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Baseball for the blind takes flight in Cuba

HAVANA (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.

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

23 PHOTOS
Blind Cubans learn to play baseball
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Blind Cubans learn to play baseball
The visually impaired wait for a baseball lesson to begin at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A visually impaired man holds a special baseball with a little bell embedded so the player can identify its location by the sound, during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Maikel Rodriguez (L) and Gilberto Arteaga, who are visually impaired, arrive at the Changa Medero stadium for a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Gilberto Arteaga, who is visually impaired, participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Yaineris Veg, who is visually impaired, participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
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. REUTERS/Stringer
Carlos Miguel Lorenzo, who is visually impaired, reacts during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
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. REUTERS/Stringer
Gilberto Arteaga, who is visually impaired, participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Yubis Zapata, who is visually impaired,participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Gilberto Arteaga, who is visually impaired, participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Eli Duvergel, who is visually impaired, receives instructions while participating in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
The visually impaired participate in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Alexander Rodriguez, who is visually impaired, searches for the ball during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Yubis Zapata, who is visually impaired, participates in a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
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. REUTERS/Stringer
Carlos Miguel Lorenzo (L) and Yaineris Veg, who are visually impaired, put on eye covers before a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
The visually impaired arrive at the Changa Medero stadium for a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Equipment used for baseball for the visually impaired is seen at the Changa Medero stadium during a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
The visually impaired arrive at the Changa Medero stadium for a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
Yubis Zapata, who is visually impaired, holds a special baseball with a little bell embedded so the player can identify its location by the sound, during a baseball lesson at the Changa Medero stadium, in Havana, Cuba May 24, 2017. Picture taken May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
The visually impaired walk at the Changa Medero stadium during a baseball lesson, in Havana, Cuba May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
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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."

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.

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.

"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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