On a cool and gusty night full of crickets and stadium lights, the Pioneer softball league toasted the end of its season with a September All-Star Classic. Power hitter Rosemarie Rupard was magnificent as usual, popping a large wad of Juicy Fruit and discussing the nuances of bird songs while slugging the National squad to a 5-to-1 lead going into the final inning.
Among the soda-sipping crowd of 40 that night, few figured the Americans had a chance, for they knew the team that had Rosemarie Rupard always seemed to win. This was no coincidence, of course, for Rupard, a 14-year-old girl whose sight was destroyed by cancer at birth, was the closest thing to a softball superstar the Pioneer league had ever seen.
But then some folks remembered the Americans still had Michael Redding, a kid who can neither see nor hear, and when he stepped to the plate at the top of the inning with a hint of ambition on his face, they reckoned a last-gasp rally just might be in the offing.
Sure enough, Redding, a 16-year-old with the frame of Tiny Tim, legged out a grounder. Then Barry Campbell, 20, a legally blind Pac-Man whiz, stroked another. Then Greg Miller, a boy born blind 14 years ago amid the ashes of the Washington riots, and Stuart (Reggie) Abramowitz, 28, the only guy wearing dark glasses, both slugged their way aboard. By the time the top half of the inning was over, the crowd was on its feet roaring because the Americans were suddenly ahead, 6 to 5.
Although Rupard and her mates promptly settled the affair with two quick National runs in the bottom half, the crowd at Field Two in Olney Manor Park departed in an unmistakable mood of jubilance. Not only had they witnessed quite a thriller that night, but they'd also seen enough magic the entire season to last another winter.
Field Two is the home of the Montgomery County-Pioneer Beep Softball League for the Blind. It's one important stop in childhood for about a dozen Washington-area souls who laugh and cry and are much like everyone else in the world except that they cannot see.
They've suffered strange diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and retrolental fibroplasia, macular degeneration and end-stage cataracts. They've had to cope with everything from unseen schoolyard toughs to 12-hour surgical operations. But from July to September they break out, two nights a week, to crush home runs and field hot smashes in their own version of the national pastime.
Batting balls that emit sound and running toward bases that beep, the players are able to forget the earthly troubles of understanding a world in which nearly everyone else has an added sense.
It is their season of light.
"Don't let them fool you. In a lot of ways these kids are less handicapped than people who aren't," says Nadine Hasevoets, chief scorekeeper for the league. "They can see and feel life better than lots of people who aren't blind. They live it."
This series of stories is about a collection of blind people, children mostly, who travel to Field Two from all parts of the city and suburbs to flourish in the league's season of light. In their own ways, off the field, they have become expert in the art of coping. Against the odds, they have learned to box and ride bicycles and water-ski, and have mastered everything from Braille and chemistry to the maze of Metro.
But it is in the summer and early fall that people like Greg Miller, Michael Redding and Rosemarie Rupard truly sparkle, for it's then that they can all join together as comrades to celebrate a sport they know simply as "The Game." Inventing Beep Ball
Beep Softball was invented a decade ago by a group known as the Telephone Pioneers of America, a national service organization made up of Bell Telephone workers. The first beeping ball was invented in Colorado Springs by a Mountain Bell engineer named Charlie Fairbanks, who was asked by the principal of a school for the blind to come up with a ball that emitted an audio tone.
Fairbanks put together a ball slightly larger than an average softball, the interior of which was hollowed out and fitted with a sound device that gave off a steady beep powered by an eight-volt battery. Today Fairbanks' ball rests in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Beep Softball, the sport, was started in 1972 when a San Franciscan named Ralph Rock, the Abner Doubleday of Beep Ball, came up with the idea of beeping bases. These are actually two orange plastic traffic pylons that emit a steady high-pitched noise as contrasted with the staccato beep of the ball.
Today there are Pioneer leagues in nearly every state in the country, with Texas apparently the most advanced in the game. There, it's said, a sighted pitcher actually throws the beeping ball to the strike zone of a blind batter, who is expected to time his swing and slug the ball into play.
In Montgomery County, and Prince George's County, which also boasts a league, the game is much simpler. There are five players on each team. The batter only has to hit the ball as it sits at home plate atop a batting tee, the height of which can be adjusted. The two bases are located at first and third, and the field is shaped like a fan covering the infield surface. The fielding team has players spread out in third base, shortstop, midfield, second base and first base positions. A run is scored whenever a batter reaches base before a fielder is able to retrieve the ball.
Frank Hickerson, a lanky, 57-year-old NIH architect, founded this league along with his wife, Agnes, an amiable red-cheeked AT&T supervisor, former switchboard operator and member of the Pioneer's Alexander Graham Bell Chapter 15, which covers the Washington area.
"Basically, I just love baseball," said Hickerson, a civic-minded sort who for 10 years played Uncle Sam in the Calverton, Md., Fourth of July parade. "I wanted to prove that anyone could play it."
Six years ago, after discovering at a Pioneers of America luncheon that there was actually a baseball game for the blind, Hickerson went to work contacting Washington schools and organizations for the blind to find players. He met with people from the Montgomery County Recreation Department to reserve a field and went on radio and television with his pitch.
In the end it wasn't too difficult to find participants. There are nearly 500,000 blind people in the United States, and according to estimates by the National Society to Prevent Blindness, the District of Columbia leads the 50 states in the number of blind people per capita. The District's blindness prevalence rate, 370 per 100,000 people, is 145 above the national average.
