Inside a gym on the Fort Knox Army post, a group of soldiers show up ready to play ball, but not in jerseys and cleats.
The uniform here is camouflage.
BJ Levis has come to Fort Knox to introduce Beep Baseball. Levis works for Metro Parks and Recreation in Louisville. One of the programs she oversees is adaptive sports for people with disabilities.
“A lot of times when people have a recent injury and their life has changed it’s like 'I’m not going to be able to do anything I could do before,'" says Levis. "We like to introduce different sports and say 'Yes you can.' There’s just some simple adaptations or some simple equipment you might need so you still can participate in sports or start some you’ve never even done before which is really cool.”
The Alpha and Bravo Companies of the Warrior Transition Battalion are split into two teams. On the line are bragging rights, a trophy, and best of all, late formations for a week.
Before the game begins, the soldiers get a pep talk from Matt Bradford, a former Marine who lost both legs and his eyesight in Iraq.
“As you can tell, I myself am a wounded warrior, so I kind of went through the same thing that you all are going through now," Bradford says. "I got injured in 2007 in Haditha, Iraq."
Staff Sergeant Jess McKinney of Alpha Company gets the first hit and makes it to one of the bases.
“I closed my eyes along with the blindfold so I was completely blind and that helped out a lot more than actually trying to keep my eyes open underneath the blindfold," explains McKinney.
Beep Baseball is the adaptive version of America's favorite pastime for the visually impaired and those with other physical ailments. The game might be played a little different but the passion is the same.
Here’s how it works: There are six innings in a game, each team gets three outs per inning, and there are just two bases. Six defenders play the field, and every player must wear a blindfold to level the visual playing field. Only the pitcher, catcher, and one player in the field are sighted.
The ball is modified to emit a sound similar to an alarm clock.
When batting, hitters listen to the pitcher. The pitcher draws his hand back and says “ready,” and when he releases ball, he says “pitch.”
When the ball is hit, an official flips a switch that randomly makes one of the two soft pillars buzz loudly. If the runner reaches the beeping base before the defense controls the ball, a run is scored, otherwise, it’s an out.
Unlike in traditional baseball, spectators are instructed to be quiet because the players are relying on their hearing rather than their eyesight.
It’s the top of the fourth and the score is tied at two. Up to the plate is Sergeant First Class Joe Phelps. He scores, and afterwards, compares trying to hit the ball blindfolded to fishing in the dark.
“You just depend on your strongest sense," comments Phelps. "I’ve always been told once you lose one sense, then the others sort of step up to the plate.”
Former Marine Matt Bradford, a blind, double amputee “rolls” up to the plate in an office chair on wheels. As soon as he makes the hit, a teammate runs up to his chair and pushes him to a base, and that Bradford says, is what it’s all about.
“It’s a brotherhood between military branches," explains Bradford. "I’m Marine, they’re Army, but we’re all one.”
Aside from just plain fun, Beep Baseball and other adaptive sports are team building exercises that strengthen self-confidence. Michelle Hekeler helps introduce adaptive sports to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Knox.
“A lot of soldiers who are injured and fighting issues with depression tend to just sit around and vegetate and so getting them active with sports when they think they can’t is really important not only to their physical health but their mental health," Hekeler remarks.
Back on the field, a game winning run is scored, and First Sergeant Tina Flatebo accepts the trophy on behalf of Alpha Company.
“Thank you! I just want to thank all of Alpha Company for coming out and supporting this. We get to have this great trophy and late call for a week!”