Merle Caples has followed the Orioles for nearly 60 years — first with her eyes, and now with her ears. Caples, 95, is blind. Yet the Orioles remain her team, sight unseen.
“It doesn’t stop you from rooting for them,” she said of her disability. Caples listens to every game on the radio from her home in Ambler, Pa. She hangs on every pitch — and on every word of announcers Joe Angel and Jim Hunter.
“They are my eyes; they paint a picture for me,” Caples said. “It’s like I’m sitting behind home plate.”
In tribute to Caples and others like her, the Orioles will host National Federation of the Blind Night on Sept. 18, when they play the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. That night, Orioles players and coaches will wear first-of-their kind big league jerseys with their names spelled in Braille, and the first 15,000 fans will receive Braille alphabet cards. Carlos Ibay, a blind singer/pianist, will perform the national anthem and Mark Riccobono, president of the NFB who is also blind, will throw out the first pitch.
Established in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind is celebrating its 40th year based in Baltimore. It’s the nation’s oldest and largest organization run by the blind, with about 50,000 members.
The club broached the NFB last winter about paying homage to the visually impaired, said Greg Bader, Orioles vice president of communications and marketing.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to create an environment where everyone feels welcome at the ballpark,” Bader said. “We take our role as entertainer very seriously, but we also want to serve as an escape for some people, and as a platform to highlight the causes and morals that we feel strongly about. A ‘blindness awareness night’ puts it into perspective that there’s more going on out there than just wins and losses.”
After the game, the Orioles’ jerseys will be autographed, authenticated and auctioned off online at orioles.com/auctions. All proceeds will benefit the NFB.
“It’s a great idea,” said Chris Danielson, public relations director for the association, which will have about 25 members handing out the Braille cards to sighted fans before the game.
Danielson, who has been blind since birth, has a partial Orioles season-ticket plan himself. While neither he nor the Orioles know how many such followers the team has, he said, “We appreciate their spirit in reaching out to our community and letting the public know that blind people are sports fans, too — and that Braille is a simple yet elegant way for them to learn to read.”
Time and again, Angel said, he’ll hear from sightless listeners, including Caples, and invite them into the radio booth “for an inning or two” when they attend games.
“I’m just grateful that they feel what I’m doing is important to them,” Angel said. “When they say how much you mean to them, it’s like a wake-up call. It makes my focus that much sharper.”
Their words also keep him going in this, perhaps the Orioles’ most dismal season.
“Though the losses pile up, every game is still worthwhile to the blind,” Angel said.
In truth, he conceded, “I assume that anyone listening doesn’t have the ability to see the game, and that it’s my job to put them in the ballpark. As a 10-year-old kid in Chicago, I remember listening to Cubs games while lying in bed with a transistor radio and my eyes closed. In fact, I was blind, and just pretending I was there. Do that, and your imagination runs wild.”
That’s what Merle Caples does, night after night, listening to the Orioles through earbuds in her room at the assisted living facility where she lives.
“If [the nursing staff] sees your lights on after 11 o’clock, they are at your door to make sure you haven’t died,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m OK, I’m just listening to the ballgame.’ ”
A Marine who served during World War II, Caples contracted macular degeneration and lost much of her vision 10 years ago. Fiercely loyal, the longtime Westminster resident could name every Oriole until the roster expanded.
On July 3, Caples’ family took her to Citizens Bank Park in nearby Philadelphia, to see the Orioles play the Phillies. Beforehand, she met manager Buck Showalter, players Adam Jones and Caleb Joseph, and Angel, who gave her his floppy Orioles hat and a big kiss. Though she is legally blind, Caples’ eyes glistened.
The Orioles lost the game.
“Yes, the team is doing terrible, but you know what?” she said. “I’m still a fan and you can’t change an old gal like me.”