With a fine batting stance and an ear on the ball - Beepball brings blind players to Haddonfield

Author: Sam Wood

Dan Foppiano never saw the ball coming. But with a solid smack of his aluminum bat, the centerfielder for the Pennsylvania Wolfpack sent it screaming into left field.

Foppiano took off like a bottle rocket, sprinting down the first-base line. Halfway to the base, he tripped on a divot and went sprawling. In a split second, he popped to his feet. Then, like Pete Rose in his prime, Foppiano bellyflopped, diving for the base with his arms outstretched. "Saa-afe!" bellowed the umpire.

The players on the bench, silent to this point, howled their appreciation. The Wolfpack were back in the running in their matchup against the Carolina Wildcards. Foppiano's line drive had scored a second run for the home team.

Baseball? Well, beepbaseball, a variation on the national pastime. Foppiano and most of his teammates are blind.

Teams from Philadelphia, Boston, North Carolina and Ohio gathered under cloudless skies in Haddonfield yesterday for a beepball tournament sponsored by the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

The winner was to take home the Darryl Green Memorial Trophy, named after a Wolfpack player from Kensington who was killed in June by a hit-and-run driver in St. Augustine, Fla.

Green, 24, was sorely missed yesterday by Wolfpack players and coaches.

"He was an aggressive, intelligent athlete," said Bob Memory, the Wolfpack batting coach. "I still expect him to be here, to hear his voice and have him ready to play. He was a vital part of this team."

With Green on the team, the Wolfpack might not have fallen to the mighty Carolinians, who outhit and outran the locals, 5-2, in the six-inning game.

Green played beepball for two years.

His friend and team captain, Greg Gontaryk, 56, has been playing for 25 years.

Gontaryk could see until he was 3. That was when cancer of the retina stole his sight.

"There is so much more to this game than winning or losing," said Gontaryk, a retired federal worker from Upper Darby. "It's getting out here, hitting the ball that's pitched to you, and that sheer sense of freedom of letting yourself go when you connect with the bat."

Players focus on the sound of the ball, which is a bit larger than a softball and weighs about a pound. It's outfitted with a noisemaker that whines like an electric alarm clock, but without a snooze button. The bases, which resemble four-foot-high pylons, wheeze with a high-pitched drone so the batters can find them. A hit occurs when a batter reaches base before the defense fields the ball, and each hit counts as a run.

In beepball, the pitcher and catcher are in cahoots with the batter. The sighted pitcher gently lobs the whining ball over home plate to a sighted catcher.

"My job as a batter is to swing at the same spot every time," said Foppiano, 39, who traveled 2 1/2 hours from Farmingdale, N.Y., to play with the red-shirted Wolfpack.

Time-outs are called for environmental noise. And yesterday there were plenty of interruptions as NJ Transit trains clattered along nearby tracks and planes roared on their final approach to Philadelphia International Airport.

"There's not much we can do about the trains," mused Memory, the batting coach, "but maybe we ought to call air-traffic control and change the flight plans."

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