Tacoma blind baseball team plays by ear

Roosevelt Stevenson stepped up to the plate, a blindfold over his eyes and a baseball bat gripped tightly in his hands.

The crowd hushed, but not entirely. “Quiet down!” somebody shouted, muffling leftover chatter.

In blind baseball, silence is imperative. Players must depend on their sense of hearing.

Pitcher Chet Wells — the only player who doesn’t wear a blindfold — removed a grenade-like pick from the top of an oversized baseball and pitched to Stevenson. The players pricked their ears.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Stevenson swung and missed. The umpire called a strike. Stevenson fared better on the second pitch, a hit to left field that was closely followed by a new beeping from first base. Stevenson ran toward the beeps, throwing himself onto the base before the other team fielded his ball.

The crowd’s silence was broken by cheers. Stevenson made his way back to the dugout with the assistance of a volunteer.

Welcome to beep baseball, a game for the blind and visually impaired that got its start in the 1960s. Stevenson, a machinist and trainer at Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle, brought the sport to Tacoma two years ago when he formed the Tacoma Tide. The team, which so far has competed solely against the Seattle Sluggers, has a big game Saturday when it takes on the Spokane Pride.

The Tacoma Tide has been gearing up for weeks. Last weekend, it scrimmaged against a group of sighted volunteers who wore blindfolds.

“We got better at hitting this year than I’ve ever seen ...,” Stevenson said. “We just have to work on defense, our biggest goal for next week is defense and being aggressive on the ball.”

Beep baseball has its own rules. The team is allowed to have one sighted member, the pitcher. The rest of the players are legally blind. Blindfolds ensure fairness among players’ varying degrees of visual impairment.

The games are six innings. A batter has four strikes before he or she is out. When a player gets a hit, he or she runs toward first or third base, depending on which one’s beep an operator activates. Players score by touching the beeping base before the six fielders get their hands on the ball. The baselines are 100 feet, and the bases are set 10 feet from the field to prevent runners from bumping into fielders.

Tacoma Tide players range in age from their 30s to their 50s. On Saturdays, they practice at the Elks Lodge field in Puyallup.

Fred Baker, the team’s coach and Stevenson’s longtime friend, said the practices are as much a practice as they are a time to visit with friends.

Baker, 73, who is sighted, says beep baseball has taught him a lot about the abilities of Tacoma’s blind community. When Stevenson first approached him about being the team’s coach, he didn’t know anything about the game.

“I’d said, ‘A what? I don’t know what that is.’ And he said, ‘go figure that out, because you’re going to be the coach,’ ” Baker said.

Now, he’s an enthusiastic advocate of the game, and his team hopes to someday play in the World Series of Beep Baseball, organized by the National Beep Baseball Association that formed in 1976.

Cathy Wilson, a 57-year-old Tide player, said that the team puts heavy emphasis on supporting each other. She’s vice president of the Pierce County Association of the Blind and has been part of the Tacoma Tide from the beginning. She said that beep baseball is especially good at building community among the blind in Tacoma.

“If we can get them out here, they see the value in the game,” she said.

Troy Bellerud, 37, said the team is a source of exercise and fun.

“I’ve really liked being part of the team,” he said. “At first it was hard. I never got discouraged, I knew I could do it. I like the sport because it’s good exercise.”

Stevenson formed the team after being invited to join the Seattle Sluggers. He saw a greater need for the game in Tacoma, leading him to rope together a team of members of Tacoma’s visually impaired community in early 2014.

The team’s beginnings were rocky. Once the team was assembled — a minimum of six players, five visually impaired and one sighted pitcher — it was difficult for some to get a good handle on the game.

“We started out rough. We weren’t hitting the ball as well. We weren’t running as well,” he said. “So a lot of people had a lot of fear of the game and it was only just myself and maybe two more other people who really understood the game.”

He wasn’t a stranger to this sort of fear himself.

Stevenson, a 49-year-old Tacoman, has been completely blind since age 22. He said that the first few years were “a sorting of things” in his life as he learned to work around his sudden loss of sight.

“It was scary at first, to be honest with you,” he said.

Stevenson said it wasn’t until he began reaching out to the blind community that he realized his blindness would not be the end of what his life was like before. The community allowed him to see how other Tacomans lived with blindness and he learned by their example.

Most of the Tide players have been visually impaired most of their lives or since birth. But Mark Dow, 56, is “new at being blind,” having lost his sight in 2013. He’s been playing beep baseball for a couple of months.

“I didn’t think there was anything to look forward to being blind, but now there is,” he said. “It gives me something to do and people that are blind like me to talk to and playing it is a lot of fun. They’ve been blind for a while. I can learn from them.”

The team stands at 10 players. Eight sighted volunteers serve in positions like pitcher and spotter, someone who makes sure that nobody runs into each other and that the game runs smoothly.

At Saturday’s scrimmage, the Tacoma Tide beat the team of volunteers 6-2. One volunteer, Lindsey Dicus, plays softball for fun and found that batting blindfolded was harder than she expected.

“It’s amazing how much you use your eyes to actually hit the ball, so it’s really hard to take that away,” the 28-year-old said.

Stevenson said he’s confident going into Saturday’s game.

“Everybody’s coming along,” he said.

Dow has a plan for the game. He grinned and said, “I’m going to pound one over the fence.”

Watch beep baseball

What: Tacoma Tide plays the Spokane Pride in their first matchup.

Where: Elks Lodge baseball field in Puyallup, 314 27th St. NE.

When: 11 a.m. Saturday.