The sun was fierce — and so was the competition — on a recent Saturday in South St. Louis County as visually impaired athletes from around the region took to the baseball field alongside players with normal vision.
The balls beeped, the bases buzzed, and the players all wore blindfolds — except for the pitchers and catchers.
The annual event is known as the Ultimate Beepball Championship Tournament. It’s organized by MindsEye Radio, a nonprofit in Belleville that provides programming for people with vision loss. Beepball — also called beep baseball — is a form of the sport invented in the 1960s for people with impaired vision.
Anthony Easley was the first batter for the team from Lighthouse for the Blind, a St. Louis nonprofit that employs the legally blind. After a teammate led him to the plate, Easley dug in, tapped his bat on the rubber and took a few practice swings.
Easley, 51, has been blind since he was 20. He’s known for his hitting and was the tournament’s most valuable player last year.
“Blindfolds on, please,’’ barked the umpire, loud enough for the players in the outfield to hear. “Batter’s up!”
The fielders crouched in the outfield, positioned at intervals by spotters who provide limited directions.
Pitcher Mark Adams called out to Easley, letting him know that he was about to throw the softball outfitted with an electronic beeper.
Easley hit the first pitch squarely, driving the beeping ball over a 40-foot line drawn on the infield.
The fielders — some on their hands and knees — felt around for the ball, while Easley, arms stretched out, raced down the first base line toward a four-foot tower that emitted a buzzing sound. In beepball, batters score when they reach either first or third base before the fielders find the ball.
“Batter’s safe!” called the umpire.
The sidelines and the players on the field — including the opposing team — cheered.
Easley was all grins as a teammate led him back to the bench.
The key to hitting in beepball is concentration — and getting ready to swing as soon as the pitcher calls out “pitch,” he said.
Easley grew up playing sports, including baseball. He lost his sight 30 years ago after playing in a pickup basketball game. An angry opponent shot him in the face and nearly killed him.
Working at Lighthouse — and playing beepball — helps him keep perspective, Easley said.
“I was angry at one point in time,’’ he said. “But then I had to pray about it and get my spirit right with the Lord upstairs. He kept me around for a reason. The reason wasn’t for me to sit around and be angry at someone. You got to forgive and forget.”
Sixteen teams played in the tournament, which was held at Assumption Parish on Mattis Road. Games started at 9 a.m. and continued past 5 p.m., even as the temperature rose steadily to 91 degrees. Area businesses and organizations sponsor the teams.
This was the 13th year for the tournament, and the players get better at beepball every year, said Jason Frazier, president of MindsEye.
“You have people from different backgrounds, different places— some that have disabilities, some that don’t — but sharing this game of baseball together,’’ Frazier said.
Between games, Monica Tapson, 27, cooled off in the covered pavilion. She works for Ophthalmology Consultants in Des Peres, which sponsored her team. Like Tapson, her teammates are all sighted.
Playing beepball while blindfolded has helped her to better appreciate the challenges people with visual impairments face every day, Tapson said.
“Even if it gets competitive, all the teams are very supportive of each other,’’ Tapson said. “We’re all here for the same reason. And it’s a very good feeling.’’
All of the players on the Lighthouse for the Blind team are visually impaired. They’re always a powerhouse at the tournament and have won it several times.
The Lighthouse players are fearless, said their coach Brian Houser, the nonprofit’s director of sales and marketing.
“A person who’s blind — and gets around on their own most of the time — has no fear to run to a base they can’t see, or hit a ball they can’t see, or field a ball they can’t see,” Houser said.
Johnny Savisky, who plays on the Lighthouse team, has glaucoma and lost most of his vision 15 years ago. He plays beepball to win, running hard and tackling the bases. He used to love playing baseball and football before he lost his sight, he said. Beepball lets him take the field again.
Lighthouse is usually the only team in the tournament with all vision-impaired players, Savisky said. And he takes pride in that.
“For all these people that, in general, think that, ‘Oh, they’re blind; they can’t play’ — we still count,’’ Savisky said. “We still matter.’’
But on this day, there would be no trophy for Lighthouse.
After his team was eliminated in the semifinals, Savisky didn’t hide his disappointment. He wiped away the sweat rolling off his face and said that, at age 53, this might have been his last tournament.
“Right now, I’m saying, ‘That’s it. I’m done,’’’ he said.
But then he shrugged.
“I’ll be back,’’ he said. “It always happens that way. The pain goes away, and then it’s like, ‘Aw, I miss it already.'"
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard