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Baseball for the Blind Takes Flight in Cuba

Image: The visually impaired arrive at the Changa Medero stadium for a baseball lesson, in Havana
The visually impaired arrive at the Changa Medero stadium for a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. STRINGER / Reuters

Yubis Zapata had to stop playing baseball when he lost his eyesight during military service due to an explosion, so for him, it is a miracle to be able to play once more, in Cuba's growing league for the blind.

Baseball has long been a national passion. The Communist-run country quickly adopted this version after it was developed in the 1990s in Italy, but it has only really caught on in recent years, spreading to all corners of the Caribbean island.

Players like Zapata are ambitious. Their dream is for blind baseball to be included in the 2020 Paralympics, and to bring home the trophy for Cuba.

"When you lose your vision, these first years are difficult," said Zapata, 41, at a training session in Havana where players wore white uniforms.

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"When you get this kind of opportunity, it's fabulous. Your world didn't end, it continues."

Image: Eugenio Oquendo, who is visually impaired, is checked for injuries after a fellow player fell on him during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana
Eugenio Oquendo, who is visually impaired, is checked for injuries after a fellow player fell on him during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. STRINGER / Reuters

The players, who are blind or visually impaired and wear colorful blindfolds while playing, say baseball has helped them refine their sense of orientation by sound.

The ball has bells inside so that fielders can hear where it lands and scramble for it. First base is a beeping mat, and players clap paddles at second and third base to orient runners.

There is no pitcher; the batter tosses the ball in the air and hits it. Fly balls are not allowed.

"This is different from conventional baseball - you have to be more concentrated," said Carlos Fuentes, 32, a physical therapist who lost his sight in recent years. "This sport in a way has served me as rehabilitation, for spatial orientation."

Image: Filiberto Socarras, who is visually impaired, holds googles during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana
Filiberto Socarras, who is visually impaired, holds googles during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. STRINGER / Reuters

The game was brought to Cuba by Italian coaches, who also provided the specialized equipment. Enthusiasts say it is more truthful to the original sport than its American parallel, beep baseball.

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Havana coach Roberto Carmona says the game is played throughout Europe, Asia, in Cuba and Panama. But for it to be included in the Paralympics, there need to be two teams per continent, which he is confident can happen by 2020.

Five Cuban provinces play the game, he said. There is no age or gender limit and even sighted people can play as long as they wear a blindfold.

Image: The visually impaired warm up during a baseball lesson at the  Changa Medero stadium
The visually impaired warm up during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. STRINGER / Reuters

"We met with the Italians recently and won three games," said Carmona. "Cuba could be the leader, not just in the region but the whole world. Baseball runs through Cubans' blood."

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