For the Chicago Comets, Blindness Is No Impediment to Tough Competition

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: The players on the city’s beep baseball team have the bruises to prove their toughness.

In beep baseball, players hear rather than see the ball, and the pitcher and batter are on the same team.   Photo: Chris Lake

The Chicago Comets are the toughest baseball team in town.

I know—you’re thinking it doesn’t take much these days to be tougher than the Cubs and Sox. Especially the Cubs. You’re thinking you’ve seen teams of eight-year-olds tougher than the 2011 Cubs, no offense to eight-year-olds.

On that point, I would agree. But I’m not just saying the Comets are tougher than the Sox and Cubs. I’m saying they’re tougher than any team playing any kind of game involving a bat and ball, be it base­ball, softball, 12-inch, 16-inch, men’s league, women’s league, slow pitch, fast pitch, high school, college, semipro, minors, or majors, anywhere in the city or suburbs.

Before you call me and say your company’s softball team will take on the Comets and crush them, you need to know that the Comets have two advantages that will lead to your squad’s defeat and humiliation.

1. They’re blind.

2. They’re tougher than you.

If you don’t believe me, meet Giovanni Francese. He’s six feet four, 275 pounds, and he plays third base in a style that I would describe as Butkus-like. When he hears a beeping 16-inch softball headed his way, he hollers and dives headfirst after it, intent on not merely catching but crushing it. It’s enough to make you feel bad for the ball. But here’s the problem: Often another one of the Comets hears the same beeping ball, hollers just as loud as Gio, and dives in the same direction.

During a recent game, Gio crashed full speed into a teammate. Gio lost a front tooth, and his teammate suffered a head wound.

“You play with us, the next day you’re going to be sore,” he says. “It’s a physical game. You gotta want to do it.”

But maybe when you lose the vision in your left eye at age 6 and in your right at 17, a result of macular degeneration, you have different notions about what hurts.

Still not convinced the Comets are tough? Meet Kalari Girtley, a 27-year-old outfielder with speed and power, one of two women on the team. When I met her, on a 95-degree summer day, she was sweating buckets. Her grass stains had grass stains. She had a bit of sod stuck to the side of her face. And the game hadn’t started yet.

Everybody wants to coddle the blind, says Kalari, who lost her sight as a child when she developed hydroceph­alus. Everyone focuses on the things they can’t do, on the precautions they must take. And everyone expects them to be nice and quiet all the time. Kalari is nice most of the time. But on the ball field, she’s Ty Cobb in a blindfold, running and swinging as hard as she can on every play. She works out all her frustrations about being blind and unemployed or about whatever else is bothering her.

“I was six when I lost my sight,” she says. “I was angry. But getting out here and swinging the bat and tackling the bases, it makes me feel good. Beep baseball is my first love. It’s always been there for me, through all the trials and tribulations.”

* * *

Here are some of the fundamentals of beep baseball:

• Batters get four strikes instead of three.

• Games last six innings.

• Six defenders take the field at a time.

• Players wear blindfolds so that those with partial vision don’t have an advantage over those with no vision (although some players have been known to cheat by sliding their blindfolds slightly to one side).

• There is no second base. When the batter hits the ball, he runs to either first or third—whichever one beeps.

• The bases are four-foot-tall padded cyl­inders that look like the heavy bags boxers use. If the batter gets to the base before the ball is fielded, his team scores a run. Otherwise, he’s out.

• The batter and pitcher are on the same team. The pitcher can see. He stands 20 feet from the batter and calls out, “Ready . . . pitch!” That helps the batter time his swing and helps the fielders prepare to listen for the batted ball.

• The pitcher is not allowed to field the ball.

* * *

If you were a kid and you and all your friends were blind, this is the game you would invent. It calls for just the right blend of athleticism and courage, and it’s got just enough crazy rules and room for argument to make it endlessly entertaining. And, of course, it’s a little bit violent. That helps, too.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I told Michael Grunze, 25, one of the team’s best defenders, as I watched my first game.

“Neither have we,” he deadpanned.

In many ways, beep ball is more exciting than ordinary baseball or softball. In ordinary baseball, runners slide or dive only on close plays. In beep ball, the athletes have no idea if a play is going to be close, so they run at top speed every time. Often, because they’re running and puffing so hard, they don’t hear the ball called foul or the umpire call them out. The result: They crash full speed into the padded base, only to meander back to home plate and try again.

