The Blind Boys of Summer
How beep baseball, an adaptive version of America's pastime for the visually impaired, saved two brothers—and turned them into world champions.
Tthe field was a brilliant green on July 6 when Wayne Sibson, in his red-and-white uniform, stepped up to home plate at Estadio Quisqueya, the baseball stadium in Santo Domingo. Wayne had traveled to the Dominican Republic’s capital city with his team, the Austin Blackhawks, to play in an exhibition game against Huracanes del Caribe. He was a long way from home, but a familiar voice ribbed him from the pitcher’s mound. “Here we go, Waaayyyne, you and me,” said his younger brother, Kevin Sibson. It was the top of the last inning, the Blackhawks had a slim 2–1 lead, and they needed an insurance run. Kevin threw his first pitch. Wayne swung—and missed.
Then Kevin, visibly upset, smacked his thigh with his glove.
He was angry because the brothers play beep baseball, an adaptive sport for the blind and visually impaired, and in this modified version of the game, the pitcher and hitter are on the same team. Kevin wants Wayne to make contact.
Wayne, a compact fifty-year-old with a wraparound mustache, has been blind since the second grade. That’s when the disease retinitis pigmentosa progressed into a full-fledged impairment. In the years since, he and Kevin, who has sight, have operated as a unit of sorts. They created the Austin Blackhawks in 1985 and joined the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) in 1987. They developed the team into a powerhouse, pulling down seven straight World Series championships during the nineties. They’ve taught people all over the world how to play the sport, and they were in the Dominican Republic by invitation, to bring beep ball to the baseball-frenzied nation that’s home to over one hundred current major leaguers, and plenty of underserved blind people. The Clásico Beep Béisbol game had been heavily publicized, and four thousand fans showed up to watch Los Huracanes play the Blackhawks.
Kevin stood twenty feet from the plate and gripped the audible, mechanical softball. As he wound up to pitch, he tells the batter, “Set, ready, ball,” the signal call in beep baseball that lets players know when to start swinging. In this game, consistency is key; the hitters, who are blindfolded to erase any last vestige of sight, try to keep their cuts the same, trusting that the ball will come into their wheelhouses. Kevin tries to keep his call the same. For nearly three decades, he’s been aiming at the barrel of his brother’s bat. They’re pretty synced.
As he prepared for the second pitch, Kevin decided he’d throw Wayne an outside fastball, just like he used to in their childhood yard on the corner of Sherwood Forest and Queens Way in Austin—where the brothers hit ground-rule doubles over the neighbor’s fence, where Kevin tossed thousands of pitches against a target on a tree, perfecting his timing and the cadence of his voice.
He quickly scanned behind him, mentally mapping the locations of the six blind (and blindfolded) Dominican players patrolling the field. It’s their job to scoop up the batted ball before the hitter reaches a 48-inch-tall buzzing base 100 feet from the plate. If they do it, they record an out; if they don’t, Wayne scores a run. Kevin knew the right side of the Dominican defense was weaker, and so he’d try to entice his right-handed-hitting brother to take it the opposite way.
“Set, ready, ball,” Kevin said to Wayne, and he released, throwing a dart at a moving bullseye. Los Huracanes listen for the contact and imagine the field.
Kevin Sibson, pitcher for the Austin Blackhawks. (Photograph by John Lykowski.)
Beep baseball was dreamed up in 1975 by a Minnesotan named John Ross. As a child, Ross had had limited sight and some experience playing shortstop, but he’d also played as much touch football as he could. During one of those pickup games, Ross tumbled into the rose bushes that marked an endzone, and a thorn pierced his good eye. In his memoir, Feeling Sports, he recalled seeing his mother rush toward him, her face beginning to “disappear in an ocean of brilliant crimson.”
Despite that traumatic blinding, Ross kept playing sports, winning a Minnesota state wrestling championship in high school. He was also among the last people to interview Babe Ruth. Though Ruth was suffering from advanced throat cancer, he kept a meeting with the blind cub reporter, Ross, who’d been chosen for the honor because of his well-known sports mania.
