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Blind Baseball Players Prepare for World Series

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The World Series starts this week. No not that World Series or the one involving poker or pop culture. This one is unlike anything you've ever seen. Fourteen teams will head  to Minnesota to battle for Beep Baseball's World Series crown. The balls beep, the bases buzz and the pitchers are on the same team as the hitters. For Chicago Public Radio, reporter Alex Helmick has the story of the Chicago Comets, a team that's truly in a league all their own.

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Baseball players and the wind don't often get along. And on a 79 degree day in a ballpark on Chicago's Southwest Side, it's windy, very windy. That kind of wind can be dangerous to these ball players. They're blind and rely on sound to tell them where the ball and bases are.

Ambi: Base buzzing

That's first base buzzing.

Ambi: Beeping ball

And that's the 16'' one pound softball beeping.

When it's windy, the beeping and buzzing can get thrown in all different directions confusing the players. But at today's practice, the players will make due. Wally Mozdzierz is standing at home plate, bat in hand.

Ambi: Wally batting

Wally hits a hard ground ball to right field. A sighted spotter tells the players on defense where the ball is going. Two players hunch over, focusing on the sound of the beeping ball. They move quickly toward the beeps. Then one dives on the ground and blocks the ball with his body. If the runner gets to the base before the fielder gets the ball, he scores a run for his team. If not,  he's out. Wally safely makes it to the base in about six seconds. It's a hundred feet away.

MOZDZIERZ:  I love playing beep ball. Live for it. It's pretty cool.

Wally's wearing cleats and a jersey and baseball pants that are ripped on both knees. He has retinitis pigmentos— a disease that slowly takes away his vision. He's had the disease for years. Now middle aged, his sight is all but gone. All the players are legally blind but some can see better than others, so all of them wear blindfolds to equal the playing field.

MOZDZIERZ: This is the ultimate in competition, man. It's more than just baseball. It's more like baseball with a little football mixed in.

The game is so physical that nearly the entire team wears pads: kneepads, elbow pads, hip pads. Without them they wouldn't last a day. Like Wally says this sport is a mix of baseball and football, and Warren Richardson knows all about football.

RICHARDSON: I love the game. I get a chance to stay in shape for an older man.

Thirty-seven-year-old Warren is in shape. His muscles bulge through his jersey. He could see when he was a kid but lost his vision after hitting his head in a street football game. He wasn't supposed to be playing rough sports because he had cataracts in his eyes. The hit spurred his blindness at 13. Now it's beep baseball that gives Warren that feeling of being an athlete. It's also a great release from a stressful job.

RICHARDSON:  As ironic as it is, I'm a attorney in traffic court. I do DUI's, Class-A misdemeanors in traffic court.

HELMICK: You say that's ironic?

RICHARDSON: A blind guy in traffic court? Our office has a sense of humor.

Warren says his sighted coworkers love his kind of baseball.

RICHARDSON:  I had a couple of colleagues come out and they said, 'Ok, we'll come out for one game.' And the next thing you know, it was four hours later. They stayed for two games because most people who end up seeing the game, they really enjoy watching it and find it amazing.

But as amazing as it may be, there are some strict crowd rules. Terry Smolka is a sighted volunteer. Her husband plays on the Comets.When she's at games, Terry, a gregarious woman, wants to roar with excitement when the Comets hit the ball. But fans have to be silent until the play is completely over so the players can hear the ball, the bases and the sighted spotters.

HELMICK: Is it hard to hold it in?

SMOLKA: Yes it is. You know every time. I used to beep the horn when they would come in. And I'm like, 'Op!' I can't do that. I gotta be quiet. I'm like 'Oh.'

The Chicago Comets have played in four grueling tournaments this year. They travel across the country and need about 15 grand a season to get players from tournament to tournament. Games are six innings and teams could play up to five games in two days. The league has been up and running since 1995 but some of these guys were playing some form of this game before then. The beep softball was invented decades ago.

Mike McGlashon's been playing for 19 years. He's been blind since birth and used to travel from New York City to Chicago just to play for the Comets.

MCGLASHON: I've been playing a long time and so it's not new. But the appreciation for it is still there, I think. I still like to play ball. I still like to do the mechanic things that make us better players. But I think the young guys, you know, coming out and watching them play and do their thing and enjoy it like I was when I first started that's what's worth it to me I think.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Alex Helmick.

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