When Kevin Kimura was a second-grader in Kansas, he displayed considerable talent as a wrestler. Moving to Rockville, Kimura, now 13, was unable to find a wrestling program that suited him, so he turned his attention to softball.
So far, it's an unremarkable story, but it becomes a bit unusual when one learns that Kimura has been totally blind since he suffered a brain tumor at the age of 5.
Kimura can play softball, and does each Thursday night at Olney Manor Park, because of the Beep Baseball program devised by the Telephone Pioneers of America.
Five-person teams, largely composed of the visually handicapped, hit and field large softballs (16 inches in circumference) whose cores have been replaced by a rechargeable battery and beeper.
When Beep Baseball begain on the West Coast in 1971, it was intended for the batter to hit a thrown pitch, but the degree of difficulty was so great that games became long, drawn-out affairs that could not sustain interest. It is played here, instead, using the adjustable rubber tees familar to parents of young T-ball players.
The bases first and third only, are plastic safety cones with homing signals. When the batter - blindfolded if he possesses some vision - hits the ball, a base umpire activates the signal on the base farthest from where the ball has been hit.
It then becomes a race - to see whether the fielder, guilded by the intermittent beep, can find the ball and hold it up before the runner, guided by the continous whine from the cone, can reach it. If the runner wins, it counts as a run. Otherwise, it's an out. Each batter gets three strikes, and three outs constitute an inning.
"It's easier to hit the ball than it is to pick it up," said Alvin Carter of Gaithersburg, the most accomplished of the players. "The speaker in the ball is one side of it, and it's deceptive where it's at. If the speaker is pointed away from you, you can run over the ball and not figure out where it is."
Carter played handball and softball as a 14-year-old, when he still possessed about 10 per cent vision. Now it's down to 1 per cent, but it hasn't prevented him from enjoying an athletic life. At the New Mexico School for the Blind. Carter played basketball - a cowbell was rung to show the location of the backboard. A newsstand operator. Carter is also president of the Maryland Blind Boxlers Association. And he and his wife, Karen, are vigorous competitors on the softball field.
The Carters, who insist on being on opposite teams because, Alvin said, "It's the only way we could enjoy it," heckle each other throughout the game.
"That was a good hit.I could hear it," Alvin says as Karen swings and hits nothing but tee. "Open your mouth wide," Karen taunts, then hits the ball toward her husband. He makes the out, then Karen chases him into the outfield.
"Sure we have fun," Alvin said. "That's what we come out here for, line and I told her she was running the wrong way and she stopped and we got her out."
"We're bickering no matter what we do," Karen said. "But it's all good fun."
While the Carters play softball, their son, Russell, affectionately known as "The Terror," enjoyed himself, too. He had to be persuaded not to activate the first-base cone, and then was detected sitting with a pal on a station wagon in the parking lot.
The game has hazards other then offspring, too. Each of the five fielders, spread in an arc around the infield, is assigned a number. When the ball is hit, a volunteer calls the number of the nearest fielder and he follows the beep, while the others stand in place, to avert a collision.
Infielder Rose Rupard, however, learned that standing still can be a problem, as runner Steve Myers, off course toward first base, barreled into her. The youngster was assisted off the field, crying loudly, but her only injury was a muscle strain. She retured to bat - and score - at the start of the next inning.
Karen Carter, who ran into Rupard during pregame practice, drifted from game and said, "Once you hit them, the base path a few times during the you panic. You're always thinking about it."
"You're afraid of running into the fence when the ball is hit past you, too," Alvin said. "No matter how far away the fense is, you wonder if maybe you're getting close to it."
Frank Hickerson, president of the Montgomery County Baseball Association and chief force behind area Beep Baseball, noted that the mishap could have been avoided and was not an inherent risk of the game.
"The volunteer out there was new," Hickerson said. "He should have moved Rose out of the way. If we have any problem with Beep ball, it's getting volunteers out here to help with the game."
At present, there is a shortage of players, too. Several sighted players wear blindfolds to fill out the teams. But this is the first summer and Hickerson expect publicity to create more teams in Montgomery County and to inspire expansion into the District. Prince George's County and Virginia.
"Would a divorce next week get us publicity?" Karen Carter asked.
"If you win again next week, you'll get a divorce," Alvin Carter replied.
Karen's Bombers won this one 13-12, with a three-run rally in the bottom half of the last inning, after Alvin's Raiders had enjoyed an 11-15 lead. There was considerable chatter and Evangeline Williams, racing for the winning run, was greeted warmly by her teammates.
Earlier, as Barry Campbell came to bat, Karen shouted, "Come on, Evangeline." Myers, who is sighted, turned and asked, "How could you get Evangeline out of Barry?"
"I can't see either one of them," Karen replied.
There are no inhibitions about the players' visual handicaps and a favorite taunt directed at a fielder who can't locate the bail is "What's the matter, you blind or something?"
Kay Kimura, Kevin's father, proudly took pictures of his son's activity and said, "This has been a real good outlet for him. He goes to school with sighted kids, and he participates in the Boy Scouts. But of course he can't play their games with them. We tried having him hit golf balls, since they're stationary, but it was too much having to chase them. This has been good. He's really gotten involved."
Kevin, positioned by a volunteer, reaches for the ball with his left hand, levels the bat with his right, then reaches back and swings. He does not always connect, nor is he always faster than the fielder, but delighted spectators burst into applause when he does succeed in earning a "safe" call. The smile on his face shows he's delighted, too. That's what Beep Baseball is all about.
Beep Baseball is played each Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Olney Manor Park, Olney, Md. Volunteers are welcome. Equipment - balls cost approximately $75 - is supplied by the Telephone Pioneers of America. Anyone interested in forming a Beep Baseball program for the visually handicapped is invited to call the Telephone Pioneers at 3922461.