With those experiences in his past, Ross still longed to play baseball. Trouble was, the kind of games available for the blind were overcautious and underwhelming. In the late thirties and beyond, there’d been something called “Sound Baseball” in which the fielders knelt on a pad and scuttled after a jingling ball hit by a kind of field hockey stick. And even up through the sixties and seventies, blind players were still hitting off a tee. Running of any kind by the players was strictly outlawed, and the sport was more “isn’t-that-nice” therapeutic participation than serious competition. I talked to two players from that era who both called the earlier game a “wussified” sport, and Ross, who died in 1998, shared their feelings, writing that it was “simple and unchallenging.”
When Ross got his hands on the beep baseball—invented in 1964 by Charlie Fairbanks, a Mountain Bell telephone company engineer, to help visually impaired kindergarteners play keep-away—he set about creating a new kind of baseball game. There had to be a pitcher and a hitter, he knew, and when the hitter made contact, the fielders had to chase the sound of the ball at full speed. No more of that walking stuff. Ross wanted to dive, slide, collide. With his wife and a friend, he improvised the rules in a park in Minneapolis.
He promoted his new sport through an audio braille newsletter he’d recently founded, and by September 1976, eight teams, among them the San Antonio Jets, met in Minnesota to compete in the inaugural World Series. The first champions were the St. Paul Gorillas. (They’d taken their name, the story goes, after an anxious beep ball volunteer described what he thought was the reckless way the players ran onto the field.) Ross, it seemed, had accomplished his goal: a fast-paced baseball game for the blind that was more about scraping knees than warming hearts.
By 1978, the El Paso Mountaineers, the Houston All-Stars, and the Austin Tel-Stars had joined the league, competing in regional competitions across Texas and in the annual World Series, a weeklong tournament that includes teams from all over the United States.
Before the Blackhawks formed, Wayne Sibson played for the Tel-Stars. The team’s name honored the telephone industry’s major influence in the history of the sport, including the contribution by beep ball inventor Fairbanks, who had disemboweled a softball and filled it with a small circuit board along with the speaker from a Princess model rotary phone. Other telephone company employees, through a national volunteer organization, improved upon the ball and acted as boosters for the game. In Texas, Southwestern Bell workers eventually manufactured some of the beep balls and helped to sustain the adaptive pastime.
Wayne Sibson. (Photograph by Jonathan Fleming.)
Wayne, who was fiercely independent both before and after he lost his sight, had found an outlet in beep ball. He was a “badass” on the field, according to Kevin, and a phenom at the plate. He is one of a handful of players in NBBA history to make the all-tournament team as both a left-handed and a right-handed hitter. And the guys’ mother, Rusty Reames, couldn’t have been happier. Early on, she’d been devastated by her Wayne’s illness. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with a blind kid. What do you do with a blind kid?” she said. In beep ball, she found part of her answer.
“God needed beep baseball in Austin,” she told me. “So he needed a blind guy, and a pitcher, and their mother as a fund-raiser.” Rusty believes fervently in beep, and she also believes that when the Blackhawks were born in the mid-eighties, the team saved the life of her son—Kevin.
As a teenager, Kevin ran away from home and started drinking. Rusty was a single mother and Wayne had pretty much been Kevin’s keeper in those years, so Kevin was used to getting away with stuff. But when he stole a motorcycle, things appeared grim. He avoided jail for the joy-ride, but he ended up in a rehab center soon after. It was 1985, and he finally seemed on his way to getting straight. That same year, he’d formed the Blackhawks in a hotel room at the beep ball World Series when he realized three of the Fort Worth Roadrunners—Wayne’s second team—were from Austin. Kevin, who assisted the Roadrunners, believed that he could lead his own team from the mound. But he nearly lost that opportunity.
