For the visually impaired, beep ball is more than a game
When Joe Quintanilla was growing up, he desperately wanted to be a baseball player. Every time a school assignment prompted him about what he wanted to be when he grew up, the young Jim Rice fan gave the same answer: a left fielder for the Red Sox.
But at age 5, he was diagnosed with a degenerative vision disorder called retinitis pigmentosa; by age 11, his vision was severely limited, and Quintanilla, who lives in Chelsea, was forced to reassess his diamond dreams.
That is, until he became beep ball player for the Boston Renegades.
Beep ball , derived from baseball, is a sport for blind and visually impaired athletes that uses sound to replace sight, allowing players to hit, run the bases, field the ball, and score runs. There is even a World Series.
And now, the game has its own movie.
“The Renegades: A Beep Ball Story’’ is a new documentary that focuses on the competitive beep ball team operated by the Association of Blind Citizens. The film had its local premier earlier this month in Revere and was recently shown at a film festival in Buffalo.
Quintanilla, 36, nicknamed Q by his teammates, has played for the Renegades for 13 years and said beep ball has enabled him to overcome some previous challenges.
“It got me the opportunity to actually hit a ball that’s being pitched to me,” he said, noting that as a child, his vision problems caused frequent strikeouts in Wiffle ball. “It’s something that I would never have been able to do [otherwise].”
Beep ball, as the name implies, uses a ball (made of repurposed payphone parts) that emits an auditory signal to the hitter and the defensive players. The pitcher and catcher are sighted, as are two spotters in the outfield who direct the visually impaired defenders toward the ball when it’s in play. There are two bases, but only one of them buzzes after a player hits the ball, giving the hitter the signal to run in that direction. Six innings are played and a run is scored when a batter hits the beeping ball and gets to one of two bases before the ball is fielded by the defense.
The Renegades usually practice and play in Watertown, but occasionally they take to the field in Brighton, Newton, or Waltham. Players hail from Brockton, Chelmsford, Chelsea, Watertown, Jamaica Plain, and Somerville. Last season, the Renegades had a 10-5 record against other teams from around the country.
The movie chronicles the Renegades’ practices and journey to the National Beep Ball Association World Series in 2005, with additional segments from 2006 and 2007. According to director Jack Clancy, the film explores the background of the team, the struggles the players face, and how they meet those challenges. Many of their stories are compelling: One player lost his sight as a child when he was hit in the head with a baseball bat; another has cancer and a heart condition.
“You feel joy, sadness, empathy . . . exhilaration,” said Clancy, who whittled 110 hours of footage down to a little more than 60 minutes. “It’s not the, ‘Oh look, a bunch of blind guys playing baseball. Isn’t that cute?’ ”
Clancy, of Brockton, said he decided to make the film when Quintanilla, a longtime friend, invited him to watch a beep ball game.
“I brought my daughter Liz [Clancy Lerner] to watch it, and we watched an inning, and I turned to her and her eyes were all welled up,” he said. “We decided we needed to tell this story.”
They made the film under the production company Best Dog Ever Films and paid all costs — about $40,000 — out of pocket.
Quintanilla, an original Renegade, said that audiences may be surprised by how seriously the players take the game.
“There are definitely people who might have the feeling that we’re blind so it’s a success because we’re out there, and that’s not enough for us,” he said.
Quintanilla said that the Renegades are very competitive, not just with other teams in their efforts to get to the beep ball World Series , but also with each other.
“There’s a lot of support, but there’s definitely a lot of trash talking,” he laughed.
Despite the competitive energy, Quintanilla said the team is very supportive overall. He personally advocates for players when he feels it’s necessary.
“One of the things that I’m very adamant about is the ‘of’ in Association of Blind Citizens, that this is a team of blind people for blind people,” he said.
According to Quintanilla, one instance of this is highlighted in the film: When the options for the last spot on the World Series roster came down to one dedicated, longtime player with physical limitations and a new player with more athletic skill, Quintanilla stepped in and talked to the coach. The veteran player was invited to play in the Series.
The movie also reveals the physical risks involved in beep ball, a sport where collisions between players are common, and it’s not unusual for someone to get struck by the softball-sized beep ball.
“It’s a sport, and with sports, there are going to be risks,” said team member Joe Buizon . “We’re talking about broken noses. It does happen.”
Quintanilla, who is able to see only a small amount of light, said that while beep ball has allowed him to stay in shape and make close friends, his love for the game goes beyond the physical and social benefits.
“I don’t think we think of ourselves as blind people when we’re out on the field,” he said. “One of my teammates [said] playing beep baseball allows him to leave his white cane on the bench and forget that he’s blind.”
Quintanilla said he hopes the film empowers members of the blind community and enlightens sighted moviegoers.
“I think we have the ability to encourage and inspire other blind people,” he said. “We play a different form of baseball, but we have the same interests, desires, and passions that [sighted people] do. We do it differently, but we’re just like everybody else.”