Shot in the dark: In the batter's box again for beep ball
Todd Paulson doesn't take anything for granted.
A little over four years ago, at the age of 45, Paulson came down with a severe case of sepsis pneumonia that resulted in a month-long hospital stay at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. As a result he suffered what his doctors described as a "stroke of the optic nerve" that left him completely blind in his right eye and with limited vision in his left.
Paulson had to give up many of the activities he enjoyed, including his over two-decades of work as a commercial printer at Resco in Hudson, his passion for working on classic cars and his weekly slow-pitch softball games with friends. But then on a Sunday morning television show the following fall he heard about a game called beep baseball.
"I told my mom that I wanted to try it," he said. "And I fell in love with it right away."
What is beep baseball?
Beep baseball is essentially a modified game of baseball or softball for the visually impaired, using a ball and bases that make distinct sounds so players know where to swing and where to run. The ball beeps continuously during play.
Six players take to the field along with spotters to help guide them to the ball. Teams pitch to their own batter and there are only two bases placed 100 feet from home plate that are in equivalent positions to first base and third base in regular baseball.
After the batter hits the ball, one of the two bases—first or third—emits a buzzing sound, and the runner must reach that base before a fielder can secure the ball. Spotters yell out a number to signify which part of the field the ball is traveling towards and fielders run towards the specified section and listen for where the ball is. If the fielder picks up the ball before the batter reaches base, the batter is called out. If not, the batter scores a run.
Because the players all have varying degrees of blindness, every player is required to wear a blindfold except the pitcher, catcher and spotters.
Just over a year after his illness Paulson was playing in a beep baseball recreational league in St. Paul when he caught the attention of Doug Vanduyne, head coach of Minnesota's only competitive beep baseball team, the Minnesota Millers.
"He came to a practice to check us out and I had a pretty hard swing from playing softball all those years so he asked me to play," Paulson recalled.
Paulson played in his first National Beep Baseball Association World Series with the Millers in Ames, Iowa later that summer, and again last season in West Palm Beach, Fla. This year the National Beep Baseball Association World Series is in Eau Claire, where 24 teams from around the world will compete July 29-Aug. 4.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Paulson said. "It's nice that it's so close to home."
At 50, Paulson is the oldest player on the Millers. "But probably the third fastest," he said. But he only gets to run after he's hit the ball, which is a difficult thing to do when your only clue where to swing is the ball's constant beeping.
"Some people who have been blind all their life can actually listen," he said. "But me, being around loud cars and a print shop all my life, I don't have those skills. I try to work with our pitcher. I try to take the same swing and he throws it to a spot. I try to make a consistent swing in the same zone and time it right and put it into play."
He said his old softball skills come in handy at the plate, although sometimes in ways he never expected.
"I tried so many years playing softball not to hit that 'can of corn,'" he said, referring to a pop-up. "But actually a 'can of corn' is a good thing in beep baseball. If it's up in the air they can't field it."
He said he still remembers his very first world series hit.
"The first year I went to Iowa and the other team was like, 'that's your first hit? Congratulations!' Because they know what you went through to get it," he said.
Paulson said the camaraderie is one of the things he enjoys most about the game.
"The biggest thing for me is getting to meet other people who understand what it's like to have eye issues," he said. "You don't feel alone anymore. It's a big brotherhood. Even the other teams, they'll compete against you but as soon as the game's over they're your best friend."
Paulson has tried hard to retain the lifestyle he had before his illness. In addition to discovering beep baseball, he's continued to bowl on the same team for years and wants to join a dart league for the visually impaired in the Twin Cities. He works as a cart pusher at County Market in Hudson, and despite not being able to drive, still enjoys classic cars.
"I have some classic cars and I still go to car shows," he said. "I can kind of see the cars and figure out what they are but it's the newer vehicles that I don't know because I've never seen them before."
Even with all the changes in his life Paulson has remained positive by asking himself, what do you want to do and how far do you want to take it? He said it's like anything in life, until a person is challenged they don't know what they are capable of.
"My life has changed," he stated. "But I'd say my glass is three-quarters full. I'm still here, I have a lot of special friends and a great family, and in the past year I met a very special lady, so actually I'd say my glass is bubbling over."
He said he has a different perspective on life now.
"One thing 've taken from all this is, I really appreciate the little things," he said. "I would never wish this on anyone, but if everybody had a near-death experience and overcame it this would be a better world. It makes you appreciate life."