In rehab between the 1985 and ’86 seasons, he thought he’d learned that he “could live without fucking up,” in his words. But after his release, he got into trouble again, with more serious substances. That’s when Kevin, now 45 and a married father of two, thought about how much his brother was counting on him, thought about what the Blackhawks could become if he stuck with them. For the next ten years, he threw a thousand pitches a week. It gave him order, a goal. Sometimes he used a metronome that clicked out 119 beats a minute while he practiced. That rhythm helped him steady his spoken cadence, helped him communicate with his hitters. He was only in high school at the time, but he’d found a vocation.
“Kevin was born with this athletic ability to do this strange thing that he does,” Rusty said. “He could take Princess Margaret and blindfold her and have her hitting a ball. I don’t know how he can do this, but Kevin is very much a guru.”
The early seasons were not mystical for the Austin Blackhawks though. According to beep baseball coaches I’ve talked with, it takes roughly seven years to get a group of blind folks to feel comfortable with one another on the field, to stay in their correct defensive zones and efficiently corner the ball in the five or six seconds before the hitter gets to the base. Early on, the Hawks scored runs in bunches, but their defense was horrible. Finally, seven years after the team’s inception, they found success. They won their first World Series championship in 1992, a 20–19 victory over the Chicago Cobras. Wayne remembers the mostly cautious pig pile on the field. “Kevin hit us running full-tilt,” he said.
In 1993 the Hawks obliterated their old friends on the Fort Worth Roadrunners, scoring sixty runs to clinch their second consecutive championship. They reeled off another five in a row after that. Kevin, whose deep laugh lines reveal his tough past and his good attitude, became a hero to many of the four hundred blind players in the league. He could adjust to his players’ anxiety, to their injuries, to their quirks. He knew that one of his guys always swung higher on the fourth pitch of an at-bat, so on that pitch, he’d always toss higher.
Some call him magic. His team calls him “Automatic.”
“He was just obsessed,” Rusty said. Wayne was too. As he climbed to the top of the stat sheet in defensive putouts, he rarely missed a chance to hone his skills. And he picked up some of the habits of a baseball player, carrying a tin of off-brand chew in his back pocket. Wayne made the NBBA Hall of Fame, and he also started to play dugout pranks. Putting Twinkies in the cleats was a favorite of his. In retaliation for those gags, the team sometimes filled Wayne’s bat bag with banana peels. The nineties were happy times in Austin.
But even with the high-powered offense and good-natured hijinx, the Blackhawks stopped winning by the end of the decade. In 1999 one of their star players, Lupe Perez, slammed his head into the ground after he was retired on a close play in the World Series. It’s debated whether this was an intentional, frustrated act by a passionate player or your basic sports mishap, but concussion fears ended the Blackhawks’ chances. Perez left the Hawks after that in a dispute about playing time, other players got old or got divorced, and the team lost its intensity. They missed finishing in the top three for ten of the next eleven years. Kevin thought he’d lost his pitching touch, and he retreated into the past, watching tape of his more successful years. After his workday as a computer technician, he’d pull out the metronome and practice for hours late into the evening.
Then, in 2012, the Blackhawks saw a resurgence. As an eighth-seed, they stormed through the first four days of the double-elimination World Series tournament undefeated, highlighted by a 19–10 rout of second-seed, Taiwan Homerun.
But the Hawks lost a double-header to Taiwan on the final day, and finishing second to the team that was, at that time, the only international squad in beep ball was especially excruciating; the Sibsons had actually trained Taiwan’s team on a visit to Taipei in 1997.
“I guess it’s a little weird that they’d win after we went over to help them learn,” Wayne said. Unlike his boisterous brother, Wayne is a master of understatement.
The student-becoming-the-master saga continued the next year: Homerun edged out the Blackhawks again. And this loss was particularly fraught with drama. The Hawks cried foul, accusing one of the Taiwanese infielders of having better vision than he claimed. (Players need to be legally blind to play beep baseball, but on rare occasions, guys with some sight have been known to peek out from under their blindfolds. Myths form, fingers get pointed, and in one notorious incident, a player removed his own prosthetic eyes and handed them to the umpire to clear his name.) When I asked Kevin to reflect on those losses to Taiwan, he said, “C’mon, do you want me to show you some pictures of my dead dog too?”
