APRIL 20, 2018
BASEBALL IS THE GAME that has never been what it once was. It evolves from decade to decade — occasionally from season to season — and changes are greeted sometimes with incredulity, sometimes with disgust, and almost always with a degree of mournful resignation. The latest iteration of Major League Baseball (MLB) puts an unprecedented emphasis on power, breeding lineups filled one through nine with three-true-outcome hitters (that is, batters who are more or less guaranteed to either hit a home run, walk, or strike out). But the modern purist can sound like Ty Cobb discussing Babe Ruth’s influence on the sport about 100 years ago, bemoaning the way the long ball has changed baseball “from a game of science” to a carnival contest of brawn. Purists were further outraged when MLB announced this spring that extra innings in the minor leagues will henceforth begin with a runner magically placed on second base as part of an ongoing effort to speed up games at every level. Behind these changes and the resistance to them is a complex question with dozens of simple answers: what is baseball? The fan who is upended by the pitch clock, befuddled by the lack of hit-and-run plays, infuriated by the 40-homer slugger who can’t bunt to beat a shift, feels at least in the heat of a brief moment as though she has lost her grip on the game she’s faithfully loved since childhood, a fear that it has become something unrecognizable. But whatever happens in the most popular and public version of baseball (MLB), it has long been played and adored in innumerable variations: pepper and Piggy Move Up, pickle and stickball, double-or-nothing and knockout. Each of these adaptations succeeds because the elemental spirit of the game remains the same despite changes necessitated by circumstances. The same can be said for the subject of David Wanczyk’s book Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind, which illustrates how the particular joys and heartbreaks of any form of the sport render academic complaints about rule variations or styles of play.
It’s to Wanczyk’s credit that Beep only prompts but never raises the “Is this baseball?” question. As a reader becomes acquainted with beep baseball in the early chapters, she can’t help but catalog all that’s missing; there are no walks in beep, no steals, not even any second base. There’s no throwing other than that done by the sighted pitcher, who goes to the mound while his own team bats and strives for the highest possible ERA (earned run average) but a low EPA (“effusive pitcher apologies”). Hits and runs are synonymous in beep. It’s four strikes and you’re out. Defense, not power hitting, wins games, and outs are made as soon as any fielder recovers the ball before the batter reaches either first or third base — umpires decide which way he is to run. There is no roar of the crowd, as spectators must be quiet so the fielders can hear the beeping ball.
In this finely balanced book, we get a contemplative look at this game, but not so contemplative as to be caught up in philosophy at the expense of the excitement and emotion of competition. And beep can be quite competitive indeed. Like baseball, it’s an international game with American roots. Wanczyk reports from towns in Iowa, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, and also Taiwan and the Dominican Republic, introducing a diverse range of characters with the common goal of winning a title in the National Beep Baseball Association’s annual World Series. From the Boston Renegades, we meet sighted catcher/coach Rob Weissman, whose obsession with building and managing the perfect beep team is so intense as to be detrimental to his health. Young Joe McCormick, one of Weissman’s stars, grew up a baseball fan in Malden, Massachusetts, and lost his vision to Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy in high school before going on to Harvard and a budding career in computer science. The Austin Blackhawks’s Lupe Perez, considered by some the game’s best hitter, wants to die on a beep ball field. Ethan Johnston, whose kidnappers chemically blinded him when he was a child in Ethiopia, is one of the circuit’s most deft defenders, although he preferred basketball to baseball until he found beep and the Colorado Storm in 2007. Former handball standout Ching-kai Chen, who lost his sight in a motorcycle accident, is such a flashy and smooth fielder for the juggernaut Taiwan Homerun team that opponents suspect he can see under the rim of the blindfold he wears to negate what remains of his vision.
Following these athletes and others, Wanczyk brings us close to several teams through four World Series and a little bit of hot-stove off-season action. In this way, Beep is a work of sports reportage, earning a spot on the bookshelf next to insider chronicles of seasons like Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy or David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49. But we also have here some fine travel writing (the chapter with the trip to Taiwan is especially vivid), a history of the relatively new game, an exploration of an underrepresented culture, and even a memoir. Wanczyk is reporting from a precarious age for a sports fan. A new father in his 30s, he’s begun the long stretch of undeniable adulthood, and the beloved but long-suffering Red Sox of his youth have morphed into a perennial powerhouse with a few recent rings. Maybe inevitably, the meaning he found in baseball as a boy has become elusive, his passion as a fan increasingly dull. How can — and why should — he stay invested in something so superfluous as baseball when there’s a marriage to maintain, children to nurture, a house to pay for? But in beep there are men and women from their early 20s to the cusp of retirement who are undistracted by those kinds of questions, whose infectious love of their sport is obviously enriching.
“Maybe caring way too much about ostensibly trivial things is actually the path to happiness,” Wanczyk discovers, but he also knows that beep or any beloved sport both is and is not “just a damn game”:
It’s about being able to have perspective without having complete distance. It’s about raising my daughter to be a person who can be passionate without being easily overcome.
He finds this fulfilling brand of fandom by reconsidering baseball through the context of its place in the lives of blind players and the unique history of their game. Beep baseball, we learn, was revolutionized by John Ross. A blind man who believed rough and vigorous play is essential to any life, Ross once “broke his foot sprinting down a curving waterslide.” Maybe it’s no shocker, then, that one of the central tensions surrounding the sport has always been the tug-of-war between maximizing the fun while making it as safe as possible to play. An early version of the game, which was created through efforts of volunteers from the telephone industry, forbade competitors from running. In the 1970s, when Ross introduced beep as it’s played today, blind athletes lost interest in the old way. Bill Gibney, the first president of the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA), led his team to a win while seated in protest of rules that ignored Ross’s innovations. “We were so bummed,” Gibney tells Wanczyk. “So I said, ‘Well, we might as well sit down because there isn’t going to be any action out here.’”
While the sport has evolved to offer the blind a much greater sense of “freedom within constraints,” as Wanczyk puts it, autonomy remains an issue. In the book, this arises most dramatically when Austin players hit the Santo Domingo club scene. Mariano Reynoso, a blind member of the team and the organizer of the trip, says, “A lot of people tell you, ‘Blind people can do whatever they want to do.’ I’m pretty black-and-white about that. They can’t.”
This kind of pragmatism permeates all of Wanzcyk’s reporting and storytelling. He tackles the “Magic Blind Man fallacy” early on, and a Taiwanese volunteer later tells him, “Even though they can’t see, they can be asses, too.” He’s wary of sighted people who talk about how “inspirational” or “brave” beep players are, and he calls himself out every time he catches himself on the verge of romanticizing a disability. In doing so — and in sticking close enough to the players to present their perspective — he gives beep its due respect as a sport, and he reveals its heroes and goats not only as athletes, but as humans. That may be the best that can be expected in a book about baseball, in any of its variations.