ATLANTA — In the game of blind baseball, players use their sense of sound to make up for their lack of sight. They play the game known as Beep baseball with an oversized softball that beeps and bases that buzz.
The National Beep Baseball Association was founded in 1975. Teams have been formed nationwide and compete annually in a World Series. In east Atlanta, a team called the Atlanta Eclipse plays at a local park.
Players wear blindfolds to ensure fairness since each person has a varying degree of blindness. The pitcher and the catcher are sighted and play on the same team as the batter.
On a hit, the batter runs toward the buzz of either the first or third base, which is decided by an official. There is no second base. A run is scored if the batter tags the base before the fielder can pick up the ball; otherwise the batter is out. In this adapted version of America’s pastime, cheering is not permitted until the play is over.
For the players, the game is about much more than physical activity; It helps them cope with the challenges of being blind. Here are the stories of three players in Atlanta and surrounding areas whose lives have been improved by what happens on the baseball diamond.
Dee Butler, 55, began experiencing problems with her sight as a teenager, and in school would ask to sit near the front of the class. At 24, she was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, a progressive disease that causes the deterioration of the retina and leads to blindness.
She took up blind baseball a few years ago after a tumultuous relationship with a now ex-husband.
“I have an ex-husband I call my ‘wasband,”’ said Butler, standing in the convenience store she used to run in Hapeville, an Atlanta suburb. “For a long time, he used to make me feel so down. I was always never good enough for anything. I was ugly. I was fat. I couldn’t do anything.”
She heard it so often, Butler said she became depressed.
“And then I just started getting mad. He would always tell me I couldn’t do anything by myself,” she said. “And so I looked at him right in the eye, and I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to prove you wrong.”’
She packed up her 9-year-old twin girls and 11-year old son, and left. On the suggestion of a friend who knew about the Atlanta Eclipse, Butler decided to give the game a try, although she doubted she could master it. She showed up time after time, struggling to hit the ball, with every swing a miss. Even when she could see, she had never been athletic.
“As a child, I was always like a girly girl,” she said.
When she hit the ball for the first time, and made her first run, she was hooked.
“I enjoy it. I love getting out there and hitting that ball and making them runs, doing everything that I didn’t think I could do before,” she said.
Jimmie Burnette, 44, took up Beep baseball after suffering a brain tumor in 2010 that left him blind.
“I wanted to give up. When I first got home, I felt real alone. I couldn’t see anything. My initial reaction was ‘run away,”’ said Burnette, sitting in his living room next to his wife, Tiawanna. “At times, it’s almost like total dark. It’s gloomy. But I have to find things to lighten up my darkness.”
From the hospital bed to the baseball field, Burnette’s journey has been filled with challenges: rehab after the surgery, Braille classes and training sessions on how to get around as a blind person, from crossing the street safely to taking public transportation. Through it all, he feels he has lost his independence and role as provider for the family.
“I was brought up with the attitude of a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re not a man anymore, you’re not a man anymore,”’ said Burnette, a former FedEx driver and hobbyist model airplane builder who is now unemployed and on disability. “BEEP baseball is helping me out. It takes away from me thinking about I’m less than a man.”
“Now I realize I’m still the same man, just have to do things differently now,” he said.
Roger Keeney, 67, has played Beep baseball for 38 years, making some 20 World Series appearances. Growing up, Keeney’s sight was considered “low vision.” He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that leads to a decrease in vision over the course of several years.
Through college, Keeney was still driving and riding motorcycles legally, but that changed in 1990 on his farm in New York. A piece of machinery broke and hit him in the head. When he woke up, he couldn’t see.
These days, hitting a ball he can’t see comes easier to Keeney than finding a paying job. The father of two has a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation and is working on his doctorate in adapted physical education. He is the founder and volunteer executive director for a non-profit group that organizes adapted sports activities in Athens and surrounding areas. Keeney hopes that as the group’s funding increases, he’ll be able to draw salary.
Keeney said he has often passed over for jobs because he’s blind.
“Blind folks can do nearly any job that you can do except for maybe drive down the road. It is hard for employers to believe that we can do the job,” said Keeney from his home in Athens, a college town about 70 miles east of Atlanta.
“On paper, I’m number one or number two every time I apply for anything. But as soon as I walk through the door of the office to the interviewer with my white stick, you can feel the mood in the room change,” he said. “You can physically feel the change. And the attitude is prevalent that this person can’t do the job they’ve applied for.”
Many afternoons, Keeney practices in his front yard, swinging a baseball in the air. No ball is thrown, no bases are run. It’s just Keeney with his 9-year-old daughter Alexis yelling “ball!” to emulate the words of the pitcher before the windup.
Keeney approaches the sport as seriously as he would a job, hooked on the belief that he can achieve things that at first may have seemed unachievable, even to him.
“It’s hard to believe that you’re going to be able to stop that ball out in the field with your body and pick it up when it’s been hit and it’s rolling hard or flying hard across the field,” said Keeney, smiling. “It’s a rush you will never forget. Do the impossible and then nothing is impossible.”