by Oral O. Miller

Early in 2006 an official with the Japanese government informed me that the Grand Softball Overseas Exchange Commission was interested in demonstrating its game of softball in the USA. After verifying that the Japanese game is significantly different from beep baseball, with which we are familiar, a coalition of organizations in Louisville, Ky., extended an invitation for the sport to be demonstrated in that city. The principal organizations in the coalition were the Louisville Downtown Lions Club, Louisville East Lions Club, Kentucky School for the Blind Charitable Foundation and the Kentucky Council of the Blind, although individuals from several other organizations ultimately took part in the project. Organizations such as the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes and the National Beep Baseball Association endorsed the project but were unable to devote time and resources to it due to prior programmatic commitments.

"Grand softball" was developed in Japan in the 1990s as a sport to be played by teams made up of blind and sighted members. Currently more than 10,000 people are playing it in Japan. The Overseas Exchange Commission was established to publicize the "high-level capability of blind people and the pleasure of playing grand softball" and to encourage its acceptance as an official sport of the Paralympics.

The host coalition decided early that it would also introduce the Japanese visitors to several popular sports for the blind in the USA -- beep baseball, goalball and ten-pin bowling -- all served up with delicious helpings of "down-home" cooking and friendly hospitality, plus an educational tour of the world-famous American Printing House for the Blind. The Japanese delegation consisted of 53 people ranging in vision from fully sighted to totally blind. The demonstration was publicized beforehand by the Louisville media and as a result the demonstration, which lasted several hours and took place on the campus of Bellarmine University, attracted many spectators from the blindness community and the public at large. Bellarmine coach James Vargo, who also volunteers as the track and field coach for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, and his colleagues made outstanding arrangements for the spectators and players -- complimentary snacks and cold drinks on a very hot July day -- shade tents for protection from the sun, and volunteer guides. The Greater Louisville Japan Center provided beautiful and very useful hand fans along with braille and inkprint information sheets partially describing the game. Between the two demonstration games many spectators took advantage of the opportunity to try to hit the ball and run the bases as done during the games, which were followed by a superb picnic catered by one of the best-known catering firms in the city.

There is not space to describe grand softball and summarize all its interesting rules, but a few comments will help the reader understand a little more about the philosophy and intent of the game. For example, four of the ten members per team must be totally blind and must wear eyeshades and red arm bands; players with reduced vision must wear yellow arm bands; only totally blind infielders or the visually impaired shortstop may field balls hit by totally blind batters; sighted guides stationed at each base are to guide totally blind base runners; the totally blind pitcher must deliver the ball so it bounces at least three times before passing over home plate; play stops the instant a fielder with the fielded ball in hand catches a "stop circle" and a ground ball that is fielded by a totally blind fielder is treated the same as a fly ball that is caught. The air-filled ball, which has no sounding device in it, is slightly larger than a softball and essentially skips along on the ground in order to meet the minimum three-bounce requirement and to provide enough sound for audible tracking. Consequently, the swing of most batters must be very low if the ball is to be hit in the air. Yes, the game is very different from beep baseball!

Many hours were spent on the campus of the Kentucky School for the Blind introducing the Japanese visitors to beep baseball, goalball and ten- pin bowling -- thanks to the efforts of helpers such as former Paralympic goalballer Renee Jackson, beep baller Tom Oaks, ten-pin bowler Larry Skutchan and service manager Rick Ricks. And, yes, to the delight of the visitors, the very filling meals which they enjoyed while on campus included lots of Kentucky fried chicken and apple pie, among other things. Indeed, Adam Ruschival of the Louisville Downtown Lions Club, Allan Steinberg of the KSB Charitable Foundation and many others are to be commended for the outstanding jobs they did and the many hours spent doing them.

A few of the other interesting things which the Japanese visitors did included touring the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Factory and Museum (where they bought dozens of personalized bats), My Old Kentucky Home (after which they enjoyed many Steven Foster songs played over their bus PA system), and the Jim Beam Distilling Company (from which they left carrying many boxes of complimentary bourbon chocolates). Anyone who wants additional information regarding grand softball may contact the Greater Louisville Japan Center, telephone (812) 941-2683.

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