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Beeping, Buzzing Baseball

There sure has been a lot of sports in the news these days. NBA Finals, UEFA Cup, Wimbledon, the ongoing endurance test which is Major League Baseball. Sports is a lens on what we can and cannot do.

It's a celebration of ability and disability.

Today, I'm going to introduce you to a sport I just learned about: beep baseball.

Beep baseball, invented in 1964, is a variant of softball or baseball for the blind and visually impaired. Check out this video of the first game of last year's World Series between the Austin Blackhawks and the Taiwan Homerun.

The National Beep Baseball Association's 2016 World Series will be played in Ames, Iowa, starting Sunday.

In beep baseball, the ball beeps and the bases buzz. The pitcher and the catcher are usually sighted, and they work with the batter, who is blind, to give him a pitch he or she can hit. Four strikes and you're out; you're allowed to let one ball pass. Some hitters and pitchers use the passed ball to organize their timing so as to know when to swing on the next pitch.

Pitchers in beep ball want their batters to hit, so the higher the ERA the better — and a good pitcher is a key to a good offense.

There are two bases, each 100 ft. away, corresponding roughly to the familiar first and third base lines. Which one you run to depends on which one buzzes after you make contact with the ball. You hit, you listen, you run. Blind batters run as fast as they can, unseeing, down the baseline, toward the bases, which are tall foam structures that they need to touch.

The hardest job in beep baseball, according to the experts, is fielding. A sighted spotter, playing for the defense, shouts out a number corresponding to the region of the field to which the ball is hit, to give the fielders some orientation. The defense loses a run if the spotters say anything more than that. The fielder's job is to find the ball and take possession of it before the runner reaches the base. If they do, the runner is out. If they don't, a run scores. (Fielders don't need to throw the ball to anyone to make an out.)

I wrote that beep is baseball for the blind. But really, as my description makes clear (or see here), it is a game to be played by the blind and the sighted cooperatively. Crucially, every team needs a sighted pitcher and catcher as well as a sighted person who is capable of skillfully performing the role of spotter. As you can tell from the video, it's a tough game in which the the blind and the sighted play hard.

One of the very cool things about beep baseball is that it requires silence. So the culture around beep ball is more like Wimbledon 1950 than like anything we see in public sporting events these days. The batters and fielders need to hear the balls and the bases, as well as the spotters and the pitcher. Passing school buses or a rowdy fan can make play impossible. Beep ball is a game of quiet concentration, as well as explosive effort.

Another striking aspect is that this is a sport in which people who can't see are enabled to run and dive and slide and race. The courage this takes is impressive. And the fun is palpable. I suspect that a good portion of the fun in playing beep baseball comes from the pleasure in trusting others to protect you and support unrestrained movement.

Playing beep baseball at a high level is not only good fun, it's obviously an impressive sporting achievement. The NBBA World Series gives us an opportunity to think about human ability and disability anew.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.