“C’mon Blake, smack the beep out of the ball!” calls one of the Houston Heat players. Blake swings, and hits a searing grounder to left field. He tears off for first base and arrives there safely. His teammates clap and cheer. Bobby, who is about 25 and has a classic ball-player’s physique, is up next. He approaches the plate slowly swinging his bat to loosen himself. “Close-in on the plate Bobby” his coach suggests. The pitcher takes the ball and . . . “Time out – airplane overhead – can’t hear the ball”, one of the fielders yells. Members of both teams relax and mill about like kids waiting for a car to pass before continuing their street stickball game.
It’s at this point that I’m reminded of just how different beep baseball is. From a distance the game looks like regular softball: A pitcher, catcher, and batter; one team in the field, the other waiting to bat. But from nearby, you notice that there are two large padded bases, the ball emits a pulsing beep, and all the batters and fielders are blind. What little vision these players might have is eliminated by the mandatory use of blindfolds.
Fonzi, the pitcher, is holding the beeping softball, “Are you ready Bobby?” Bobby nods. Fonzi draws his arm back past his hip and then calls “Ready, set, ball” as he throws a firm, accurate, underhand pitch. Bobby hits the ball, at which point the left-side base, located roughly at standard third-base position, starts emitting a loud, sustained buzz. Bobby runs towards the base as the ball bounds down the middle of the outfield. The closer of the two Austin Blackhawk center-fielders dives onto his side to block the oncoming ball. Bobby runs closer to the base and extends his arms to the side in order to whack the base’s large cushioned post extending up four feet. But before he arrives, the Austin fielder holds up the ball and yells “Got it!”. Bobby is out.
Beep baseball has been played in the U.S. for over thirty years. There are currently fifteen teams across the country, and the season culminates in the Beep Baseball World Series in late July. What is most striking about watching beep baseball are not the blindfolds or camaraderie, both of which I expected. Instead, I’m most struck by how seriously the players take the game, and particularly their own performance. As Bobby walks back towards his dugout, he tells his teammates that if he had run straighter toward the base, he would have been safe. A teammate responds, “Next time Bobby. We’ll work on that next practice.”
Besides the audible softball and bases, there are other differences between beep baseball and regular softball. The pitcher, who is sighted, is actually on the same team as the batter to whom he’s pitching. (The same is true of the sighted catcher.) The pitch is timed and placed with the intent of the batter connecting with the ball. If a batter gets a hit, he must run to whichever of the two foam-rubber bases is buzzing, which is randomly determined as soon as he connects with the ball. The batter must reach the base before one of the opposing team’s six fielders has control of the ball, defined as the moment the fielder raises the ball off the ground and away from his body. If the batter reaches the base, a run is scored. If the outfielder has possession of the ball first, the batter is out. Three sighted umpires make these and other determinations.
How are these blind players able to perform so well based largely on the sounds of the ball and bases? Consider the fielder. To stop the ball, the blind fielder must anticipate its path in order to time his dive to the ground. If he dives too late, the ball will bound past him. If he dives too soon, before he has a good sense of where the ball is going, he could land at a position outside the ball’s path. Fortunately, the information available in the sound of the ball’s beeping helps the fielder with this. As a sound gets closer to a listener, its acoustics change in systematic ways. For example, the sound gets louder, brighter, and more distinct (echoes sound less prominent) as it approaches.
But what’s most important about how sound changes as it approaches, is its rate of change. Assuming a relatively constant sound and speed of approach, all of these sound dimensions will change in a way that can provide anticipatory information. Take the loudness increase as an example. As the ball approaches the fielder, the loudness he hears increases at a rate that is exponential: the loudness increases relatively slowly at first and then systematically increases more rapidly as the ball gets near. In fact, the loudness increase takes a form that allows the fielder’s brain to sample a small portion of the ball’s approach sound, and determine from that specific rate of increasing loudness when the ball will arrive. (‘Relatively slow change in loudness increase: don’t dive yet; Relatively fast change in loudness increase: dive, dive, dive!’). So, the rich acoustic information inherent in the approaching sound helps the blind fielder know when and where to dive for the ball. And as I have discussed in a previous blog entry, the human brain is especially suited to detect approaching sounds.
Back on the baseball field, Michael, a 57 year old with a broad smile, is up next for the Houston team. He hits a pop fly and runs toward ‘first’ base. A few of the fielders yell “pop-up” and the ball drops between the two right-fielders. Michael is running to the base with impressive hustle for a man his age. Just as he hits the base, one of the Austin fielders yells “Got it!” and holds up the ball. It’s close. The members of both teams are silent as they await the verdict. Only the beep of the ball is heard as two umpires confer on the play. Then, after a minute, one of them yells “Safe!” and the Houston players cheer. An Austin player shouts, “Hey Ump – Ya wanna borrow my glasses? Extra-strong prescription.” Everyone laughs.
This piece, like all of the entries in the Sensory Superpowers blog, has been adapted from the new book, See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses (2010, W.W. Norton & Company).
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