TORONTO — With the crack of the bat, an umpire’s call and the hustle and bustle on the basepaths, baseball boasts a soundtrack all its own.
At a Toronto Blind Jays practice, the collection of sounds also includes a beeping ball and buzzing bases.
In preparation to represent Canada at the upcoming NBBA Beep Baseball World Series in Florida, the Jays went to work at Maryvale Park in Toronto’s east end earlier this week. Most of the squad is made up of players who are completely blind or have less than 10 per cent vision.
“We’re all just passionate about the sport,” said Canadian general manager Arthur Pressick. ”A lot of these people never even tried baseball until beep baseball and they just love it.
“To be able to hit a ball and crank it out into the field, it’s a fantastic thing.”
Beep baseball is similar to the traditional pastime in some ways. The goal is to hit the ball and score runs but the general setup is quite different.
Eye shades are worn to negate any potential vision advantage. Players use their hearing to track the ball, which starts beeping once its pin is pulled as play begins.
Players also rely on audio to determine the location of the bases, represented by two padded four-foot cylinders on opposite sides of the field that start to buzz when a ball is in play.
The pitcher, catcher and spotters are sighted and work with batters — they’re all on the same team — to co-ordinate pitch timing and help guide players in the outfield.
If a ball is hit into fair territory, the race is on as the batter tries to reach base before the fielder locates and picks up the ball. A spotter calls out a number — for example, a two for a shallow ball or a three if it’s deep — to give the fielder an idea of where the beeping ball might be.
“Sometimes it’s really scary because the ball is not always on the ground,” said Cassie Orgeles of Fort Erie, Ont. ”It could be going over your shoulder.”
If the batter reaches base before the ball is secured, a run is scored. If the fielder gets to the ball first, it’s an out.
Pressick, a videographer from Meaford, Ont., became interested in the sport after shooting documentaries on beep baseball. He helped put a Canadian squad together for the 2015 tournament in Rochester, N.Y., and while that team later dissolved, a core group of players got together last fall and the 2017 Blind Jays’ roster, which is co-ed, was filled out in the spring.
Most of the players have other athletic pursuits. Orgeles, 27, who competed at the Paralympics in goalball, found the transition to beep baseball was a smooth one.
“We’re all a very active group and we decided we really want to try this,” she said.
Beep baseball bases are in foul territory to avoid player collisions and the ball must clear a line behind the pitcher to be deemed in play. In addition, there are four strikes instead of three, a game lasts six innings, and fielders use their hands instead of baseball gloves.
Even though the Canadian team is in its infancy, camaraderie and team spirit were evident on a sunny afternoon in the city’s east end. A 90-minute practice was the second session for the full squad and the first with new blue and white Toronto uniforms and red Canada hats — a welcome donation from Baseball Canada.
The players already have their celebratory handshake routines down pat. There was even some good-natured chirping among the teammates.
“Keep your eye on the ball, Wayner!” one outfielder shouted in the direction of home plate to chuckles all around.
A sponsor is on board to help with costs and the team has received some donations on its GoFundMe page. To keep accommodation costs down, the 12-player team plans to drive 24 hours straight to Florida with Pressick at the wheel.
“I’m a GM, coach, pitcher, driver, chef, masseuse and waterboy,” he said with a smile. “All in one.”
Orgeles said it can take a little while to get the hang of things on the beep baseball field. Finding a rhythm at the plate is one of the biggest challenges.
Standing about 20 feet away, the pitcher uses a four-beat sequence with a ’Set, ready, pitch,’ declaration before the batter swings.
“When you click with your pitcher, it’s the greatest feeling to hit (the) ball,” Orgeles said.
Effective communication is critical. And when the team has great spirit and energy, it’s a nice bonus.
“It’s a stronger bond I think with this group than traditional baseball,” Pressick said. “They’ve all gone through stuff in life that have brought them together to this point so right there, they have a lot of things in common just off the beginning.”
Canada finished 18th at the 2015 tournament. Pressick is hoping for bigger things this time around at West Palm Beach’s Village Park.
“I can’t wait to get this team down there and win a World Series,” he said.
The tournament starts Sunday and runs for a week.
The Jays roster also includes Joey Cabral of Toronto, James Kwinecki of St. Catharines, Ont., Wane St. Denis of Toronto, Ben Ho Lung of Aurora, Ont., Meghan Mahon of Timmins, Ont., Aaron Prevost of Cornwall, Ont., Mark DeMontis of Toronto, Paul Kerins of Toronto (coach), Mike Tweddle of Toronto (coach) and John Harding of Toronto (coach).