A blindfolded Will Kennedy cracked the first pitch at the Seattle South King Sluggers’ Saturday baseball practice just inside the third-base line, then bolted for first base with everything he had.
Kennedy, 28, was only wearing the blindfold as required by National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) rules, though. That’s so that blind players like him are on an even playing field with their partially blind teammates and competitors.
This summer, team members discovered they can still dare to be competitive athletes — despite years of feeling as though they could no longer play physical sports.
“It’s scary to get used to, but you have to put that out of your mind and throw caution to the wind,” said Kennedy, who travels from DuPont in Pierce County to play in Seattle. “When I say I’m going for it, I have a blast.”
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At the Sluggers’ practice in West Seattle, the players scrimmage against each other to prepare for games against more than 20 teams across the country from California to Georgia.
The Seattle team was formed this summer, and much to the players’ surprise, they’ve already beaten the more-established Spokane Pride twice.
They think they’ve got a shot at beating the California Rays in their first game against an out-of-state team Sept. 14 at West Seattle’s Walt Hundley Playfield.
It’s not the greenest or cleanest field, but the Sluggers’ coach and creator, Kevin Daniel, says it’s perfect because it’s quiet enough to hear the beeping devices integral to their version of America’s favorite pastime.
The center of the sport is a 16-inch circumference softball with a device that beeps once the ball is pitched. It weighs about a pound and has a slight cushion on the outside, but not so much that a player can’t use an aluminum bat to pop it into the outfield.
A sighted teammate throws the pitch. Batters get four strikes and one ball max.
When the batter hits the ball, six blind defenders try to get to the ball before the batter reaches base, a 4-foot high cushioned pylon that also beeps.
If a player can get hold of the ball before the hitter reaches the base, it’s an out. If the hitter gets to the base first — the only base needed to score — it’s a run for the team at bat.
Each defender plays in a numbered zone on the field, and a sighted “spotter” on the team is allowed to call out one time the number of the zone where the ball goes.
But second baseman Talea Noriega, 46, who has been blind since birth, doesn’t need a spotter.
When a grounder comes anywhere near him, he blocks the ball by lunging in front of it with his entire body, then uses his hands and ears to track down the ball.
The players try to run to the base in less than eight seconds, the average time it takes outfielders to get the ball to the infield.
Daniel, who is partly blind, says one of the team’s four female players, Nancy Swaney, is one of its fastest runners.
Dino Sanchez, 47, of Seattle, says playing the game is an essential therapy for him. His sight has gradually declined over the years because of retinitis pigmentosa, diagnosed when he was 27.
He’s been told he could completely lose his sight as soon as tomorrow or continue having only peripheral vision blindness for many years to come.
“It didn’t really hit me hard until the last eight years, and at first I just went into this depression. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore,” Sanchez said. “Doing sports like these helps me eliminate that fear.”
For 46-year-old Daniel, the game — which he’s played since he was young — is serious business. He’s tough on players at practice who are too slow on defense, and makes sure everyone on the field knows what happened when a player didn’t reach a ball fast enough.
He expects everyone to be on time for two-hour practices on Saturdays and Sundays.
“This is an awareness program that shows the world what blind people can do,” Daniel said.
“I tell them, ‘You guys are ambassadors, and if you didn’t know that when you first showed up, now you do.’ ”
Daniel, senior director of strategic recruiting for
The Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle, heard a lot of skepticism when he first pitched the idea at community meetings this year.
But when the Kent Lions club gave him $5,000 worth of support, he invested it in spiffy light-blue uniforms, equipment and a website that would help recruit more players.
Less than two months after he started recruiting and practices, the team has a full roster. With money it’s gotten from community fundraisers, family and friends, next month it will be going to its first out-of-state game in Colorado.
Daniel wants his team to compete in the 2014 NBBA World Series, a weeklong tournament for the league’s more than 20 teams.
The NBBA has been around since 1976, and competition is fierce at the event, which will be in Rochester, Minn., next year, says league secretary Stephen Guerra.
“The 400-plus people who come are friends and family off the field, but on the field it’s a completely different story,” said Guerra, who plays on the Minnesota Millers.
“It’s winner take all, survival of the fittest, cutthroat — competition at its best.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.