Andrew Bayer, Contributing Writer
Cartez Hill, uniformed in a black jersey with orange and white trim, the words STL Firing Squad emblazoned across his chest, tossed the beeping, slightly oversized softball toward home plate. The ball whiffed past the swinging bat and hit the dirt behind the blind-folded batter, Kim Blumenthal, a woman with albinism who wore a sun hat, one with flaps that hung down the length of her face and snapped together under her chin to protect her pale skin from the sun.
Blumenthal and Hill are teammates. See, in Beep Baseball you pitch to your own players. Her husband, the official St. Louis Firing Squad documentarian, nervously focused his camera at bat for this special. It was a tie game in the bottom of the sixth and with any luck the final inning of the game.
Up until this point, the Firing Squad had been exchanging runs with their opponent, the St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind, another Beep Baseball Team put together by LHB Industries, an advocacy group for the blind. Of course, Lighthouse isn’t just any Beepball team, they are The Firing Squad’s rival and winner of the previous two MindsEye Beepball Summer Classics. MindsEye is an audio service for the blind and visually impaired and also hosts annual Beepball tournaments. This event Oct. 21 was the inaugural Fall Classic.
All the Lighthouse fielders were dressed in matching yellow T-shirts and fielding behind Cartez. Each of their fielders were blindfolded and some of them were blind or visually impaired before placing the black masks over their eyes. A couple of unmasked individuals, or spotters, stood in the field waiting for the ball to be hit to call out to a player and alert them that the ball would be coming their way. One of the spotters can say the name of a fielder up to three times when the ball is hit their way. If they call the wrong name, however, they are not allowed to correct their mistake unless they wish to give the other team a point.
“Ready . . . Pitch,” repeated Hill. The phrase “ready . . . pitch” signals to all players that the ball has been thrown toward the plate. For the batter,this is essential to the timing of their swing. They are listening for the prompt to start their swing, keeping each swing similar and consistent. The pitcher needs that type of target.
“If the batter gives a consistent swing, but I can’t put the ball where it needs to be, that’s not going to win any games,” Hill told me. “I try to take as much stress off the batter as I can. I take all the slack. I try to keep the batter comfortable, reassure them that it’s all-right. I blame it on my pitch . . . they know when they do wrong. The last thing you need in that moment is someone tearing you down.”
This time Blumenthal made contact with the ball and tipped it down into the corner of home plate. “Foul ball. Strike two,” cried head umpire Jason Frazier. Two more to go. In Beepball each batter gets four strikes, but there are no balls; You gotta come up swinging. Though more akin to baseball than intramural softball, a batter cannot receive their last called strike on a foul ball.
Blumenthal’s last swing caused her to stumble away from the bag. Feeling with her feet, she scooted forward and found the center of home plate. Bending down, she felt for the far, outside edge and curled her fingers around it. Running her fingers along its edge, she located the front corner and placed the tip of her bat down running it across the width of the bag. She grabbed the grip and handle resting in the dirt of the batter’s box and brought herself to standing, shuffling her feet to steady herself. Digging in, she raised her elbow and looked outward.
“Ready . . . Pitch.” —Clank!
With the sound of metal on leather, Blumenthal took off running. The beeping softball rolling across the diamond grew distant to her ears. Upon the ball leaving the bat, the sound of a burglar alarm resounded, emanating from a chest-height, green, dummy-like, cylindrical bag down the left field foul line 100 feet away. She took a hard left upon hearing this, kicking up dust and sprinting toward the sound. In Beep Baseball, should the batter reach the base before a fielder catches the ball and raises it above their head, a run is awarded to the batter’s team. In this case, it could be the winning run.
The bench for the St. Louis Fire Squad erupted. They started banging on the chain-link fence at the home team’s bench. At the forefront of the excitement was the team’s manager, owner and coach Wilma Chestnut-House, a black woman in her mid-60s with gray dreadlocks.
The St. Louis Firing Squad was created by Chestnut nine years ago. She was volunteering for the Lighthouse for the Blind and wasn’t allowed to participate on the team because she was a temp worker. According to Josh Helmuth of the Post-Dispatch, “she couldn’t find another team to play on, so she started her own.” She holds a slight grudge against Lighthouse, mostly because they have beat her team several times in local tournaments. It’s friendly enough, though.
Chestnut is especially passionate about Beep Baseball. She always loved sports growing up, enjoyed baseball and was a track athlete. But tragedy struck at 17 years old. Her story received national attention.
According to The New York Times, she was baby-sitting and allowed a friend to visit who brought along three boys. After they all left, the three boys came back, strangled her until she fainted, stole her record player and tape recorder, and blinded her with a broken glass while she was unconscious. The purpose was to prevent her from being able to later identify the perpetrators who stole from her. She woke up blind. One of the boys, Johnnie Lee Brooks, who admitted to the crime, was sentenced to 55 years for assault and 15 years for robbery.
