When Rene Diaz, 11, told his big brother that he and his friends wanted to play baseball, Fernando Diaz knew they would need some special help.
Rene and his friends are deaf, and while they took immediately to the game, they were afraid to join the teams they saw playing in a neighborhood park. They knew they couldn't talk to the other children, and the coaches couldn't talk to them.
But Fernando Diaz could. So he decided to coach the children himself.
Today, Rene and his friends make up most of a team in the park league at Eagle Rock's Yosemite Recreation Center. Next month their second season will begin. Rene says the team is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Fernando says his little brother and friends are getting the chance to grow up just like other children.
'Having a Ball'
"They're having a ball," said Diaz, 19, tossing a bat to his brother with one hand and speaking to him with the other at a recent practice. "On another team, he'd be lost. He'd be on his own. He'd be a blackball in the bunch. Here he can understand what's going on."
On the field, Diaz's team looks like any other group of gregarious youngsters learning to play ball. But they don't sound the same. They play the game almost silently, the stillness punctuated occasionally by a laugh or a shout. Their hands fly through the air, gesturing precisely and rapidly in a language that matches the lyrical motions of the baseball game.
The team is made up of nine deaf children and four who can hear. They play from July through September against 20 other teams in the league sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Al Varnas, recreation director at Yosemite Park, said that while there are no rules prohibiting deaf children from playing on any of the league's teams, he doubts many of the league's volunteer coaches would be able to communicate with a deaf child.
"Basically, they need a coach or someone who would be taking care of them who is knowledgeable in the sign language art and can communicate with them," Varnas said. "Someone has to explain certain aspects of the game."
Dorothy Thompson, senior recreation director at the park, said the children on other teams treat the deaf children the same as they would anyone else.
"They were very well accepted after the initial shock," Thompson said. "The child says, 'Oh goodness, he doesn't hear.' Five or 10 minutes later they're working together just beautifully."
The children on the team who are not deaf say they joined for the same reason many children join a particular group--because their friends had joined. Most attend Multnomah Elementary School in El Sereno, which has a special program for deaf youngsters as well as a regular elementary school program. Others, such as Eddie Ortiz, 12, live next door to one of the deaf children on the team.
"The first time I met him, I wanted to talk to him." Ortiz said of meeting his friend, Joseph. "He taught me . . . and I'd practice. I learned how to sign."
At a recent practice, some children batted against a fence. Others were on the field playing catch. Fernando and two friends who help were moving quickly from one group to another. Fernando explained the rudiments of the game to his charges in fluent sign language.
The baseball team is not the first idea Fernando has had to help his brother. A competitive runner, he began bringing Rene and his friends to the track last year and teaching them to work out. Soon he began entering them in races.
"I try to introduce these kids to different sports," Diaz said. "I just love working with kids. I love that feeling you get when they surpass their limits or just do great or they say 'thank you.' I communicate with them perfectly."
Diaz said his whole family uses sign language and his parents have taught them to treat their brother like any other child.
"When they grow up they're not gonna get special favors from anybody else," Diaz said. "This gives them more confidence. Without confidence, these kids wouldn't be doing as well as they should be."
Diaz is a student at Glendale Community College who will be starting at UC Berkeley in January. He says he wants to go to law school, and he is no stranger to persuasion. He has drummed up money to buy equipment for the team and for the $30-per-child registration fee required to join the league. At a car wash on Memorial Day weekend, he and the team raised $500. And he has persuaded Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre to come to another team car wash on Sunday.
"I'm going to take some kids with me to the local churches beforehand," Diaz says with a wink. "We'll see how good a mood people are in after Mass. You know, give them a little pitch outside. Put them on the spot."