Disabled virtual athletes experience reality of playing baseball

[From ESPN’s The Gamer blog]

[Image: Hans Smith’s Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes will be featured in “MLB 11: The Show.”]

Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes debuts in ‘The Show’

By Jon Robinson
Jan 24, 2011

Hans Smith pitched his way through an up-and-down rookie year for the Cardinals last season.

Don’t recognize the name? That’s because Smith is a virtual athlete who spent an entire season playing as himself in “MLB 10: The Show.”

But Smith is anything but your average gamer.

The 25-year-old baseball fanatic suffers from cerebral palsy, making it impossible for him to play the game he loves in real life.

But that didn’t stop Smith from making the Majors.

You see, a few years ago, Smith wrote a letter to Sony’s San Diego studio, the developers of the top-rated “MLB: The Show” series, and the producers were so moved by Smith’s passionate words about the sport of baseball, the Cardinals, and their video game, that Sony went ahead and created Smith’s character in “MLB 10: The Show.”

And according to Smith, seeing the cyber version of himself gave him a feeling like never before. It was as if by some miracle, his cerebral palsy ceased to exist nine innings at a time.

A feeling Smith wants to share with other disabled gamers.

Smith gets that chance in “MLB 11: The Show” as thanks to the gamer’s growing ties with Sony’s development team, a new difficulty level has been added to the franchise that will make it possible for more gamers with disabilities to get their cracks at the plate against diamond kings like Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.

The mode is titled after a new organization Smith has created, the Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes, and the new feature makes it easier for gamers with disabilities to play thanks to one-button controls. The computer takes over the action of running to the ball, so all you need to do is hit a button to throw to a base or swing the bat. This opens up “The Show” to even more kids like Smith who always dreamed of playing baseball, but for physical reasons beyond their control couldn’t … until now.

“It comes from the fact that I can’t physically play baseball, a game I am fanatic about,” Smith tells me as we meet up in Sony’s San Diego studio to talk about the new game. “But I’ve been able to play baseball over the years by playing various video games. I love baseball video games. To some people, these are just games. But that’s because at any time, they can turn off the console and go out to a ballpark and play baseball in the physical world. I can’t do that.

“So my body doesn’t know the difference between reality and virtual reality. I’m never going to throw a baseball. I’m never going to run around the bases. So all of the adrenaline you feel by stepping out on the field and coming up to bat with two outs in the ninth inning, that’s what I feel when I play the video game. So in a sense, this game is my reality. ‘MLB: The Show’ gives you the experience of what it’s like to play, not just as a team, but you get to be a player with Road to the Show. You can play from the position of a first baseman, you can play shortstop, you can play catcher. You can feel the highs of getting the big hit, and you can feel the lows of being out of position and making an error that costs your team the game. To be able to play the game and practice your skills and actually better yourself, that’s what drew me in to the game.”

And to say that Smith is hooked is an understatement. He is a man of detail, playing along to the Cardinals season and following the calendar exactly as his team does, even taking the same days off to rest. “When my team plays on the road, I wear the road clothes while I’m playing. When my team plays at home, I’m wearing the home clothes,” laughs Smith. “Here I am, a baseball fanatic who never actually played the game for real, but through this video game, I’ve been able to have the experience of playing the real game of dreams. There are so many people out there who are in wheelchairs but love sports. Because of that, I want to make it possible for them to have their dreams come true just like me. I know how exciting it was for me to finally play baseball. I want everyone to have that same feeling. That’s what the Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes is all about. Some organizations for disabled people aren’t available to everyone — you have to live in a big city. Plus, you still run the risk of getting hurt. But with a virtual organization, you can adjust the settings to whatever you want. If you can’t do anything but push one button, then you can control everything else via the artificial intelligence. This levels the playing field for people who are otherwise outside the sports arena.”

As for Smith’s record last year as the Cardinals starting pitcher, the gamer rattles off his accomplishments with a huge grin: “You only have one rookie year in the game, just like real life, but I didn’t do too well. I had 9 wins and 11 losses with an ERA of 4.51 and 107 strikeouts,” he says. “I love the fact that I didn’t have a good year, though, because it proves that you can’t just go out and win every game. You have to work at it.

“My player actually got injured in April and I had to sit out four weeks. People kept asking me why I didn’t just simulate forward into the year when I could pitch again, but they just didn’t get it. You can’t just simulate your life. I didn’t play for four weeks. What I would do is let the computer play against the computer, so I could still watch the games just like you would in real life, I just wasn’t pitching. I feel like I’ve been given a blessing to play baseball, and I just wanted to make it as realistic as possible.”

“People come up to me and ask me all the time, ‘So are you a gamer?’ I say, ‘No, I’m a baseball player.’”

A baseball player who has even been accepted by the real Cardinals.

“I actually went to a Cardinals game last August and they let me in the dugout to talk to the players,” adds Smith. “One of the guys I was talking to was Ryan Franklin, the Cardinals closer, and I was telling him about my season and when I told him my stats he said, ‘C’mon Smith, you need to step it up! You’re representing the Cardinals now.’

“I felt great. It was like I was one of the guys taking their crap. Being part of the team was a great experience for me. I loved every minute. Hopefully this season, I can get a few more wins.”

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