At a dinner after that 2013 series, infielder Richie Flores told me, “We’re the Buffalo Bills of beep baseball.” Kevin picked up a shot of tequila and grabbed his brother’s arm dramatically. “I want to cry, Wayne,” he said. “I want to cry.”
“Kevin, stop it,” Rusty said.
At this year’s series, though, Taiwan Homerun opted out. Their best fielder needed to study for his massage license and couldn’t afford to travel, while their lead-off hitter wanted to spend more time with his soon-to-be-retired seeing-eye dog.
The Hawks had to search elsewhere for their international competition.
The Dominican Republic would not have beep baseball were it not for Francina Hungría. A civil engineer from Santo Domingo, she founded Los Huracanes earlier this year. Funding for the team came, in part, from the office of the nation’s vice president, but the whole country has thrown their support behind Francina. In 2012 the then-28-year-old was shot and blinded during a carjacking. A security camera caught the incident on tape, and the graphic images were a major news story. Francina became a symbol of the violence imperiling her country, and her perseverance was an inspiration. She endured reconstructive surgery, and while she was rehabilitating in Miami, she was introduced to beep baseball. She loved it immediately, she told me, and thinks Dominicans may have the sport in their blood, “like merengue and Presidente beer.” Through a contact in Miami, she invited the Blackhawks to her country. She’d heard they were the American champions and she wanted the sport’s most experienced teachers for the new team she planned to build. Blackhawk’s outfielder Mariano Reynoso, a Spanish-speaker and a CPA in Austin, responded to Francina’s invitation, though at first he thought it was a joke.
The first few days of the trip were a sort of press tour. The Hawks met Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, the vice president of the Dominican Republic. During four separate newspaper interviews, they listened to impassioned declarations about disability in Spanish (some of them nodded off). They were dignitaries, media darlings, photo-op props. All the while, Kevin grew restless. He’d had conversations with the Dominican beep ball players during only one short practice and wasn’t sure they were listening to his lessons. Their pitcher, he thought, had an undisciplined cadence. What were the Hawks doing down there anyway, if not to impart their wisdom? True, they’d appeared on an ecstatic TV program—Fun with Jochy—and Wayne and Rusty had enjoyed dancing with Jochy Santos, the Dominican Regis. But they hadn’t really spread the gospel of beep.
As Kevin strode into Estadio Quisqueya for the only scheduled game of the trip—the much-ballyhooed Clásico Beep Béisbol—some of his aggravations melted away when he saw someone he recognized in the locker room. “That’s Pedro Martínez,” Kevin whispered with the awe of a little-leaguer clutching a mint-condition set of Topps. The sight of the three-time Cy Young winner who pitched for the Red Sox, among other teams, left him momentarily star-struck, but Kevin quickly put his game face back on; his services were needed—it was his job to tell his teammates that someone was there to greet them. “That’s Pedro Martínez,” he said again. “Quick, get in the picture.” This sport was a big deal to the Dominicans after all.
Kevin (center) and other Blackhawks swarmed by media as they meet Pedro Martínez during the Clásico Beep Béisbol game. (Photograph by David Wanczyk.)
The four thousand fans in the stands who showed up to the Clásico Beep Béisbol to watch Los Huracanes versus Blackhawks got a show that evening. During warm-ups, Brandon Chesser, a Hawks outfielder who listens to five songs with “champion” in the title before every game to pump himself up, tipped his cap a half a dozen times and the crowd cheered a half a dozen times. The Hawks danced along when the theme from “Ghostbusters”—sung in Spanish—boomed over the PA. (When it came time to belt the lyric “Ghost! Busters!” the crowd replaced it with “Beep! Béisbol!”) Carolyne Aquino, a Dominican television presenter who’d come under fire in 2011 for allegedly taking money from a drug lord in order to pay for plastic surgery, strolled around hugging people and waving. (“Is she attractive?” one of the Hawks asked me. “Yes,” I said.) Mascots caroused. Pop stars woo-hooed. Anthems played. And Pedro Martínez sat on the Blackhawks’ bench wearing the team’s red hat.
