The equipment is a little different, the rules are slightly altered and the signal that starts this version of baseball is not an umpire's yell of "Play ball!" For the players in this version of America's favorite pastime, game time is indicated by "Beep, beep, beep!"

For blind adults and youngsters in the Washington area, the beeping sounds emitted by the special ball enable them to enjoy most of the thrills baseball provides for the sighted. But it seems no one enjoys baseball quite like the blind.

Before each game, the sounds of the "Official Beep Ball Song" blast over the loudspeakers. Then, the organizer, Frank Hickerson, pulls out a plastic plug from a gutted, oversized softball that starts the ball beeping.

It's a noisy game, but the handicapped can tolerate the noise because of the opportunity it provides them.

"It gives these youngsters and adults an opportunity they may have only dreamed about otherwise," said Hickerson. "It is a chance for everyone to get out. They run, they hit, they throw. They can find out what baseball is all about, and do it under a secure, controlled situation."

The players agree with Hickerson.

"It's one of the few ways someone who's totally blind like me can get into a sport," said Stuart Abramowitz, 31, of Silver Spring.

Beep ball is a competitive form of baseball geared specifically for blind students, although partially sighted and sighted people play, too, with a blindfold.

The Washington-area style of beep ball is simple. The beeping ball rests on a tee at home plate. The batter hits the ball off the tee and the manager (a sighted volunteer) calls out where the ball has gone.

The batter then runs to the base opposite to where the ball is -- either first base or "third" base (there are only two bases in beep ball).

Each base is an orange cone with a high-pitched, battery-operated device inside. Once the ball is hit, a volunteer flips the toggle switch on the proper base so that the batter can hear where to run.

Meanwhile, the ball is beeping in the field.

"It's a race between getting to the base that's beeping before the fielder fields the ball," said Hickerson, the founder of four local beep ball chapters. "If you don't keep the signals apart, they get very confused."

If the fielder picks up the ball before the runner reaches the base, it's an out. If the runner reaches base before the ball is fielded, the offensive team is credited with a run.

It is not always easy for the fielder to find the beeping ball. The defensive player often bends over with arms perpendicular to the ground, reaching for the noise.

And just when you thought it was time to applaud, there's silence. The only way the fielder knows where to throw the ball after a play is by listening for the catcher clapping for the ball. Therefore, the spectators must remain silent.

"I like it because it's fun," said Kirsten Davidson, 13. Davidson is totally blind and attends Rock Terrace in Rockville.

"My only regret is that they didn't start it when I was younger," said Abramowitz. "Oh boy, do I enjoy it."

Hickerson began the Montgomery County League in 1977 and has since founded leagues in Prince George's in 1978, in Northern Virginia in 1983, and last year, he started one in the District.

Hickerson got the idea at a meeting of the local chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America, Alexander Graham Bell Chapter No. 15, where someone introduced the beep ball to the audience. The Pioneers, who sponsor numerous activities and programs for the handicapped all over the country, originated the beep ball game in the early 1970s in San Francisco.

Intrigued by the beeping ball, Hickerson decided he wanted to start his own program in Maryland.

"My whole background has been baseball. I've been baseball since I was growing up," said Hickerson, a retired architect for the National Institutes of Health.

Hickerson never worked with handicapped people before he started beep ball, but with the help of dedicated volunteers from the local TPA, of which his wife is a member, Hickerson was able to revise the beep ball game from the way it was played in California.

The original form of beep ball is more competitive, the players are usually older and the rules are more complicated. In California, the games have sighted pitchers and catchers and the batters must be able to hit a regular softball pitch.

At first, Hickerson tried that system with two very coordinated blind adults.

"I tried it the first year we started the program. Out of the 40 pitches they had, they hit (only) two foul balls," Hickerson said. "The original beep ball was just for well-coordinated athletes, but I thought everyone deserved a chance to play."

Hickerson's game uses a number of volunteers, each of whom pairs with a player throughout the game. The volunteers are essential for the safety of the sport, and they also create a lively fan club on the sidelines.

Sometimes, the volunteers wear blindfolds and play with the students. Playing baseball in this manner gives volunteers a quick understanding of some of the problems their blind partners face every day.

"I've tried it (beep ball) once," said Barbara Depew, former president of the local TPA chapter. "It was scary."