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Baseball bonds blind community

09/17/2015, 4:45pm CDT
By Sam Wigness

Regarding the struggles of being a hitter, Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said: “They give you a round bat and they throw you a round ball and they tell you to hit it square.”

At least Stargell could see the ball coming.

Seattle South King Sluggers manager Kevin Daniel and his players are part of the National Beep Baseball Association – a modified softball league for blind athletes – and among the first beep baseball players in Washington. 

While the game provides unique opportunities for blind athletes, such as playing outdoors and working as a team, Daniel said it brings him and the blind community a step closer to ever sought after acceptance and equality.


Kevin Daniel is manager of Seattle's lone blind baseball team. Photo courtesy of the Highline Times

As a child, Daniel believed his blindness was a negative characteristic and feared his father, who worked at a Chrysler plant for 33 years, was disappointed in him.

“It affected our relationship because I believed he thought I was less (of a person) or that he worried about me,” Daniel said. “And in 1972, what the heck do you do with a blind kid?”

Daniel was 5 when his parents enrolled him in the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis. He would stay at the school during the week, only returning home for weekends and holidays until he was 18. His athletic options were limited to wrestling and goalball -- an indoor blind sport similar to handball, in which players attempt to throw dodgeball-sized balls into an opposing goal.

Then, in 1980, he was asked try a blind sport that had emerged in the United States just four years earlier. Beep baseball satisfied Daniel’s desires to compete, be part of a team and – most importantly – play an organized sport outdoors.

Beep baseball is most easily compared to slowpitch softball and gets its name from the modified softball-sized ball that beeps as it travels toward the hitters and fielders. Each team consists of six legally blind players and three sighted fielders positioned as catcher, pitcher and “spotter.” The object of the game is to hit the ball and run 100 feet to reach base before the opposing team fields the ball. If the batter reaches base before the ball is handled, a run scores.

 

Although he was among the first to play the sport, Daniel said he was much more invested in wrestling and wasn’t particularly good at beep baseball. But, unlike goalball or wrestling, the sport gave him a chance to compete outdoors. So he stuck with it through high school, back during the game’s development phase.

“The first beep baseballs were much bigger than the current ones,” Daniel said. “It was more of a quirky sport back then because the ball was so large and the beeping mechanism was a little wonky. You could only hit it once and it didn’t work anymore.”

The specialized equipment -- which includes $34 balls, quiet, all-turf or all-grass playing fields and $300 electronic bases that resemble 46-inch high tackling dummies -- has streamlined in the last 40 years, but its cost presents the greatest challenge to beep baseball managers such as Daniel.

“We could go through three or four balls in a practice if we’re not careful,” Daniel said. “What I remind my players is not to worry about equipment and just try and smash the ball. The balls are like horses to horse racing – you just can’t play without them. It’s my job as the program manager to find a way to afford the equipment.”

Other costs include an annual $2,100 field rental fee and a looming $15,000 pricetag to cover expenses for a trip to the National Beep Baseball Association World Series in Ames, Iowa. Although fundraising is Daniel’s greatest challenge as manager, ironically, it’s also the reason Daniel renewed his passion for the sport after decades of limited involvement.

In 2010, Daniel, as a blind professional, was hired by Inland Northwest Lighthouse in Spokane for his fundraising and outreach abilities. Part of the job was to connect the blind community to the surrounding communities, so he organized goalball and beep baseball games.

“I thought I would do it just for quick activities, just for fun,” he said. “But what I found out was there was a desire for baseball. People wanted to get outdoors, and since I loved it as a kid, I thought we could run with this and use it to connect with outside community. There was a desire for the blind to play baseball I didn’t understand before.”

 

Facts

Name: Kevin Daniel | Age: 48

Resides in: Burien, Wash.

Family: Wife, Marsha; son, Thadius, 18.

Job: Senior director for strategic recruiting at Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind.

