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November 28th, 2019:

Thanksgiving video break: I haven’t done one of these in awhile

So let’s redo one of my greater hits:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

The aoudad story

Did you know before reading this post what an aoudad is, other than a potentially useful word to know the next time you play Scrabble? I admit that I had never heard of them, but the state is Texas has loads of them.

Froylan Hernandez has spent the better part of the last two months counting sheep from a helicopter. That’s not a metaphor or a kind of experimental sleep study; it’s his job.

“Oh, that’s a pretty good-sized group,” Hernandez says, looking down from the helicopter.

Hernandez is the desert bighorn sheep program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He rides in the helicopter each summer for a bighorn census. It’s the most effective method out in the West Texas mountains. But even though he’s looking for bighorns, he mostly finds another kind of sheep.

“Alright, so 32 aoudads? Yeah, 32 aoudads, copy,” Hernandez says.

Aoudads – also known as Barbary sheep – are all over West Texas, but they’re originally from North Africa. They have a long set of horns that curl back into a crescent shape, and a distinctive strip of long, shaggy hair on their neck and chest. They were brought to Texas in the 1950s as exotic game. Since then, wild populations have flourished in the dry, rocky terrain. In fact, from Hernandez’s point of view, they’ve been too successful.

“It’s not uncommon for us, when we’re flying, to see groups of two and three hundred,” he says.

Hernandez’s job is to support Texas’ population of desert bighorn sheep, not aoudads. Desert bighorns are native to Texas, but died out here in the 1960s due to overhunting and disease spread from domestic sheep. The state has worked to bring them back for the better part of three decades now, nurturing small populations in various mountain ranges. Now, there are about 1,500 desert bighorns in Texas, and Hernandez is working to increase their numbers even more. And that’s where the problem with aoudads comes in.

“They can pose a great threat to bighorns, not just [from] a competition-for-resource standpoint but also from a disease-threat standpoint,” he says.

Aoudads and desert bighorns compete for the same resources. And since there are already so many aoudads, they’re a speed bump on the desert bighorns’ road to population growth. Plus, Hernandez says that several West Texas aoudads tested positive last fall for a species of bacteria that’s caused fatal respiratory disease in desert bighorn populations elsewhere.

“And it’s not uncommon to have localized population extinctions because of this Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae,” he says.

So, while Hernandez is hovering over West Texas counting desert bighorns, he’s also keeping an eye out for aoudads, and shooting them whenever possible. Wherever he does an aerial survey, he asks the landowner’s permission to cull aoudads.

“And we try to do a total removal of any aoudad that we encounter,” Hernandez says.

Turns out that hunting aoudads is a nice piece of business for ranchers in Texas, in part because there are no limits on how many one can shoot due to their non-native invasive species designation. Do an image search for aoudad, and you’ll find a lot of places where you can get your hunt on for them. They’re going to be around, making life a little harder for the native desert bighorns, for a long time. And now we both know about the aoudads.

Beep baseball

Here’s a cool thing you might not know about.

Beep Baseball isn’t the only sport for the blind, and most players are multi-sport athletes. A sport called Goalball – think, if you can, of a cross between bowling and soccer – came across as the most popular among Beep players. But there’s something about Beep that is different from the other sports for the blind.

Every sport has a behind the scenes debate over how much injury or safety risk is tolerable on the field. In sighted sports, the default is that players should be given freedom to play — sports are inherently an injury risk. A safety measure – such as a requirement for a helmet or the implantation of a rule to protect athletes — should be imposed only when the danger of injury is too great.

In baseball, for example, rules for sliding into home and second base were only imposed in recent years after lack of regulation resulted in serious injury. For better or worse, the default stance was to let the players play until that proves untenable.

Sports for the blind have long approached that debate from the assumption that safety – rather than competition, fun or challenging oneself – should be the guiding principle. One such sport, however, is unique.

The story of Beep Baseball – perhaps unsurprisingly given its name – begins with the invention of the ball. In 1964 Charlie Fairbanks, an engineer for the Mountain Bell Telephone Company, heard that the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind was in need of a ball that would work for their students to play sports. They had a football with bells attached to it, but once the ball stopped moving, it became impossible to locate. It didn’t make for a particularly fun game.

After experimenting with various balls, Fairbanks decided softballs would be the best carrier for his beeping device – a combination of spare telephone parts he had lying around his home workshop. He would deconstruct softballs, insert his jury-rigged beeper and hand them off to his wife, Vi, to stitch back up.

The first version of Beep Baseball popped up a few years later. In 1971, Ralph Rock of the San Francisco Telephone Pioneers created a new game using Fairbanks’ beeping ball. However, safety was at the center of the game in a way that sapped the fun from it. Like your local swimming pool, running was illegal: Batters had to walk to the base. If you ran, you were out. Likewise, fielders had to walk in pursuit of the ball. A fielder caught running would result in the batting team getting an automatic run. In short, trying hard was against the rules.

Obviously, Rock’s goal wasn’t to create a sport – what kind of game outlaws running! – and he said as much. “We’re not trying to create a new sport,” he told the Associated Press in 1973. “This is therapy. We’re trying to break through the frustrations and give the kids a sense of accomplishment.”

Unsurprisingly, the game never really caught on.

What’s the point of sports? Sure, they provide entertainment for spectators and fans, but that’s more a happy accident than the actual point. Sports are about the people who play them. They’re about athletes accepting a challenge, dedicating an almost-troubling amount of time and energy to it, taking risks along the way and, after all that, achieving something that no one thought possible.

It didn’t take long for players to create a more enjoyable game. John Ross was frustrated by the lack of challenge available in this version of Beep Baseball. A publisher of a Braille sports newspaper called Feeling Sports, Ross was given a version of Fairbanks’ ball and began to develop a new game, one that removed many of Rock’s kid gloves. The “Minnesota Rules” Ross came up with sport a very similar look to the current game.

Most importantly, the game was fun. Sure, fielders would occasionally bust their knees diving for balls or get shaken up colliding with each other in the field, but the players liked it.

There’s more, with pictures and some video, so go check it out. The Effectively Wild baseball podcast did a short interview with a Beep Baseball player in 2017, if you want to know more. I don’t have a point to make here, I just think this is cool, and wanted to share the story. Enjoy!