"In D.C. it's a matter of education and availability of health services," said Jill Bromberg, a National Society researcher. "We researched data in each state on its elderly population, minority population and its infant mortality rate, and extrapolated from there." The District ranks high in each category.
Eventually Hickerson got his roster together with teams nicknamed the Masked Marvels, Nighthawks, Swingers and Roadrunners. The game started in 1978, replete with crowds of relatives and friends and amazed onlookers, Pioneer volunteers prowling the baselines in official yellow T-shirts, and public address announcers.
"To this day I can't get over some of the things I've seen on that field," he says. "I mean, for many of these kids it's the only chance they have to run. Their faces--it's almost like they glow." Hard-Hitting Players
The league's fifth season ended, 17 games, 336 runs and 2 months after it started, on that All-Star night several weeks ago.
At third base, pacing like a hound, was Jason Stradone, a cocksure 11-year-old who learned to cope with blindness at a suburban version of the school of hard knocks. Mainstreamed into the public schools and taunted on the playgrounds by other children, he learned to fight back with his fists and his teeth and to ride a bicycle, despite enduring bruises, scrapes and hours of tears, after a kid laughed at him and bet him he couldn't.
There, fielding a soft roller at first base, was Michael Redding, the league's truest inspiration, a 16-year-old Washington boy suffering kidney failure. His world is one in which light does not exist and sound is difficult to hear. Although he has been on kidney dialysis for two years, he continued to play the game with an ageless determination while his sister, 23-year-old Linda, whose kidney will become his in a future transplant operation, cheered him on.
At shortstop was Brian Smith, an 11-year-old with an IQ of 137 who describes what it is like being blind in the vernacular of a Nobel laureate. Visible light, the boy says, is merely one component of a unified electromagnetic field, most of which isn't visible anyway. This is a child who, blind since birth as the result of a disease known as bilateral retinoblastoma, water-skis in the summer and once put together a cardboard periodic chart of the chemical elements in Braille after being unable to find one in libraries or stores.
At the plate, quick as a calico, was James Littlejohn, the Pioneer League's answer to Rickey Henderson. He's 13, and only lost his sight a year ago after a long bout with congenital cataracts. At first he was devastated, hardly uttering a sentence for months, but gradually he rebounded, aided by his best friend, Stradone, a kid who showed him how to laugh and joke again, and his sister, 9-year-old Kim, who combs his hair and helps him dress in the morning and is slowly but surely losing her own sight through the same disease.
And on deck was Rupard, the league's finest star, the girl with the affinity for birds. "Sound is the most important thing in life," she said, tugging down on her Oriole cap between innings. "Traffic, voices, thunder, rain. But there's beauty in birds."
"But who taught you to tell the difference between them?" someone asks.
"My father. He knows birds," she replied, adding as an afterthought that he is blind as well.
At Field Two, where the sun often fell beyond the left field sunflower patch in an ecstatic blaze of crimson and orange, it was a season of laughter and drama. Robin King, for example, a 16-year-old left blind when she was 2 after a brain tumor operation, once stopped a searing line drive with her thigh and retrieved the ball for a putout before collapsing onto the dirt and rubbing the painful bruise.
There was Rupard's amazing 15-for-15 hitting streak, and the time Jason Stradone, dashing for first base, tripped and fell in a cloud of dust, but got up in time to beat the putout for a run. And in an incredible moment, James Littlejohn, asked where his friend Jason was playing, pointed to him, then stroked the ball right past him in true Ruthian fashion.
The sport has attracted strangers who have stuck around to participate through the years, including Bill McGhee, a Rockville computer researcher who, several years ago, stopped by to watch a beep ball game. Now he's a coach who has been known to kick up dirt in Weaveresque style, to throw his cap in anger, and, of course, to call the umpire "blind."
The cast included Tom Chase, a plump and congenial Vietnam veteran who volunteered to help in order to learn more about handicapped people and the lives they lead. His wife, who often watched the games, is a brown-haired woman he met in church five years ago who has cerebral palsy.
Also there was Stuart Abramowitz, a blind, diehard Oriole fan who attends several games each summer at Memorial Stadium with a radio pressed to his ear, who plays the sport with the unbridled enthusiasm of former Chicago Cubs superstar Ernie Banks and keeps batting orders and scores in his head more reliably than the center-field scoreboard.
Finally, there was Nick Nicholson, a parks employe and University of Maryland student who described each game at the public address microphone with an exuberance Mel Allen might admire.
"Now batting, and playing shortstop!" he once proclaimed. "Greg, Dynamo Miller! "
"Nick," Miller answered with perfect seriousness that night, turning from the plate and speaking up to the press box, "My middle name is Anthony, not Dynamo."
Nicholson even attempted to imitate the sound of a stadium crowd with his voice, until King kept shooting down the effort by insisting it sounded like heavy breathing.
When the All-Star game was over, and the fried chicken, deviled eggs, pickles and soda were finished, the players, friends and relatives gathered in the stands to accept awards. Certificates of appreciation for the volunteers were passed out, and trophies for the players.
One of the last to receive a trophy was Lauren English, a dark-haired 11-year-old Gaithersburg girl with perfect vision who discovered the league after hearing cheers in the night from her home a block away from Field Two. Outfitted with a blindfold, she joined the league and discovered a new circle of friends.
Sitting behind her was Greg Miller, the 14-year-old dynamo, and his mother Diane, now residents of Bethesda. Though you couldn't see it in their faces, both of them had traveled far from the life of the inner city to get to Field Two. Next: The Dynamo