Interests: Freestyle wrestling, bowling, movies, Scrabble

 

Quickie Bio

Daniel grew up in Indianapolis and was blind-by-birth due to a genetic condition. He attended the Indiana School for the Blind from the age of five to eighteen where his athletic options were limited to wrestling and goalball until, at age 13, he was introduced to beep baseball. He competed in all three sports throughout high school. From 1995 to 2008, he worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide as a customer care manager, then went to Darden Business School and earned a degree in Business Administration and Management. In 2010, he was hired as executive director at Inland Northwest Lighthouse in Spokane, Washington. He realized there was an unfulfilled desire by the blind community for athletic opportunities and organized the state’s first beep baseball team. Shortly after, he became senior director of strategic recruiting at Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, and founded his second beep baseball team -- the Seattle South King Sluggers. As coach, administrator and fundraiser for the Sluggers, his goal is to bring his team to the National Beep Baseball World Series in June, 2016.

 


With help from Sport Ngin account manager Brooke Hauser, among others, Kevin Daniel created and manages the Seattle Sluggers website.

 

Daniel started a team in Spokane, then, two years later, became senior director of strategic recruiting at Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., a machine shop that makes parts for Boeing, and created a second beep baseball team. Although the teams were designed as an outreach tool for Lighthouse, Daniel said the game inspires and drives him.

“When you deal with blindness, you always want to see what we can do and where we can go,” he said. “You want to see if someone can hit a home run 200 feet or catch a fly ball – which has happened twice since 1980. Selfishly, I get a kick in knowing something great can happen and seeing blind people be the reason people are cheering as opposed to them saying, ‘Aww isn’t that nice.’ ”


Telea Noriega

Forty-eight-year-old Telea Noriega, a blind-by-birth second baseman, has the uncanny ability to pick up and differentiate sound. He is a prime example of what gives Daniel his “kick.” Noriega, who was the first to register and one of three players at the first practice, was drawn to beep baseball for the same reasons as Daniel -- the unique opportunity to play outdoors.

“You get to play in the elements, play with noise -- it teaches you to tune things out and focus on one thing,” Noriega said. “It teaches you to kind of work as a team. A lot of blind people don’t know what it’s like to work as a team because there’s very few sports out there for blind people.”

While this is true for much of the blind community, Noriega’s experience as a varsity nose tackle at Grant’s Pass High School in Grants Pass, Oregon, helped him develop into a premier beep ball player in his manager’s eyes.

“Telea has done things on defense I’ve never seen or heard before,” Daniel said. “It’s my spotter’s job to call out if it’s a left or right-handed batter, but he remembers where everyone hit last time and calls it out to the other players.”


Pass the Flame

Encourage a young athlete with an inspiring message. Thank a coach, parent, or teammate who's made a difference in your life. Pass the flame for them to share and keep alive. Because one little spark is all it takes to ignite something great.


Noriega uses code words to realign the defense based on the opposing hitters’ tendencies. If the batter hits short, he calls “Oasis,” which means move 10 steps in. If he claps twice, the Sluggers shift to the left side of the field to cover a pull-happy right-handed hitter.

While Noriega’s speed and strength were honed in high school while he competed as a varsity wrestler, a sprinter and shot put thrower, his experience on the football field prepared him most for beep baseball. With 21 other players on the field and a roaring crowd, Noriega said he learned to block out background noise, play on a team and focus on the game using sound and touch. As a second baseman, Noriega can locate a batted ball within a second after it’s been hit. If he’s not the first to the ball, he’s the first to direct his teammates toward it.

“We have a spotter that’s supposed to tell you which side or position it’s going to, but the spotter doesn’t always get that position right and they can only make one call,” Noriega said. “It’s up to the rest of us to decipher where that ball is going. If I know the spotter missed it, and I hear it going somewhere else, I’ll call out the new location.”

For defense-minded Daniel, Noriega is the perfect fit for his style of baseball.

“It’s assumed that if you’re on my team you’re going to be a good hitter, so we work especially on defense,” Daniel said. “Most of my players hit around .300. Some players on better teams will hit in the .600’s, but we’re really about defense and getting to the ball quickly.”


Seattle South King Sluggers manager Kevin Daniel is working to raise money that would allow his team to participate in the National Beep Baseball Association World Series. Courtesy photo

Since the team officially started on June 1, 2013, Daniel has focused on three goals: Raising awareness for what blind people can do athletically, putting together a team that could compete in the NBBA World Series and providing fun, athletic activities in the area. His goals have required him to become more than just a baseball manager.

