MATAWAN — Steve Rutch’s weight shifts forward, his body uncoils and he lashes at the pitch, sending the unmistakable clank of bat meeting ball echoing through the humid air in Gravely Brook Park.
But it’s a glancing blow, and the ball dribbles a mere 15 feet before stalling in a patch grass.
“Come on, M.V.P.!” one of the outfielders sarcastically yells.
Rutch may have received a medal as Defensive Most Valuable Player at last year’s Beep Baseball World Series, but he’s not exempt from some occasional razzing during practice from his teammates on the New Jersey Lightning, the only baseball team for blind and visually impaired athletes in the state.
Playing beep baseball — so named for the sound emitted by the ball that helps the players track it on the field — and finding an instant camaraderie among the Lightning’s ranks has lifted Rutch’s spirits after he lost his sight to diabetic retinopathy a few years ago.
“Beep baseball changed my whole life,” said Rutch, 60, of North Brunswick. “It’s rekindled the competitor in me. To come out and be part of the team — that’s something I thought I would never have again.”
The Lightning, composed of players from across the state including a handful from Central Jersey, are gearing up for this year’s Beep Baseball World Series. They will be one of 20 teams nationwide and a few from Taiwan heading to Columbus, Ga., on July 28-Aug. 4 to compete in the world’s largest tournament for this modified version of America‘s pastime.
Games are six innings long, batters get four strikes and a run is awarded if the batter can race to one of the two bases before the fielders can secure the batted ball. There are padded cones set up where first and third bases would be on a traditional diamond, and when the ball is struck, a buzz lets the runner know which way to break.
Each team uses its own sighted pitcher and catcher, who try to deliver the ball in the orbit of each batter’s swing. In the field, sighted spotters call out a number to let the fielders know where the batted ball is going. If the spotter yells “One,” the ball is going toward the edges of the field, whereas a “Six” would mean the ball is headed right up the middle.
The Lightning will face stiff competition at the World Series, but with Rutch patrolling the width of the field as a short rover — he nearly caught a line drive last year — they have a chance against anyone.
Rutch admits there are times when he is filled with bitterness about being blind. After all, he was still driving and working as a printing press mechanic three years ago; now he’s sometimes led by the hand to the restaurant bathroom by his little grandson.
But playing for the Lightning has made him realize that getting involved helps make “the anger disappear.” So, he’s also taken up judo, still occasionally surfs and walks three miles a day with his guide dog, Harlow. He opened Uptown Antiques inside the Somerville Center Antiques building on East Main Street last year, stocking it with pieces from his personal collection.
And, he’s been busy recovering from three off-season surgeries. He made a diving stop at last year‘s World Series and came up with more than just the ball. When he discovered later that he had torn his biceps muscle and rotator cuff, and cracked his collarbone, his teammates weren’t all that surprised that he played through the pain.
“Steve relishes the opportunity for competition,” said teammate Sherlock Washington, an Old Bridge resident. “He’s excited to be on the field, excited to play and everyone can feel it.”
Or, as manager Bob Ciecierski puts it, “He’s quick, he’s got great hands and you can tell he loves the game.”
A passion for beep baseball — along with the refusal to let their situations define or defeat them — permeates the team.
The Lightning are a diverse group of 10 players who come from all parts of the state, all walks of life. They are accountants, artists and business owners. Rutch and some of the others have played ball for years before losing their sight, but others have never played organized sports before. Players such as Jersey City’s Paul Faye developed retinal cancer and went blind at a young age. Others, like Perth Amboy’s Elvis DeJesus, lost their sight during adulthood.
DeJesus has a big smile and a bigger-than-life personality. Imagine, a guy named Elvis with a little rock star in him. But most of his teammates call him Sammy after he showed up to his first practice a few years ago and declared he was going to be “the blind Sammy Sosa.”
DeJesus may never hit as many homers as Sosa, who is ninth on Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list. But no one draws strength from the friendships he’s forged with his teammates as much as DeJesus.
“Being on the Lightning has meant everything to me,“ he said. “Five years ago when I went blind, I had to make a choice. I can stay home and feel sorry for myself or come out here and do what I do and forget that I’m blind.”
Below is a link to a video from Lions International from the 2012 Beep Baseball World Series. The team in the yellow shirts are our own, NJ Lightning.