Vickroy: Beep baseball lets the blind play by ear
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy March 1, 2013 3:56PM
Updated: April 4, 2013 6:06AM
Wally Mozdzierz pulls a blindfold over his eyes and steps into the batter’s box.
He adjusts his footing, bends his knees slightly and pulls the bat back over his right shoulder.
He doesn’t need the eye covering to ensure he can’t see the ball about to be pitched, but it’s regulation.
Mozdzierz grew up behind “Coke bottle” glasses.
“I’ve always had bad eyes,” he said. When he was in his 20s, doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes a gradual loss of vision. Now, at 52, he has no central and very little peripheral vision.
“I can only see the difference between lights and darks,” he said.
But near blindness doesn’t stop the Southwest Side resident from doing much of anything.
He has a high-powered job as a supervisor with Chicago’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. He’s married. He skis. And he is likely the most celebrated member of the Chicago Comets Beep Baseball team.
Like other Chicago baseball and softball players, the Comets are in the throes of spring training. They meet weekly at Line Drive Baseball Academy on Chicago’s Southwest Side to practice their batting techniques.
Unlike the others, though, all of the batters on the Comets are visually impaired.
There are 24 teams in the National Beep Baseball Association, which stretches from Boston to California. The league, formed in 1976, offers an adaptive version of America’s favorite game. It’s played with a modified 16-inch softball that beeps when a pin is pulled, enabling the athletes to place its location by sound.
The game is modified in other ways, as well. There are six players on a team and games last only six innings.
Pitchers and catchers, on the side of the batter, can see. Because degrees of impairment vary, all batters and fielders wear blindfolds to keep the playing field even.
“Of course, the umpire can see, too, and he takes a lot of grief for that,” said J.T. Herzog, who’s been the Comets’ volunteer head coach since 2003. “We joke a lot about the umps being able to see for a change.”
Herzog got involved in the game when his visually impaired son, John, joined the team. Though John is now a Washington, D.C., attorney, Herzog stayed on.
“These guys don’t judge,” he said. “They’re competitive as can be on the field, but off the field, you can’t tell who’s on which team. They’re all the best of friends. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
To avoid collisions, games are played with just two bases, first and third, which buzz when a runner reaches them. A batter who makes contact can head to the base of his choice. If the fielder retrieves the ball before the batter reaches the base, the runner is out.
“It’s either a run or an out,” Herzog said. “You’re either a hero or a goat.”
As challenging as hitting is, fielding is tougher. The playing area is divided into 11 sections. Section 6 is dead-center, with section numbers descending toward both foul lines, which are both deemed “1.” When a ball is hit, volunteer spotters call out the section it is likely to land in. Fielders adjust accordingly.
“It is almost impossible to catch a fly ball,” Herzog said.
So when Mozdzierz did just that in ’03, he became an instant celebrity. He remains one of only five people in the history of the game to do so.
“I had my moment of fame,” Mozdzierz recalled, chuckling.
It was during a tournament game in Topeka, Kan. The ball was hit toward center and the spotter called “6.”
“I moved to my left and bent down on one knee,” he said. “Then it hit me in the chest and popped right into my hands.”
When the other players realized what had happened, they abandoned their positions and ran to congratulate him.
Giovanni Francese, of Westchester, is one of the Comets’ biggest hitters.
The secret to making contact, said Francese, who also bowls in a blind bowling league, is to be consistent with your swing. That way the pitcher knows your range.
Though they are sponsored by Cubs Care and the McCormick Foundation, the Comets rely heavily on fundraising and volunteers. Their nearest competition is in St. Louis, Indiana and Iowa. If they can’t raise the money to go, they have to pay for it out of pocket.
In many ways, Mozdzierz believes he is lucky. Because he could see at one time, he can visualize the game.
Rich Schultz, of Alsip, cannot. He has been blind all his life.
“This is the first team sport I’ve ever done,” Schultz said. “This is different from running and wrestling and judo because there’s a deep team feel, a strong bond between us all.”
It’s a bond he wishes he could have shared with his father.
“My dad was big into teaching my brother how to catch and pitch,” he said. “I’d sit on the sidelines wondering what it would be like to check out the mound. I always wanted to know how it felt to play.”
He figured that would never happen in a game that seemingly required so much sight.
“But here I am,” he said. “Now I have that bond. I just wish I’d found it sooner.”
Nick Lopez has been one of the team’s volunteer pitchers since 1986, when a blind co-worker convinced him to try his hand at pitching.
“I threw 100 pitches,” he said. “You know how many they hit? None.”
That day, Lopez, of Riverside, made it his mission to help. He hasn’t looked back.
“The secret to hitting is consistency,” he said. “A consistent pitch, a consistent swing.”
Lopez brings his grandsons along to help.
“These people get so much joy from this,” Lopez said. “And you know what, so do I.”
For a game schedule and more information about the Chicago Comets, visit chicagocomets.net.