Blind Baseball, with Italian Flair ; No Pitchers or Catchers, and the Bases Beep, in Twist on U.S. Pastime

Article excerpt

Since 2005, Eugenio Brivio's Thunder's Five has won all but one championship title in Italy's blind baseball league. One player said the competition gave her "a real sense of freedom."

When Eugenio Brivio first started coaching blind baseball players in 2002, getting across one basic tenet had him stumped.

"The first rule they teach you is to keep your eye on the ball," Mr. Brivio said on the sidelines of a game one sultry Sunday at Bologna's Leoni ballpark. "You can imagine the challenge I felt."

He seems to have managed. Italy's baseball league for the blind is not huge, but since 2005, Mr. Brivio's Milanese team -- Thunder's Five -- has won all but one championship title and is heading strong into the playoffs later this month. "They got good," Mr. Brivio said.

This is not Major League Baseball. Only nine teams compete in the league across Italy. While in the United States, World Series winners are traditionally invited to the White House to meet the president, Italy's blind champs content themselves with a trophy, a pennant to sew on their uniforms and immense personal satisfaction.

Daniela Pierri, the captain of a team based in Ravenna, was a runner and lost her sight as an adult. "The first time I ran as a blind person, it felt marvelous," she said. "It gave me a real sense of freedom. This game was conceived to make us as autonomous as possible."

Teams are formed of five blind or visually impaired blindfolded players, a sighted player and a sighted defensive assistant. The sighted members serve as base coaches.

There are fewer innings in a game, and no pitchers or catchers. Instead, a batter throws and hits the ball, a regular-size baseball with five holes and two sleigh bells inside. Fielders must hear where it lands (which must be within the diamond). The sighted players clap paddles at second and third base to orient runners. First base is a beeping mat.

Home runs are called if the ball rolls 60 meters -- almost 200 feet -- beyond home plate. (Some opponents grumble that Thunder's Five is unbeatable because of the batting power of Sarwar Ghulam, a former cricket player rapidly losing his sight who is admiringly known as the "homer king.")

Stefano Malaguti, the association's commissioner, paraphrased a bit from the 1988 film "Bull Durham" to underscore that the blind players are still players. They "throw the ball, catch the ball and hit the ball," he said. "We try to respect the sense of the sport."

The twists for blind players were honed through two decades of trials, spearheaded above all by Alfredo Meli, a former Italian baseball champion -- as player and coach -- who died in 2010. "He thought of everything," said Alberto Mazzanti, president of Italy's blind baseball association, A.I.B.X.C., and a founder of the league. "The game was invented here. We have the copyright."

The game as played here has little in common with its U.S. parallel, beep baseball.

The Italians are so proud of their game that they can sound downright dismissive of the U.S. version.

"This is real baseball, beep ball is just a pastime," Mr. Mazzanti said. He and other officials of the Italian game have long tried to proselytize to the Americans, but their efforts have so far been unsuccessful. …

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