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He's Making Some Noise

Deaf pitcher Ryan Ketchner overcomes early difficulties and moves up in the Dodger system, possibly on the way to making history

February 27, 2005|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Something disrupted the game. Ryan Ketchner, a left-handed pitcher locked in a silent world, had no idea why the batter stepped away from the plate with a start and the catcher rose and lifted his mask.

Ketchner stood on the mound with a puzzled look. The catcher pointed beyond the center-field fence and Ketchner turned to see a brightly colored fireworks display.

Everyone else had heard the crackling pyrotechnics. Ketchner couldn't help but laugh. It was just another unexpected obstacle for a rarity in professional baseball -- a deaf ballplayer.

Other difficulties have been far less amusing for the promising Dodger minor leaguer. Soon after signing with the Seattle Mariners in 2000 he was teased and tormented by a teammate to the point that he begged his parents to let him quit and come home.

Timothy and Kim Ketchner nearly gave in. Simply allowing their son to go off to rookie league at 18 and begin the arduous climb through the minors had been a hard decision.

Other players flip open their cellphones when they feel a pang of homesickness. They turn on ESPN in their hotel rooms to hear a voice talking about a familiar topic. Such comforts aren't available to Ketchner.

"Playing pro baseball was my dream and I convinced my parents to let me sign," said Ketchner, who has been 90% deaf since birth.

"I knew what I was in for. I knew it would be tough. But you can't always anticipate everything."

The words are formed laboriously, but his eyes sparkle. Ketchner, 22, survived those early crises and is living his dream. After making the double-A Southern League All-Star team last season, he was added to the Dodger 40-man roster and is expected to begin the season at triple-A Las Vegas.

He is in big league camp. Eric Gagne dresses across the room. Jeff Kent sits in the corner of the clubhouse. Ketchner tries to conceal his amazement. "It's about time I got here," he said, grinning. "I feel awesome."

Scouts compare Ketchner to a young Tom Glavine. He paints the corners, doesn't walk many batters and mixes four pitches, including a devastating curveball. He has averaged a strikeout for each of his 477 minor league innings.

He could become the first deaf major league pitcher since Luther Taylor in 1908.

Deaf outfielder Curtis Pride has played in 388 games with six teams since 1993 and is in Angel camp as a nonroster player. Otherwise, there hasn't been a deaf major leaguer since Matt Dan Lynch played four games for the Chicago Cubs in 1948. Lynch's nickname was "Dummy," which unfortunately was what nearly every deaf player was called in the early days of baseball.

The best and most influential was William "Dummy" Hoy, an outfielder who had 2,054 hits during a career that spanned from 1888 to 1902. Hoy played a pioneering role in the creation of the hand signals commonplace today.

Umpires at the time made no gestures when calling balls and strikes. A coach would raise his left arm to indicate a ball and his right arm for a strike when Hoy batted. Soon the umpires began making the signals.

Ketchner doesn't think about being a pioneer. He loves to pitch, and he has loved being a Dodger since the team acquired him in a trade with the Mariners last April.

Pitching coach Jim Colborn gave him a surprising welcome during a team meeting, using sign language during a pitchers' meeting to say, "Hi Ryan. My name is Jim, the ace pitching coach."

Colborn, who speaks several languages, learned sign language from a childhood friend. Rarely, though, does Ketchner come across a coach or teammate who can communicate any way other than speaking slowly and close enough for him to read their lips.

Most deaf children make a choice early on to communicate either by reading lips or through sign language. Ketchner, like Pride, chose the oral route, which enabled them to attend regular public schools and assimilate more easily on a ball field.

"There were times it was very difficult for Ryan," Timothy Ketchner said. "Playing ball was a great way to show he was the same as other kids."

It was apparent in high school that he had a chance to play pro ball. Ketchner sought out Pride, who happened to live near Ketchner's family in Florida, and they became friends.

When the Mariners drafted Ketchner in the 10th round in 2000, he sought the services of Pride's agent, Joe Strasser.

"I've talked to Ryan about how he should handle himself on the field, not to be shy, to make sure he does everything the coaches tell him, and if you don't understand something, ask," Pride said. "His teammates want to know about his deafness, so he needs to talk to them about it. It makes it easier to communicate."

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