“I think it’s important that we all get together to not only mingle with the blind but to let society know that everyone’s important,” Pedro told me during the circus. “And it’s important that we value everyone’s talents. And it’s important that we value how they feel on a daily basis.”
The introduction of the Dominican team was undeniably emotional. Ten blind men, their hands on each other’s shoulders, took the field, some of them for the first time in their lives. They paraded their red-and-blue flag. People cried. And then the ceremonial first pitches continued for 25 minutes. Pedro, wearing a black Clásico Beep Béisbol T-shirt, struck out five blindfolded Dominican fashion models in a row. They all spun gracefully on their left feet as they whiffed.
Then it came time for the Austin players to face him. Zach Arambula, a buff community college student who often sports a CrossFit T-shirt, bent down to touch home plate, reminding himself where he stood in relation to the pitcher. Pedro set, but he threw a looping ball, so Zach didn’t connect until the fifth pitch.
To Faith Penn, a civil rights investigator at the Texas Workforce Commission and one of only two women on the Blackhawks, Pedro threw three more eephus pitches that she missed by six feet.
“My fault,” he said. Pedro is no Kevin.
Faith was not intimidated though. She grew up in the East Dallas projects, and she has a lifetime (unofficial) fighting record of 9–3. She’s 1–0 since her sight deteriorated from 20/400. Now, she only sees light. Earlier this season, she had her teeth pushed back into her head when she collided with Brandon’s head while trying to field a grounder. He had marks in his scalp, and she’s on a diet of soft foods. But she still took her cuts. Pedro set her up nicely on the fourth pitch, and she smacked the beep ball toward short.
Up next was Rufo, the mascot of Santo Domingo’s own professional baseball team, Leones del Escogido (Lions of the Chosen One). He wiggled his bat, and to the delight of every sighted person in the stadium, Pedro beaned him in his fluffy crotch.
Former Astros all-star Moisés Alou then stepped up to the plate. (It seems that Francina Hungría, who was voted Woman of the Year by Santo Domingo’s largest newspaper, has connections.) Pedro stared down Moisés, who dribbled the beeping ball toward third.
“Jesus, it’s not easy,” Moisés told me after removing his blindfold.
Brandon Chesser, cane in hand, climbed the dugout steps to take some warmup swings. He listened for the reaction of the crowd. The “Hallelujah Chorus,” remixed with bongos and whistles, blared over the PA system and the game finally began.
In the first inning, Kevin struck out Zach, coaxed a single from Axel Cox, and then pitched to Brandon, whose uppercut lefty swing resembles Josh Hamilton’s. Like his pitcher, Brandon has had his run-ins with the law; when his sight was better, he was convicted of stealing a Toyota Supra, but he calls his jail time an eye-opener. Now he’s a warehouse worker in Austin and a doting father of four. He still has the quiet aggression of a Rottweiler at the plate, though, and Kevin knows how to turn that to the team’s advantage. Kevin barked his pitching commands, threw, and Brandon popped a ball to right. He raced down the line, sliding into the pylon base with his cleats in the air. Safe. The Hawks took a 2–0 lead.
Each time a hitter made contact, the Dominican fanáticos went wild. But crowd noise really hinders a beep baseball contest, so the umpire had to keep warning them to hush up. In the stands, volunteers sang the Spanish version of “Frère Jacques,” replacing “ding, dang, dong” with “shh, shh, shh.”
A completely blind young man named Alexis Gutiérrez became the first Dominican player to score a run, but the Hawks still led 2–1 going into the final inning.
With two outs, it was Wayne’s turn. Wayne has four kids of his own now, and he runs a cafeteria in a VA building. No one would begrudge him if he hung up his cleats. But he says that even when he’s too old to play, he’ll suit up for the Hawks and still hum along to the team’s signature songs: the theme from The Brady Bunch and “The Eyes of Texas.”