Chestnut didn’t let this tragedy ruin her life. “I think I’ve done a lot more things being visually-impaired than I would have done being sighted—I can’t say because I don’t know—but I feel like I’ve done a lot more than I would have ever done,” she professed. She continued physical activity and learned about many sports for the blind. She was active in the community as an advocate. Along with St. Louis Firing Squad, she founded Camp Abilities, a nonprofit that educates blind and visually-impaired youth about opportunities and options for sports and physical engagement. Back on the Beepball field her team was about six seconds—the average time it takes for a blind-folded runner to make it 100 feet—from knowing whether they would be victorious.[MOU3]
The left field spotter for Lighthouse called out to the shortstop, left side of the infield. The lanky shortstop immediately dropped down on the ground, spreading and stretching out his body perpendicular to the path of the ball. Good Beepball fielders use this technique to cover the most ground by placing the greatest surface area of their body in the potential path of the ball. If they block it, they will then have an easier time finding the ball in their vicinity.
If the ball sounds like it’s headed toward the head or feet, the fielder will either squirm like a worm in one direction or get up and crawl quickly toward the path of the sound. In this case the shortstop decided to use the latter option and as he plopped his body back on his side he yelled, “passed me!” The ball had narrowly snuck underneath his armpit. The two outfielders started running toward the path of the ball, though not entirely sure of themselves.
Meanwhile, Blumenthal was running in and out of the left field line toward the burglar alarm sounding bag. The two outfielders converged on the ball and started feeling around on their hands and knees. Kim stubbed her toe into the square bottom of the squishy bag and tripped into the cylindrical dummy. “Safe!” shouted the home plate and left-field umpires simultaneously. The first person that met her and helped her off the ground was her pitcher.
The first time I met Hill, we were walking side-by-side on the grass between two baseball fields. He had just finished pitching a game and I was keeping pace with him to try and muster up the courage to start a conversation to secure an interview. I had heard that he was a big deal in the sport: a precision pitcher, super competitive and, most importantly, a colorful personality. Frazier, the head umpire and president of MindsEye, mentioned that “Tez” was making a name for himself as a Beepball pitcher. Tez wants to be “the” Beepball pitcher.
Hill grew up moving from house to house in South St. Louis in the late 1980s and early 90s. He moved a lot during his childhood, no more than a year in one home. This type of transition and lack of stability can be difficult on any child, and it was no different for Hill. He never knew his biological father but knew of him. He continued, “They did the best they could to raise me into the man that I am today. Any troubles, they’re not at fault for any of it—I don’t despise or regret. The older I get, the more I understand how hard it was. I’m grateful as I am to have had them as my parents—to still have them as my parents.”
Hill did his best to stay out of the trouble that surrounded him in his youth. He was always playing sports or “holed up in someone’s house doing breakdance routines.” He never really caught on to organized sports, but his constant energy, competitive nature and love of physical activity kept him from falling into any real trouble. He completed some college and is a certified nursing assistant, though he currently has three jobs unrelated to that field: laying asphalt during the day, landscaping on the weekends and housekeeping at a hotel in the evenings. And, of course, he’s a Beep Baseball pitcher.
On the mound he uses that constant energy to fill the down time. He throws the ball over his shoulder and catches it behind his back. He rhythmically tosses the ball up and down in his bare hand. He talks this up to a desire to make every moment enjoyable, showmanship and a “big ole slash of ADD.”
He found out about Beep Baseball six years ago when his then girlfriend, now fiancée, introduced him to the game through a friend, the scorekeeper for STL Firing Squad. “My competitive instinct couldn’t let me walk away from the sport without at least trying it. I had never heard or seen anything like it—I had to give it a go.” So, he gave it a go. He had a knack for pitching accurately and consistently, perhaps in opposition to a hectic upbringing.
“I like helping out people. Running into Beepball was the perfect mixture of who I am as a person. That competitive edge and helping people in need.” With a Fall Classic trophy under his belt he sets his eyes toward the World Series in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in late July through early August. “Not saying that blind and visually-impaired are in need—they are capable of doing for their self—but in this sport they need a pitcher. They need accuracy. You can’t play the game if you’re not making hits.” That why he tries to bring a Beepball with him everywhere he goes and is always practicing.
He became the pitcher for St. Louis Fire Squad, one of 33 affiliated teams of The National Beep Baseball Association and has played in the NBBA World Series a few times. “Firing Squad had a name in the industry, but everyone took [them] as a joke. They’d show up, but not win anything. In the four years I’ve been on the team, we making some noise. We got a lot of teams a little rattled up.” This last summer Firing Squad finished 12th out of 33 teams. Hill reminds me that he wants to move up from twelfth to third. He’s modestly imagines his way toward the top of the standings.
As Chestnut accepted the Fall Classic trophy and Blumenthal was presented the MVP plaque of the tournament, the entire St. Louis Fire Squad team and staff gathered around to place their hands on the prize. In the back of the group, Hill smiled on at the joy of his teammates. For this moment, they could celebrate that they were champions.