Challenged Athlete Foundation Grant. These are great and we are truly appreciative of them. Unfortunately, beep ball is an expensive game. Each ball costs about $40 and on a good (or bad) day we can go through four or five in a practice. I’m not a mathematician, but that is quite a bit of cash. Couple that with travel expenses to tournaments and you get some big checks to write.
As part of our responsibilities as players, we are asked to fundraise to help pay for ourselves and others. The Renegades never ask volunteers to pay for travel. They do so much for our team and that would just be unreasonable. We even have a team doctor who volunteers his time for us and has taken great care of us several times.
I am asking for those who have the ability to consider donating to the Renegades. Every penny goes to the team. If you mention Blind Owl, it will also go towards my fundraising goal for the year! Any amount is great if you choose to donate and I, as well as the whole team, will greatly appreciate it!
Here is the link to donate to the Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades: https://www.blindcitizens.org/renegades/fundraising/ The “Donate Now” button is off to the left of your screen.
We are also always looking for volunteers with any kind of experience! If you have any interest in volunteering for the Renegades reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a link to our team website if you want to look around: http://www.blindcitizens.org/renegades/
We are also on Facebook and YouTube!
Thanks to those who chose to donate and those who read this blog. The Renegades mean a lot to me and I’d do anything to keep the squad going and as competitive as we’ve been my whole career.