He missed Kevin’s first pitch—hence the angry thigh-slap—but on the second, he connected, grounding one sharply toward first base. He doesn’t get on the field for the Blackhawks much anymore, but he still plays softball with his daughter at home to keep sharp. She always promises she won’t hit him with the ball, he told me, and it’s easy to see how much his family and this game still mean to him. He dug for the base while Los Huracanes scrambled toward the sound. They were down 2–1, but they were still in the thing, improbably. The beep ball whined like an alarm clock. Kevin yelled at Wayne to keep going. The Sibsons wanted this one.
The Dominican fans exclaimed—then quickly quieted down so the fielders could hear the ball and Wayne could hear first base. He headed toward the buzzing sound, but he’s lost a couple steps. After years of beep ball injuries, he has two screws in his big toe now.
Gutiérrez stalked toward the ball and circled it as other fielders zeroed in and dove. It looked like it might squeak by him—beep ball leads all sports in the near-miss—but then he grabbed it. Wayne was out. Kevin would have to do better for his brother, who grabbed the elbow of one of the coaches for his jog back to the dugout. He high-fived his teammates and took his place on the pine.
The Dominicans scored again in the bottom half, and Kevin considered how his mighty Blackhawks might lose to an upstart. But the game ended in a 2–2 tie after infielder Axel Cox made a beautiful play on a flare, patiently waiting for the shrill sound of the batted ball before he fell to the ground for it. The Hawks kept Los Huracanes from overwhelming them—for the time being.
Ticker tape fell and the “Ghostbusters” theme started up again, with its peculiar “Beep! Béisbol!” refrain. For Wayne and Kevin Sibson, the spectacle was fine—but they just love blind baseball, love it more than any abstract, feel-good thing it could possibly represent. And even after he saw Pedro and the big crowd and the fashion models—all there to celebrate his favorite sport—Kevin still had one complaint about this trip. And he sounded like a kid who’d just been told to come in because it’s getting too dark outside.
“I thought we were going to play more beep ball,” he said, shaking his head.
Postscript: After their tune-up in the Dominican Republic, the Hawks got another chance to play at this summer’s World Series, in Rochester, Minnesota. With Kevin Sibson in command on the mound, they used the twelve-run mercy-rule to defeat four opponents en route to the finals against a team called the Rehab Hospital of Indiana X-Treme.
“When it’s over, and we’re not champs,” Kevin said before the series, “it bugs the shit out of me. I get crushed. It’s a burden.” Wayne Sibson had the same desire, but after one of his employees quit at the cafeteria, he had to scramble just to get to the series two days late. He went 0–1 at the plate, but he was perched on the Blackhawk bench with his brother when they led in the top of the sixth and last inning against X-Treme.
Kevin warned a rookie not to stand between him and the field; he wanted a clear path to the celebration, if and when the Hawks finally clinched it after sixteen years of waiting.
When a line drive went to right field and Brandon Chesser went to the ground to trap it against his chest, the wait was over. Kevin took off toward the pile. Wayne followed behind, and Brandon held the beep ball like a grail. I’m going to keep it on my mantle, he told me, right next to a blindfold he brought home from the Dominican Republic. The one Moisés Alou wore while hitting off Pedro Martínez.
“We’ve never been champions of anything,” said Richie Flores. (Richie joined the team after the run of wins in the nineties). “Life. Sports. Now we’re first. And now we gotta do it against Taiwan.” The Hawks still have that one burden left.
Outside the tournament hotel after the game, at midnight, Kevin tossed wiffle balls to blindfolded hitters. It’s a tradition he began in 1987 called “Midnight Beep.” He told me that the victory was about hard work and countless weekend practices in one-hundred-degree weather. Wayne said he was thrilled to take the trophy back to Texas, where it belongs.
David Wanczyk, a nonfiction teaching fellow at Ohio University, is writing a book about Beep Baseball. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, theclassical.org, and elsewhere.