From Vietnam to blind baseball: one veteran’s volunteering story

From Milserve to Team Rubicon, the opportunities for vets to continue serving after they’ve come home are increasing. According to a recent report by Civic Enterprises, becoming involved with community service can greatly help the transition to civilian life. This is one vet’s story. 

During his time with the Air Force in Vietnam, Jeff Hottensen lived on almost every continent in the world. When he returned to NY after a little over two decades, he saw an ad in the paper to volunteer with a blind baseball team in Babylon. Eighteen years later Jeff is still stepping up to the plate.

“All those years in the service, I never had a connection to anything. No place was home,” he says. “I wanted to be part of a community, to do something and not move every two and a half years.”

Jeff, now 65-years-old and a customer service rep at AAA, grew up playing stickball in Manhattan and loves that baseball is a sport almost anyone can play. Twist the rules a bit, throw unlikely players on the field, and the game becomes even more high stakes.

Jeff (left) at a recent exhibition game at Citi Field, home of the NY Mets. (Photo via Camille Hottensen.)

“Not only are they beating a disability, but they are beating the system. It’s so much more thrilling,” he says.

Beep baseball works like this: A sighted pitcher throws a beeping ball to a blind or visually impaired batter who is blindfolded to combat any advantage. After hitting the ball, the batter uses their hearing to run to first, even better third base, which is also beeping. No balls are thrown. If the fielder gets the ball before the batter reaches the base, they’re out. The game is over in six innings.

Jeff is currently with Rockville Centre-based Long Island Bombers and has had just about every role from catcher to base judge to umpire at the World Series — in addition to describing items at the gift shop so the players can bring home souvenirs when they travel. He’s suffered bumps and bruises, broken fingers, even a concussion, yet he returns year after year.

“I learned, which I never thought I had, that caring feeling,” he says. “I surprised myself.”

From national service to community service

The first time Jeff met the players he was nervous about how he would act. He’d never been around the blind before.

“I was so scared of saying the wrong things,” he says. “I remember meeting this guy Jack who was running the team. He said ‘Good to see you. Oh wait, I can’t. So maybe it’s good for you to see me.’ ”

The immediate joking made Jeff feel right at home. Eventually he was able to transfer the leadership skills he honed in the Air Force to volunteering. Early on in Vietnam, for example, Jeff was thrown into a role as Branch Chief and had to manage people of all genders, races, and ages.

“I loved seeing young kids come in, teaching them, and watching them grow up,” he says. “Before they ship out you’ve made them into somebody respectful. You saw them build their self-confidence.”

With the Bombers, whose players are increasingly younger, empowering them to not fall into a depression because of blindness is part of teaching them how to swing a bat.

“Her mom said her life has changed so much and that this is the best thing that has happened to her,” Jeff says about a new sixteen-year-old recruit who’d recently gone blind. “How can I quit now? Those things keep me going.”

In later years Jeff has become more involved with organizing. If the weather is bad, he sets up a phone chain. If they’re stuck at the airport on the way to the World Series, he makes sure the players have something to do. Each year Jeff also arranges the LI Classic, a local tournament.

A second family

Above all, being a part of the Bombers reminds Jeff of the tight knit camaraderie he experienced in the Air Force. He and his usual roommate at the World Series, Jim Hughes, have been with each other through marriages, births, career changes, and more.

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The Long Island Bombers have been around since 1997. (Photo via the team.)

“The two of us have just grown up together. He was 18, I was 40-something when we both started. Unbelievable,” Jeff says. “You build lifetime relationships over this. You really do.”

It makes occasions like winning a game at the World Series even more special. The year was 2005, the field was Houston’s Meyer Park. Jeff was catching; the Bombers hadn’t won a game yet. It was the last one of the series. Frank Guerra got a hit that tipped the game in their favor. He jumped into Jeff’s arms, and the rest of the team went crazy.

“I just thought it was the greatest moment,” Jeff says. “Without winning a game they might’ve lost a lot of courage and confidence, and not gone to the next World Series.”

Not like the team needed much cheering up to begin with. Jeff is continually struck by is how the players don’t view their blindness as a handicap, a philosophy they spread through local clinics and demonstrations at places like Camp Abilities.

“I never heard one of them complain about something they couldn’t do,” Jeff says. “It’s made me less tolerant about people who whine about nothing.”

The positivity is addicting. Soon, Jeff and his wife are thinking about becoming snowbirds, spending half the time in New York and half the time in Florida. He’s already putting feelers out to see if he could start a team down south and add more years to his umpire uniform.

The question remains: Will he ever strike out with beep baseball? The likely answer is no.

“I’m staying for at least 20 so I can get my retirement pay,” Jeff says, laughing.
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Inspired to volunteer? The Bombers are always looking for extra hands to carry bats, spot bases, and wear blindfolds. Get in touch by emailing beepball@libombers.org.

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