News & Observer, North Carolina.
Thursday, May 18, 2006.
DURHAM - Maggie White stood on the sidelines of Campus Hills park, watching blindfolded players scramble on their hands and knees toward a beeping ball.
The beep was a little off, and White, a new graduate of Duke University, wanted to know what was wrong.
"I think it's electrical," she said. "That's not easily fixed."
The whining "beepball," a 16-inch softball with a small circuit board and two speakers inside, was created by White and two other new Duke grads, Emily Mugler and Steve Reich. It was an assignment for the "Devices for People with Disabilities" biomedical engineering course that the trio took in their final semester.
A Durham Parks and Recreation Department employee approached professors of the class months ago about designing a new ball for the Durham Sluggers, a team of visually impaired adults who play beep baseball, an adaptation of baseball.
Telecom Pioneers, a nonprofit organization in Denver that makes the bulk of beep baseballs in the United States, had production problems earlier this year.
Teams can go through nearly 1,000 balls a year. One rarely lasts longer than two or three games.
The Duke students hoped to do more than just roll a new ball out into the limited field. They wanted to build a sturdier beepball.
After talks with players, the students inserted two speakers into their model, instead of the usual one. Players like the feature because balls with only one speaker often are muted by the field.
Initially, the engineers tried to make the ball operate on a wireless charge, like an electric toothbrush. But they ended up resorting to a lithium-ion battery and charger, like those used for cell phones.
"This has been a great learning experience," White said Tuesday at the Sluggers practice. "Probably the best thing has been being able to spread the word about beepball."
As the sun dipped low Tuesday evening, Annette Glenn, 45, stepped up to the plate wearing a blindfold. Since players have varied levels of visual impairment, all players wear blindfolds except the sighted pitchers and catchers.
As the catcher helped Glenn to home plate, she checked her natural swing for the pitcher, who plays for the offense.
Beep, beep, beep.
The ball traveled toward home plate quickly.
Glenn sent the ball zooming toward the outfield. A base that is 100 feet away started buzzing.
As Glenn sped toward the base, six players in the field moved toward the beeping ball. When the beep was near, they dropped to their knees.
Outfielders try to get to the ball and hold it up in the air before the hitter makes it to base and the buzzing stops.
There is quiet on the sidelines. No one wants to drown out the important sounds on the field.
Glenn Permar, 52, coach and short fielder for the Durham team, was hampered by a hamstring problem and unable to practice Tuesday night. He chatted quietly with White and others as the play went on around him.
Beep baseball has been a part of his life for more than three decades. As a player, he has traveled across the United States and to Taiwan to join other teams in World Series play.
Permar peppered White with questions about the prospect of a Michigan manufacturer picking up the design for the Duke students' project. "I'd like to see somebody start making them," Permar said.
Bill Maroney, executive director of the National Beep Baseball Association and communications manager of Telecom Pioneers, said beep baseballs are again being produced in Colorado after a the production delay. Volunteers are working to address the backlog of orders.
The organization just put 75 balls up for sale on its Web site and plans to have another 100 ready soon. The balls go for $35 each, nearly double the cost of a regular 16-inch softball, which is larger than standard size.
"I think we've addressed or hopefully overcome the shortage issue," Maroney said Wednesday. "The lag in production, I believe, was waiting for certain parts to come in. They just got a new circuit board -- the way it's engineered saves them a lot of time."
White said she and the other Duke students wish they had a few more months to devote to perfecting their product.
"This was really interesting," White said of her experience. "When there's a project that's actually meaningful to someone, that makes it worth it."
A BEEPBALL PRIMER
THE GAME: Six innings, unless more are needed to break a tie.
OUTS PER INNING: Three.
NUMBER OF BASES: Two, one that left-handed batters run toward and another for right-handers. The bases are placed 100 feet down their respective lines and 10 feet off the foul line to keep runners from colliding with outfielders. Each base has a buzzer that beeps once the ball is hit.
HOW TO SCORE: A runner who makes it to base before an outfelder holds up the ball is safe and scores one point.
NUMBER OF STRIKES: A batter is allowed four strikes, rather than the traditional three in baseball.
NUMBER OF BALLS: A batter is allowed only one pass.
PLAYING FOR THE OFFENSE: A sighted catcher sets the target where the batter normally swings. The pitcher, about 20 feet away, attempts to place the ball on the hitter's bat.
PLAYERS ON THE FIELD: Six.
IF YOU GO: Durham plays a double-header with Charlotte's team, which won the league championship last year, at 10 a.m. Saturday at Campus Hills park, 2000 Alston Ave., Durham.
Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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