When Ed Plumacher went blind at forty-nine years old, baseball was the last thing on his mind. Though he had loved playing growing up, he was too busy adjusting to think of the game–until he found out about adaptive blind baseball. He decided to try it out, and that year found himself in the Netherlands, at the first Blind Baseball International Cup, singing the National Anthem as part of the first official Team USA.
“I was glad I had my blindfold on,” said Plumacher. “So nobody could see my tears.”
Team USA came home that year with the bronze, and now is working to expand access to the game across the US.
On Saturday, May 6th, a group of kids from the Lighthouse Guild’s Youth Program gathered at the Central Park ballfields for a blind baseball clinic with Plumacher and his team. It was a bright, gently warm spring morning; the skyscrapers of Midtown shone above the swaying shade of trees. The kids, ages six to thirteen, waited on the benches, talking and laughing. Plumacher and his teammates from Team USA leaned against the fence in their jerseys. Don Landolphi, the team’s coach, and a Hall of Fame college baseball coach, and author of two baseball books, , “Championship Baseball-Techniques Fundamentals and Drills” and “The Fundamentals of Coaching and Playing Baseball” told the kids about the game, and then led them onto the field.
Some of the kids were nervous at first, staying on the bench, until, hearing their friends have fun on the field, they got up. Soon the benches were empty.
“This is a big example of how we prove what’s possible,” said Jaydan Mitchell, Coordinator of Youth Programs at the Lighthouse Guild. “For them to know that there’s an adapted sport out there, and to have a chance to experience it. It shows them they can do anything.”
The Lighthouse Guild is a non-profit organization in New York City whose mission is to provide services to blind and visually-impaired New Yorkers. Its Youth Skills Program organizes activities for blind and vision-impaired children with the goal of building self-esteem and self-confidence.
“A lot of the kids are at schools where they may be the only child with this disability,” said Mitchell. “And I’ve said before–if the only thing we did is get them in a room together, that would already be a benefit. But we do a whole lot more than that.”
Core activities for the kids include drama, arts-and-crafts, adaptive technology, and yoga. But this was the kids’ first experience with adaptive blind baseball.
One group practiced batting, throwing the ball with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other. Don stood behind them, guiding their swings. A second group practiced running to first base, where another instructor clapped plastic paddles, speeding up as they got closer. A third group practiced throwing. Unlike in real blind adaptive baseball, the kid did not wear blindfolds, a measure meant to mitigate differences in blindness.
The game of adaptive blind baseball was first developed in Italy in 1998 by the AIBCX, a group of former Italian baseball players. Teams consist of five visually-impaired players and two sighted ones, who serve as base coaches. Paddles are clapped at the bases, and baseballs have sleigh-bells inside so players can hear where they land. The game is distinct from beep baseball, an American adaption of the sport, and now has six international teams, as well as a dozen teams in Italy itself.
But it wasn’t until Plumacher found out about the first Blind Baseball International Cup that the game was brought to the U.S. “Italy wanted the United States to participate, but they weren’t sure if we had enough talent to play,” said Plaumbacher. Try-outs were held, ten players, including Ed, were picked, and the team, officially declared Team USA by the United States Baseball Federation, went to the Netherlands.
Now Plumacher and Landolphi, as head of the USA Blind Baseball Association, are trying to promote and expand the game across the country, with clinics for youth in New York and other cities. “For a lot of these children, they’re experience of P.E. is sitting in the bleachers,” Plumbacher said. “This is their chance to play organized team sports, to see what that means: the socialization of it, the perseverance, to build leadership skills.”
But lessons and skills couldn’t have seemed further from the kids’ minds: just to run, to them, looked like pure joy. “There was this little girl that said, ‘I can’t run,’” Kiana V. Glanton, a player with Team USA, and an instructor that day, told me. “She ran to the base in seven seconds, then five, then the third time, three and a half seconds. She said ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’”
I had seen the girl myself, jumping, waving her arms and cheering each time she got to the base.