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April 29, 2006

An Uphill Battle

From: Washington Post - United States - Apr 29, 2006

Gallaudet Finishes Another Rough Season, but Remains Optimistic

By Sean P. Flynn
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 29, 2006; E03

Of the 18 players on the baseball team at Gallaudet University, only six played in high school. In a conference that features several of the best teams in Division III, the Bison have not won a league game in more than a decade and finished their season this week with a 4-30 record.

Yet despite the extraordinary challenges unique to a baseball team at the nation's only university for the deaf, the Bison keep plugging away for the 110th year in the school's history.

"Of course our goal is to win every game, like any other team," said Coach Jeff Salit, a 1986 graduate of the school who is deaf. "But we're in one of the toughest [Division III] conferences in the nation, so that's not an easy task. . . . These guys have made tremendous progress, and they've never given up. It's not all about winning and losing."

Five of Gallaudet's players went to high schools composed largely of hearing students, and of those five only one played for his high school baseball team; of the 13 players from high schools for the deaf, only five played for high school teams. Playing teams made up of lifelong players, Gallaudet's coaches, Salit and Kris Gould, are coaching fundamentals to their roster, which, like the school, includes players who range from partially to completely deaf.

Mitch Boehme, a junior infielder from Rio Medina, Tex., has started more than half of the Bison's games. Before arriving at Gallaudet, Boehme's baseball experience consisted of Pony League Baseball, which ended when he was 14 years old.

"When I entered Gallaudet, I realized that I really missed baseball since I was younger, so I decided to join Gallaudet baseball because I wanted to play," Boehme said. After six years away from the sport, "it was really hard to get back . . . my skills. However, I picked up my old skills and improved them to play for this team."

Some of the losses have been excruciating. On April 1, Gallaudet lost to Mary Washington 46-0 in seven innings, committing 13 errors and allowing 31 unearned runs while picking up only two hits. The loss was one of the worst in Division III history. Mary Washington was ranked 11th in Division III at the time.

While the school has discussed becoming an independent in baseball, Athletic Director James DeStefano said, it remains in the Capital Athletic Conference for baseball because of league rules requiring at least five varsity sports teams for each gender. DeStefano pointed to the success of other programs -- the volleyball team won a league title last year, and the men's basketball team finished fourth -- as to why the baseball team will stay in the CAC for the foreseeable future.

"Playing CAC teams helps us to prepare for the real world," DeStefano said. "I want our athletes to realize that playing these teams will help us realize that we may face them again in the real world -- the working world. . . . I hope they learn in the long run it will pay off to play against these teams."

DeStefano added, "As long as the student-athletes show interest, as long as we have a good number of athletes on the team, we will have a team."

Players such as Boehme are typical of the Gallaudet program, which draws from a remarkably small pool of players. It can be difficult for the team to recruit the highest-caliber deaf players, who often end up at other schools when they are good enough.

Additionally, only five high schools for the deaf in the country have baseball programs; Bill Jacobs, a freshman outfielder, played for the Texas School for the Deaf's team, but it disbanded before his junior year.

"I believe I've learned more in one year at Gallaudet than I did in all of high school," Jacobs said. "We have coaches who push us hard. They want to teach us how to be good players."

For the others who went to high schools composed mostly of hearing students, many saw their careers stunted by communication issues, as some of the players were relegated to right field by frustrated coaches. All of the players and coaches, though, insist that deafness has no bearing on a player's ability to play the game.

"My players strive to do their best to play against these conference teams despite their limited childhood baseball experiences," Salit said. "A baseball player is not necessary born, but can be created via persistence, patience and determination like our deaf players."

That persistence was evident to George Washington pitching coach Jim Mason, who got his first collegiate job working at Gallaudet under Salit in 1993 and '94. Mason, who is not deaf, said one of his most vivid memories from that job was walking into a dorm and seeing seven of the players watching an instructional video. One of the players, who had partial hearing, was interpreting the words being said on the video for his teammates.

"I'm not sure I've ever been associated with a group of players that was as tight-knit and united as the groups I coached at Gallaudet," Mason said. "They were incredibly hard-working and incredibly resilient."

Salit has continued with the team -- after long days working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- despite what may seem like a constant uphill battle. A Long Island native and the son of hearing parents, Salit played baseball for many years and has coached several national deaf teams. He was with Gallaudet for seven years starting in 1989, took a three-year break and rejoined the program in 1998.

He said part of the drive to stay with the team comes from giving inexperienced players the chance to play the sport they hadn't gotten the chance to play earlier in their lives.

"One of my greatest pleasures as a baseball coach at Gallaudet is to see the players utilize their skills and my teachings into their games as well as in life," Salit said.

While the talent level may be less than that at some other schools, the players and coaches insist that their goals are the same. With 10 freshmen on the roster, the Bison look to a future in which they can win a CAC game. In the meantime, the players get to learn a sport they love, even if it comes a few years later than their opponents.

"It's good experience even though we aren't nearly as good as some of the teams in our conference," said sophomore Ryan Lentz, who has partial hearing and played for his high school's team in Fremont, Calif. "It will help us out in the long run. . . . It's a great experience to play college baseball. I don't care about the record we have. I just love to play baseball."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company