And the baserunning is fairly tame compared with the fielding.

When the beeping ball is struck, six fielders stand ready to chase it. A spotter on the field is permitted to shout a number, alerting the players to the zone where the ball has been hit. But that’s all the help they get.

They listen to the sound of the ball’s bounce. A heavy thud means a high bounce and a ball that might be coming toward your head or chest. A lighter thud likely means the ball skidded on a low hop and could shoot through your legs. Sometimes it looks like a pinball game, with the ball bouncing hither and yon, and fielders’ arms, legs, and heads clanging. When a player drops a ball or feels it rebound off his head, he shouts to his teammates: “Behind me!” or “To my left!” Which leads to more players converging, more spills, and more collisions. In other words, it’s like a routine fly ball hit to Alfonso Soriano.

Every once in a while, to raise money for the team, the Comets will play an exhibition game against a softball team from the police department, the fire department, or the Lions Club. The sighted players come in thinking it can’t be all that hard to play with blindfolds. And indeed, hitting the ball isn’t too difficult. But that’s where the fun usually ends. When these newcomers take off running for the base, fear sets in. A sighted person’s instinct is to stop and put his hands out, even if he knows there’s nothing there to trip over. On defense, sighted teams don’t understand the importance of shouting clues to teammates about which way the ball is bouncing.

The Comets are undefeated in these games.

Gilbert Ramos, 37, knows about the differences between baseball and beep baseball. He played briefly in the Kansas City Royals minor-league system before losing his sight to a gunshot wound 14 years ago. He’s an enormous man with a neat goatee and a powerful uppercut swing.

“In real baseball, in the field, you use a lot of eye coordination,” he says. “You see the ball, you skip, you move side to side, you skip, and you throw. Here, 100 percent of the time you’re diving.” But one thing is the same, Gilbert says: When you field a ball cleanly or connect on a swing, sending the ball in a high arc to the outfield, it feels as good as anything in the world.

“I’m an athlete,” says Bernardo Barrera, 23, who also lost his vision to a gunshot wound. “I’m real competitive. The thought of losing my sight and not being able to play sports really brought me down. When I heard about this, I fell in love with it right away. Blind baseball has to be one of the most competitive sports I’ve ever played.”

It’s also a big commitment. Players prac­­tice every Saturday for four hours at Rain­ey Park, on 79th Street near Pulaski Road. Some of them spend two or three hours on public transportation just getting to the field.

Unemployment is high among the blind. For some players, beep ball is the best reason they have all week to get out of the house. For others, it’s a chance to make contacts that might prove useful in searching for work. Gio Francese runs a cafeteria at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired and owns his own catering and vending company. Wally Mozdzierz is a supervisor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Warren Richardson Jr. is an assistant public defender for Cook County. Michael Grunze is looking for a job in music education, and Kalari Girtley is seeking work as a journalist (poor kid). They help one another as best they can.

The team’s coach, J. T. Herzog, says the Comets are a family. When a newly blind kid joins the team—as J.T.’s son did in 2000—the older players become mentors. They teach one another not only how to play the game but also things that men and women with sight take for granted—how to navigate in a hotel, for example, or how to get around by public transportation in an unfamiliar town.

The players joke a lot. When a batter doesn’t swing at a pitch, they tease: “What are you looking at?” or “Good eye, batter!”

When the umpire makes a questionable call, inevitably someone will shout: “Geez, ump! What are ya, blind?”

But all kidding aside, these are fierce competitors who don’t like losing. Eight years ago, the Comets won the National Beep Baseball Association World Series. Since then, teams from Taiwan and California have dominated.

“We’re getting a little bit older,” J.T. says. “Our speed isn’t quite what it used to be.” He says the Comets could use an infusion of fresh talent. But these days, it’s getting more difficult to recruit blind athletes. Many kids are afraid to leave the house. Others don’t want to put in the time to learn the game.

Do the Comets have a chance at winning the 2011 Beep Baseball World Series? (The tournament will be held the first week of August in Indianapolis, after this magazine goes to press.) J.T. and his players insist they do.

The key, they say, will be defense. The West Coast Dawgs, from California, have won the last three titles. But the Dawgs, according to members of the Comets, are like the New York Yankees—a group of high-priced free agents pulled together to create a veritable all-star team. The Dawgs might have more speed. They might have more power. But the Comets have the camaraderie, the chemistry, the heart—and that could be the difference.

For this team, seeing has nothing to do with believing.

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