“Kevin’s a salesman, s coach and a PR guy,” Noriega said. “If it wasn’t for the lack of financial opportunities right now, we’d be going to a lot of different tournaments and things, but he’s trying, and he’s already a busy man with his other work. For him to come out and get a group of people together to work as a team, I think very highly of that.”

The area Lions, Kiwanis and Elks civic clubs emerged as early sponsors, but the $15,000 pricetag to go to the NBBA World Series has led Daniel to search out bigger sponsors such as Amazon and Microsoft. He also is engaged in grassroots fundraising and promotion. His goal is to reach the $15,000 total by June 1, 2016.

The Sluggers have hosted bowl-a-thons, sold T-shirts and even thrown a beer-tasting contest to raise money and awareness simultaneously. But they’re most popular publicity-grab began after a rather fortunate incident with the Seattle Police Department.

Officer Chris Gregario stopped into a restaurant during an overnight shift and noticed a bunch of guys in baseball uniforms sitting a couple tables away. They began chatting baseball before Gregario noticed their canes and seeing-eye dogs.

“We started some banter with them -- talked a little smack,” Gregario said. “It wasn’t one of those feel-good, ‘We’re gonna help them play ball,’ type deals. It was competitive talk. We really went back and forth, until finally someone said ‘Let’s get a game.’ ”

Gregario connected with Daniel, and in the summer of 2014 an unprepared Seattle Police Department team took the field against the Seattle Sluggers and lost 7-0.

“It is extremely difficult,” Gregorio, an 11-year Seattle PD veteran, said. “The first year I think I nicked a ball – that’s it. When you have the blindfold on you’re trying to see the ball, I had to erase that out of my head.”

Even with the beep baseball standard four strikes, the blindfolded officers could hardly hit the ball, let alone get one past Noriega. In the field, Gregario, who served eight years of active duty in the United States Army, was downright scared.

It’s kind of an eerie feeling. You hear the ball but usually don’t know where it is or where it’s going."
                                       - Chris Gregario, Seattle Police Department officer

“It’s kind of an eerie feeling. You hear the ball but usually don’t know where it is or where it’s going,” he said. “You remember watching Scooby-Doo when Velma would lose her glasses? It’s like that. Very amusing to watch because you see these officers crawling around on the field.”

After struggling the first game, Gregario, who played for a travelling softball team called the Heidleberg Generals while stationed in Germany, proposed a rematch the following year.
This time the officers took the time to practice and learned to listen for the ball instead of trying to see it through their blindfolds.

“Those cops are pretty serious – they really wanted to beat up on the blind people,” Noriega chuckled “It’s awesome to play with them though. We only beat them 2-1, and that was one of the best defensive games I’ve had.”

Gregario said the beep baseball game will definitely be an annual event, and it’s getting so popular around the station that he’s had to turn people down. The Seattle PD auctions off ride-alongs and helps out at fundraisers to support the Sluggers, and Gregario occasionally drops into Lighthouse to talk smack.

Daniel said the police game really put the Sluggers on the map. It is one of the few competitive interactions between the police and the disabled community in the United States, and it’s turned out to be beneficial for all parties. The Sluggers and Seattle PD get much-needed positive publicity while the public gains a new perspective on both their police force and blind community members.


Kevin Daniel, in black T-shirt, left, gives his team instructions before they take the field. Photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times

And Daniel, he finds acceptance.

“The little things, like smack talk – that’s normalcy,” he said. “Blind people desire that feeling, and it’s great we can connect on that level. And the public gets to see that competition is part of the blind life, too.”

The Sluggers have played four of their six scheduled games this season. They beat a recently formed Tacoma-based team twice and the Seattle PD once but lost 8-3 to the Canadian National Team in early August. Their final two scheduled games are against Spokane and the Canadian National Team. Daniel is working on expanding the season by setting up games with high school softball teams and the Seattle Fire Department. He’s also planning a trip to Vancouver, Washington to demonstrate the sport at a school for the blind.

The challenges of managing the Sluggers, Daniel said, have helped him change his view on being blind. It’s no longer a setback, like he believed as a child.

“It’s come full circle,” he said. “Blind people are doing great things through activities similar to beep baseball. For so long (being blind) was a negative, I was ashamed that I wasn’t like everyone else -- some even called us retarded because we went to a different school. 

“Now, I am so honored as a human being to take something was such a negative and make something great out of it.”

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