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“The first rule they teach you is to keep your eye on the ball,” Mr. Brivio said on the sidelines of a game one sultry Sunday at Bologna’s Leoni ballpark. “You can imagine the challenge I felt.”
He seems to have managed. Italy’s baseball league for the blind is not huge, but since 2005, Mr. Brivio’s Milanese team — Thunder’s Five — has won all but one championship title and is heading strong into the playoffs later this month. “They got good,” Mr. Brivio said.
This is not Major League Baseball. Only nine teams compete in the league across Italy. While, in the United States, World Series winners are traditionally invited to the White House to meet the president, Italy’s blind champs content themselves with a trophy, a pennant to sew on their uniforms, and immense personal satisfaction.
Daniela Pierri, the captain of a team based in Ravenna, was a runner and lost her sight as an adult. “The first time I ran as a blind person, it felt marvelous,” she said. “It gave me a real sense of freedom. This game was conceived to make us as autonomous as possible.”
Teams are formed of five blind or visually impaired blindfolded players, a sighted player and a sighted defensive assistant. The two sighted members serve as base coaches.
There are fewer innings in a game, and no pitchers or catchers. Instead, a batter throws and hits the ball, a regular-size baseball with five holes and two sleigh bells inside. Fielders must hear where it lands (which must be within the diamond). The sighted players clap paddles at second and third base to orient runners. First base is a beeping mat.
Home runs are called if the ball rolls 60 meters — almost 200 feet — beyond home plate. (Some opponents grumble that Thunder’s Five is unbeatable because of the batting power of Sarwar Ghulam, a former cricket player rapidly losing his sight who is admiringly known as the “homer king.”)
Stefano Malaguti, the association’s commissioner, paraphrased a bit from the 1988 film “Bull Durham” to underscore that the blind players are still players. They “throw the ball, catch the ball and hit the ball,” he said. “We try to respect the sense of the sport.”
The twists for blind players were honed through two decades of trials, spearheaded above all by Alfredo Meli, a former Italian baseball champion — as player and coach — who died in 2010. “He thought of everything,” said Alberto Mazzanti, president of Italy’s blind baseball association, A.I.B.X.C., and a founder of the league. “The game was invented here. We have the copyright.”
The game as played here has little in common with its American parallel, beep baseball.
The Italians are so proud of their game that they can sound downright dismissive of the American version.
“This is real baseball, beep ball is just a pastime,” said Mr. Mazzanti. He and other officials of the Italian game have long tried to proselytize to the Americans, but their efforts have so far been unsuccessful. “There’s already a championship and they fear that we could mess that up,” he said, referring to the National Beep Baseball Association. Contacts have been made, however, with blind players in Cuba, Hungary, France and Germany where a team just started up.
“It’s as rich as real baseball, exploiting all the psychological and technical aspects of baseball,” said Giovanni Lo Monaco, who plays left field for the Bologna White Sox. “We play to win.”
Baseball made a first timid foray in Italy at the end of the 19th century, gaining traction when Italian baseball fans and American coaches — often former servicemen — got the ball rolling after the Second World War. The first championship was held in 1948.
“It rapidly expanded after the war and the press gave a lot of coverage,” said Roberto Bugané, an unofficial historian of the local game and the creator of Italian baseball’s online hall of fame and museum. One of the videos on the Web site of Italy’s baseball association shows Gregory Peck — then staying in the Italian capital to film “Roman Holiday” — throwing out the opening pitch at Italy’s first international game, against Spain, in 1952.
Baseball’s popularity here peaked after the Baseball World Cup was played in Italy in 1978. Today, the number of people involved in the association, called the Italian Baseball Softball Federation, which sanctions the blind league, is about 25,000.
Nowadays, Italians root for Alex Liddi, 23, an infielder for the Seattle Mariners and the first Italian-born-and-bred player to play in the major leagues.
But the economic downturn has been painful. “Without sponsors, it’s difficult to survive,” Mr. Bugané said. “And soccer gets the lion’s share.”
Financial shortcomings haunt the blind league, too, which survives mostly thanks to the largess of an anonymous donor — a female baseball fan — who each year donates “a considerable amount” to keep the league running, said Mr. Mazzanti. Coaches and players are all volunteers. Many of the officials are federation baseball players from the 1960s andImmagine ’70s — several of whom played for Bologna’s then-renowned Fortitudo-Montenegro team. The league offers them opportunities to stay in touch, as well as do a good turn.
“We’ve known each other forever,” said Fabio Giurleo, a former player who also coaches children in Milan. “We’re friends and we respect each other, but we compete on the field. And we’re tough with the players, too,” cutting them no slack.
Matteo Briglia, a die-hard baseball fan and software developer who is blind, ran for the first time after he started playing for the Lampi Milano team three years ago. He is driving through the United States where he hopes to promote this brand of blind baseball. “I think people think of blind baseball as a boring sport,” with a lot of fumbling around, he said. But the Italian version of the game is “faster and fun, with more runs and more plays,” he said, predicting converts.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 16, 2012