How the Austin Blackhawks spread the sport of beep baseball
April 09, 2020 Updated: 10:06 a.m.
Steve Puryear picks up his bat, makes his way over to the plate and awaits the first pitch.
“Ready … pitch …”
He hears his pitcher, Tim Hibner, chant methodically.
One Mississippi … SWING.
Puryear can’t see the ball coming at him but after months of repetitive practice, he knows exactly where it will be.
As Puryear makes contact with the ball, he takes off sprinting toward the base. Without a cane or human assistance, he is guided simply by a loud beeping sound 100 feet away.
He contacts the base, still running at full speed, and tackles the large, cylindrical foam pylon to the ground.
Puryear plays a sport called beep baseball — a modified version of America’s pastime for visually impaired athletes.
Beep baseball has been an avenue for many visually impaired athletes to get back into sports and maintain a level of physical activity.
“[It] allows people the ability to show off their athleticism,” Brandon Chesser, a teammate of Puryear’s said. “Beep baseball is one of those sports where you’re actually given the opportunity to run full throttle and dive at a pylon, or to throw your body in front of a ball that could be traveling upwards of 80-90 mph coming into the outfield.”
What is Beep Baseball?
“People hear blind baseball, and they go, ‘First question: How does that work?’” Puryear laughed. “I explain a little bit, and they get the basics of it but when you really get down to it, and in the sport, it’s as much of an intricate sport as Major League Baseball.”
It’s played on a large grass field, approximately 200 feet by 200 feet, to provide a soft landing space for diving defensive players. The field is then divided into 10 sections or ‘zones.’ When a ball is hit, the sighted defensive spotter calls out a number that corresponds to a zone on the field. The six defensive players use the number and the beeping of the ball to track and stop it.
“We usually set everybody where three people have a chance to get to a ball regardless of where it’s hit on the field,” team captain Mariano Reynoso said.
In beep baseball, the pitcher and batter are on the same team. The pitcher, a sighted player, stands 20 feet from home plate and throws an underhand pitch to the batter. If the batter makes contact, they take off running to either first or third base — one will start beeping at random.
“We’ve got some athletes, myself included, that will put a ball up in the air for almost six seconds before it hits the ground,” Chesser said, “at which time, we’ve seen base runners hit the base before the ball even hits the ground.”
If the batter makes it to the base before a defensive player controls the ball, they’ve scored a run. If not, they’re out. Then the next batter comes up and starts the process again.
The game is played in six innings with three outs in each.
And it can get highly competitive.
Hibner remembers a trip to the World Series in Minnesota, where he took a ball to the head.
“Just like a boxer, it hit me in the eyebrow,” he said.
He shirked off the suggestion to get stitches, cleaned and closed the wound with a butterfly bandage and went back into the game.
“I wasn’t going to leave…” Hibner said. “…I’m the only one.” A medic warned him he’d need to go to a hospital if it happened again. “There’s a lot of pressure on a pitcher to stay in a game,” Hibner stressed.
In beep baseball, a team cannot exist without a combination of visually impaired players and sighted volunteers like Hibner.
The Austin Blackhawks
All of these athletes play for the Austin Blackhawks, one of the oldest teams in the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA). The team was founded in 1986 by brothers Wayne and Kevin Sibson.
The two started playing beep baseball as members of the Lonestar Roadrunners in Fort Worth, Texas.
“In July of ‘83 I got this call from the Fort Worth coach,” Sibson said. “He said, ‘Hey we’re going to the World Series in Minnesota. We’ve got a couple of players that can’t go because they’re injured. Would you be interested in going?’”
So the Sibson brothers traveled to the World Series with the Roadrunners in 1983 and for the next couple of years. At the World Series in 1985, they found out one of the guys from the Fort Worth team would be moving to Austin, so they decided to found their own team there the following spring.
Since 1987, the Blackhawks have attended every Beep Baseball World Series, even in 2000 when it was held in Taiwan, and have won nine titles, the most recent from 2015.
For the Blackhawks, beep baseball is about more than the game; it has become a family affair.
Players, their spouses and children have become part of the team over the years. Most Saturdays, you can find this “family” practicing for hours on end on a patch of grass at an elementary school in north Austin.
Hibner, the team’s pitcher, doesn’t even live in Austin. He resides in Oklahoma City. During the peak of competition, he makes the six-hour drive a couple of times a month to practice and compete with the team.
Beyond the playing field, the Blackhawks have made it their mission to spread the sport they love and educate those around the world.
The Sibson brothers started traveling to other countries to teach beep baseball in the mid 1990’s, traveling first with a group of 12 players to Puerto Rico.
In 1996, a chance encounter at a mall in north Austin led to a second international trip.They were tabeling at an event held by Prevention of Blindness when a woman approached the table and started asking questions.
The woman was from Taiwan. A few months later, Sibson received a request from the Taiwanese government for the Blackhawks to travel to Taiwan and teach visually impaired athletes there beep baseball. Now there are numerous teams operating in Taiwan. They even send an all-star team to the World Series every year, Chesser said.
Taiwan is not the only country the Blackhawks have visited that started a beep baseball program. The Sibsons traveled to Canada, and the team as a whole visited the Dominican Republic in 2015.
“It was just a great experience not only to educate them in our sport, but to educate the country about blindness and blind awareness,” Chesser said of the trip to the Dominican Republic. “We showed them that just because these people are blind doesn’t mean they can’t live life…We expressed what all of our players did professionally, and that we do have families.”
On the last day of the trip, the two teams played an exhibition game at an MLB stadium in the Dominican Republic in front of 4,000 fans.
In October 2019, the Blackhawks organized a trip to Argentina and went to universities around Buenos Aires. At one stop, they taught future physical education teachers how to play the game. At another, they left some basic equipment like bats and ball, Head Coach Jonathan Flemming said.
For their captain, Mariano Reynoso, the trip was a homecoming. He grew up in Argentina before coming to the U.S. in 1994 to learn English.
“I tried to show everybody there basically what I grew up eating, and also a lot of my friends showed up,” Reynoso said. Not only does the team enjoy spreading their love of the game, but these international trips give players the opportunity to experience different cultures as well.
Jaime Sibson has been a longtime Blackhawks player, and recently joined the NBBA as the chair of the Outreach Committee. The NBBA, like the Blackhawks, is hoping to continue the spread of the sport around the world.
“It just kind of gives an opportunity to get out to people who maybe have never played sports before,” she said, “or the youth who have played sports in school and are kind of looking for, ‘What do I do as a person who’s blind as far as athletics?’”
For more information about joining a team or starting a new team in your area, visit nbba.org.
Active teams in the Southwest
- Austin Blackhawks (Austin, TX)
- Bobcats (Austin, TX)
- Aztec Warriors (Fort Worth, TX)
- Lonestar Roadrunners (Fort Worth, TX)
- BCS Outlaws (College Station, TX)
- Bayou City Heat (Houston, TX)
- Tyler Tigers (Tyler, TX)
- San Antonio Jets (San Antonio, TX)
- LV2020 (Las Vegas, NV)
- SGV Panthers (Pasadena, CA)
- Stockton Stingrays (Stockton, CA)
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about starting a team in your area.
Writer / Photographer
Sarah Farrell is a Texas native, digital journalist, avid hiker and tennis fanatic. She recently finished her master’s in sports journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Read more by Sarah Farrell.