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April 15, 2003

Silent Journey

From: San Bernardino Sun, CA - Apr 15, 2003

Ketchner, who is deaf, dreams of majors


SAN BERNARDINO - Ryan Ketchner got the signs from his catcher and began his windup. All of a sudden, the umpire called time out, the batter stepped out of the box and the catcher came out of his crouch. Ketchner, then pitching for the Seattle Mariners Low-A Midwest League affiliate at Wisconsin, stood on the mound, puzzled and wondering what the cause of the delay was.

A teammate pointed behind him, over the centerfield fence where a fireworks display had erupted, marking the end of a town festival nearby. Ketchner laughed. So did his teammates.

Ketchner can block out such distractions without much effort. Ketchner is deaf.

That type of disability could be considered a handicap, but Ketchner thinks otherwise.

''He doesn't look at it as a disability,'' said Skip Wiley, who was Ketchner's roommate for two years. ''He uses it to his advantage. If there is a lot of noise or we were playing at someone else's field and there was a lot of distractions, he would just turn his hearing aids off. Then he can't hear anything.''

Ketchner, a left-handed pitcher for the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino, is one of thousands of young men trying to work their way up the minor-league ladder in hope of playing in the major leagues. Ketchner is believed to be the only one who is deaf.

He has hearing aids in both ears that allow him to pick up vibrations. They do not help him distinguish words. He is so good at reading lips that in high school he once picked up what an opposing coach was saying from the other dugout.

Ryan's good-hearted nature and sense of humor have endeared him to teammates.

His father, Tim, said Ryan had one teammate in rookie ball three years ago in Arizona who was less than understanding and went out of his way to be nasty. But that was rare.

A look at the Sixers clubhouse at Arrowhead Credit Union Park offers proof that Ketchner is accepted by his peers.

Ketchner plays cards with his teammates, challenges them in video games and joins in on the jokes. He does not mind being the target of them, either.

''We don't treat him any different,'' said first baseman Jason Van Meetren, Ketchner's current roommate and a teammate of his the past three years. ''You just have to look at him when you're talking to him. He loves to talk. He's a real chatterbox. He fits right in. That's a testament to him and to his parents.''

Growing up in silence:

Ketchner was 16 months old when his parents started thinking something might be wrong with their only son. He had not started talking. Friends tried to assure them that all toddlers learn at different paces, but they decided to seek an expert opinion and took Ryan to both the pediatrician and an audiologist.

Brain stem tests were performed. The audiologist also suggested a more simple experiment... sit the boy on the floor and bang some pots and pans together behind his head.

''He didn't react at all,'' his mother, Kim, said.

It was disheartening news, but the Ketchners kept it in perspective.

''The first thought is, 'This can't be happening to us.' You never think something like that will happen to one of your own,'' recalls Tim Ketchner, a firefighter for Palm Beach County in Florida. ''Then we started accepting the reality of the situation and we were thinking. 'There are things that would be a lot worse.',''

As Ryan grew up, his parents had to take extra time to do things with him. So did his sister Jennifer, two years Ryan's senior. The family learned sign language. There were frequent trips to a speech pathologist.

But Kim and Tim Ketchner said their son had a fairly normal childhood. Sure, there was the occasional taunt from a classmate, but nothing Ryan could not handle. He started playing T-ball at the age of 6 and took to the sport quickly. That he excelled enabled him to be more easily accepted by his teammates.

''The sport was really a tool for him to get to know other kids and for them to get to know him,'' Tim Ketchner said. ''It was good for him to be part of a group. It probably helped that he was good.''

Ketchner took mostly mainstream classes in high school. The biggest challenge proved to be science, because of the longer words that were harder to pick up by reading lips. Despite that, he graduated on time with a grade-point average of 3.13.

Athletically, Ryan fared well. As a freshman, he made the varsity squad for a John I Leonard High School team that excelled in one of them most competitive areas in Florida. He signed a college letter-of-intent with St. Petersburg Junior College but opted to turn professional when the Mariners chose him in the 10th round of the 2000 draft.

It was during his high school years that he befriended Curtis Pride, the only deaf major-leaguer in almost 100 years. Around the turn of the century, outfielder Dummy Hoy and pitcher Dummy Taylor starred in the big leagues.

Pride lives just 30 minutes from the Ketchners in Florida. The two met through mutual friend Steven Prokop, who had worked with Ryan at the Bucky Dent Baseball School. The two still keep in touch through e-mail once or twice a week. Ketchner and Pride also share the same agent.

Ketchner, who turns 21 on Friday, singled out Pride as his role model, something the seven-year major-league veteran acknowledges.

''It is nice to be considered a role model for a lot of people like Ryan, because I have given them hope and inspiration that they can do whatever they want as long as they believe in themselves,'' said Pride in an e-mail.

Pride played with four different major-league clubs, most recently the Montreal Expos in 2001. He played Triple-A baseball last season and still is hoping for a return to the majors. He understands the obstacles his protege faces.

''It was hard to be part of the clubhouse camaraderie because I missed out on a lot of the conversations and joking that were going on daily,'' Pride said. ''Sometimes, one of my teammates would give me the scoop of what was going on in the conversation between teammates.''

Fitting right in:

Ketchner does have one luxury that Pride didn't. Two of his teammates actually know sign language. Outfielder Greg Jacobs learned it when he was young because he has a brother who has been deaf since the age of 2 after a bout of spinal meningitis. Relief pitcher Rusty Gray took some sign language courses in college and worked with deaf children near his home in Utah.

In addition, nine of his teammates with the Sixers were with him last season in Wisconsin.

''It was a little hard to understand him at first,'' said Wiley, released by the Mariners in March. ''But the more you are around him, the easier it gets.''

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Ketchner said the hardest part of the game is the instantaneous communication that needs to take place in the infield... such as who is fielding the pop up and who is covering on a bunt.

Last season in Wisconsin, Ketchner went 3-6 but had an ERA of 2.59, which was the lowest of any minor-leaguer in the Seattle farm system with a minimum of 75 innings. He managed 118 strikeouts in 111 innings with just 39 walks. Opponents hit just .190 against him. He entered his first season in the California League ranked as the organization's No.?30 prospect by Baseball America.

Ketchner is not overpowering, but he has great command of three pitches and the shown the knack for mixing them up to keep the hitters off balance.

The changeup is his best pitch and sets up a fastball that pitching coach Scott Budner calls ''sneaky fast.''

Budner learned early how to deal with the prospect when Ketchner missed the first pitcher's meeting after the team reported to San Bernardino from spring training.

''He literally didn't hear about it,'' Budner said. ''That was my fault. I whiffed on that. I have to make sure I tell him individually. That won't happen again.''

The Sixers have struggled in the victory column, heading into tonight's home game against Lancaster at 3-6. But Ketchner has fared well at 2-0 with both victories coming in relief. He has thrown 6??innings and has nine strikeouts, one walk and a 2.84 ERA.

When Ketchner is not just doing the job on the field, he is serving as a role model off it as well. Last week, he toured the California School for the Deaf in Riverside and he plans on having students from the school come to a game in the near future. He has done the same in other cities that he has pitched.

''He is a great kid,'' Budner said. ''He's very easy-going and has a great sense of humor. It's obvious the talent he has, but he is also a great guy to have around the clubhouse.

''I think the other guys definitely look up to him. He doesn't ask for special treatment. He just goes out there and does his job.''

Copyright © 2003 San Bernardino County Sun