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May 19, 2003

A quiet success in the minors

From: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, FL - May 19, 2003

By Michelle Gardner
Special correspondent

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. · Ryan Ketchner got the signs from his catcher and began his windup. All of a sudden the umpire called time, the batter stepped out of the box and the catcher came out of his crouch.

Ketchner, then pitching for the Seattle Mariners' Class A Midwest League affiliate in Wisconsin, stood on the mound with a puzzled look on his face, wondering why the delay.

Seconds later a teammate directed Ketchner's attention to behind the center-field fence where a fireworks display had erupted at a town festival a few blocks away. Ketchner laughed. So did his teammates. He is good at blocking out distractions, and he can do so without much effort. Ketchner didn't hear the commotion. He is deaf.

Many might consider that a handicap, but Ketchner doesn't see it that way.

Chaminade-Madonna graduate Skip Wiley was Ketchner's roommate for two years in the minors -- in rookie ball at Peoria, Ariz., and at Everett, Wash., of the short-season Class A Northwest League. The two knew each other from having played against each other in high school.

They were drafted by the Mariners in 2000, Ketchner out of John I. Leonard in the 10th round and Wiley in the 13th.

"He doesn't look at it as a disability," Wiley said. "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, 21, a left-handed pitcher for the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino, is believed to be the only deaf player in professional baseball.

He has hearing aids in both ears that pick up vibrations; they don't help him distinguish words. He is so adept at reading lips, in high school he once picked up the words of the coach in the other dugout.

Ryan's good-hearted nature and sense of humor have endeared him to his teammates. He plays cards, challenges them in video games and joins in on the jokes. He doesn't mind being the target either.

"We don't treat him any different," says first baseman Jason Van Meetren, Ketchner's roommate and a teammate 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."

Ketchner was 16 months old when his parents first sensed his condition. He showed no signs of being ready to talk. Friends tried to assure them that all toddlers learn at different paces, but they decided to seek an expert opinion and took Ryan to the pediatrician and an audiologist.

Brainstem tests were performed. The audiologist suggested a simpler experiment -- bang some pots and pans behind his head. His parents did just that.

"He didn't react at all," mother Kim recalls.

It was disheartening 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 Palm Beach County firefighter. "Then we started accepting the reality of the situation and we were thinking. 'There are things that would be a lot worse.'"

The entire family learned sign language. There were also frequent trips to a speech pathologist.

But Kim and Tim Ketchner both say their son had a fairly normal childhood. Sure there was the occasional taunt from a classmate, but nothing Ryan couldn't handle. He started playing T-ball at 6 and took to the sport quickly.

"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."

Living in Lantana, Ketchner should have attended Santaluces High School, but he opted for Leonard because it had a better curriculum for hearing-impaired students. The biggest challenge proved to be science because of the longer words that were harder to pronounce and pick up by reading lips. Despite that, he graduated on time with a 3.13 grade point average.

Ryan also fared well athletically, making the varsity team as a freshman. Coaches from the football, basketball and cross country teams wanted him to play for them, but baseball coach Tom Evans wanted his players to focus on baseball year-round.

During his high school years, he was befriended by Wellington resident Curtis Pride, the only deaf player in the modern era to make it to the major leagues. The two met through mutual friend Steven Prokop, who had worked with Ryan at the Bucky Dent Baseball School.

Pride regularly attended Ryan's games, and the two keep in touch through e-mail once or twice a week.

"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 that anything is possible," Pride said in an e-mail.

Pride played with four major league clubs, most recently the Montreal Expos in 2001. He knows 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."

Ketchner does have one luxury Pride didn't. Two teammates know sign language. Outfielder Greg Jacobs learned it at a young age because he has a brother who is deaf. Fellow reliever Rusty Gray took sign language courses in college and worked with deaf children near his home in Utah.

In addition, nine of Ketchner's teammates were with him last season in Wisconsin.

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

Ketchner says for him the hardest part is the instant communication that needs to take place in the infield -- who is calling for the pop up, who is covering on a bunt.

Last season in Wisconsin, Ketchner went 3-6 but had a 2.59 ERA, the lowest of any minor-leaguer in the Seattle farm system with at least 75 innings. He had 118 strikeouts and 39 walks in 111 innings; opponents hit .190 against him.

Ketchner isn't overpowering but has command of three pitches, mixing them up to keep hitters off balance. The changeup is his best pitch and sets up a fastball that pitching coach Scott Budner calls "sneaky fast."

Budner quickly learned how to deal with the prospect when Ketchner missed the first pitchers meeting after reporting 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."

Ketchner has performed so well that manager Steve Roadcap said if the Double-A San Antonio team needed a pitcher, Ryan would be the first to earn a promotion. Pitching mostly in relief, Ketchner is 4-1 with a 2.97 ERA, 42 strikeouts and only five walks in 301/3 innings.

As he has done in other cities, Ketchner is working with the staff at a school for the deaf. A number of students and parents came out to see him win his second start recently.

"It's obvious the talent he has, but he is also a great guy to have around the clubhouse," Budner said. "I think the other guys definitely look up to him. He would be a great role model for others because he doesn't ask for special treatment. He just goes out there and does his job."

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel