Deaf icon Curtis Pride bringing big-league game to Gallaudet

Deaf icon Curtis Pride bringing big-league game to Gallaudet

By Mel Antonen, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Concerned he’d lost passion for school and feeling a need to
work with his hands, Danny Gabel left Gallaudet University in 1999 to become
a carpenter and figured he’d never return to the world’s only liberal arts
college for the deaf.

But a decade later, Gabel reconsidered, thanks to the only man who could
change his mind.

When Gallaudet hired Curtis Pride to coach its baseball team, the move
served two purposes: It gave a woebegone Division III program credibility by
snagging an 11-year major leaguer to lead it. And it gave deaf athletes
nationwide a chance to play for an iconic figure in their community.

So last fall Gabel left New York to re-enroll at Gallaudet, majoring in deaf
studies and history. This spring, he is a 30-year-old junior left-handed
pitcher. Playing for Pride, if you will.

“Curtis Pride is a hero in the deaf community,” Gabel says through an
interpreter. “He’s exciting and gives hope. It’s amazing to be playing for
the guy I loved watching as a kid. He’s inspirational, someone that I look
up to.”

In parts of 11 seasons, Pride racked up 199 hits and had a .250 batting
average, his value lying in his speed and left-handed bat off the bench.

But his modest accomplishments were burnished by the fact he was the only
deaf player in the modern era, inspiring Gabel, for one, to seek his
autograph and collect 98 of his baseball cards.

Now Pride, 41, who was born deaf and learned to lip-read and speak as a
child, hopes to turn his inspiration into victories, vowing to make
Gallaudet good enough to someday qualify for the NCAA Division III

That’s a big task, considering the school on Capitol Hill has had two
winning seasons since World War II; banners hanging in the gymnasium honor
teams from 1966 and 1977 that finished with 7-5 records. Pride acknowledges
that the caliber of play at Gallaudet has been substandard.

“I want these kids to play like real players,” says Pride, who last played
in the majors with the 2006 Los Angeles Angels and concluded his career in
2008 in the unaffiliated Atlantic League.

“I want to teach these guys how to be committed. I want them to take it
seriously and teach them to play the right way. We have not improved much
from last year. We have a lot of work to do — but will get better.”

History of losing

Last season, Pride’s first, the Bison made 119 errors in 32 games while
opponents blistered their pitching at a .336 clip, 110 points higher than
the Bison’s average. In six games the last two seasons, Salisbury (Md.), a
Division III powerhouse, beat them by a combined score of 106-0.

The Bison are 4-33, and their final game is at home today. They have twice
lost by scores of 24-0 and 17-0, along with 20-0, 22-0 and 26-7 setbacks.

They also found a sliver of hope: They beat Stevenson University (Baltimore)
5-3 to end a 150-game losing streak in the Capital Athletic Conference.

The victory was so unlikely that since it came on April Fools’ Day, family
and friends did not believe the news.

“It was nerve-racking,” says Pride, who has a picture in his office of the
Bison players piling on each other in celebration.

There was another celebration of sorts Monday afternoon at the White House.
As guests of President Obama, the Bison watched as the World Series champion
New York Yankees, a team Pride once played for, were honored. Some Yankees
stopped to hug Pride and wish him luck, and the Bison shook the president’s

Major league moments

Pride was born deaf after his mother contracted rubella during her
pregnancy. As a kid, he says, peers teased him about the way he spoke and
the “funny thing” he had in his ear.

He grew up in Silver Spring, Md., a D.C. suburb, earned a finance degree
from the College of William & Mary and was drafted by the New York Mets in

He played seven minor league seasons, made the big leagues with the Montreal
Expos in 1993 and wound up playing for top-notch managers Bobby Cox, Joe
Torre, Mike Scioscia and Felipe Alou. While Pride’s major league stats were
modest, he had his moments.

With the Expos, Pride hit the second big-league pitch he saw for a two-run
double and got a five-minute standing ovation in Montreal. “It was emotional
because they had heard my story,” Pride says. “They knew I had achieved my

In 2003, he hit his only home run for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in a
July win vs. the Boston Red Sox. Torre and pitcher Roger Clemens pushed him
out of the dugout to take a curtain call.

“He had determination and just kept pursuing his career,” Torre says. “So
many players in our clubhouse gravitated toward him because of his

The next season, Pride was on the Anaheim Angels’ playoff roster after
getting a key pinch-hit double in a game vs. the Texas Rangers, extending
the game into extra innings. The Angels won in 11 and clinched three days

Pride retired in 2008, at 39, after a toe injury made the decision easier
for him.

When the coaching job opened, Pride was the obvious choice, Bison athletics
director Michael Weinstock says. Pride says he had several overtures from
major league organizations to work as a coach or scout. After Weinstock
called, it took Pride three months to decide to come.

Pride and his wife, Lisa, a former TV reporter who covered him in the
majors, and their children, Noelle and Colten, live in Wellington, Fla., and
Pride commutes.

“His name is well-known in the deaf community,” Weinstock says. “It’s a
dream come true for a lot of these athletes. He can open a lot of doors for

Pride has gone from the big-league dugout to teaching the basics. When Pride
arrived, the biggest problem was the players’ inexperience. Players didn’t
know how to properly grip the ball. “They were gripping it like a softball,”
says Pride, who did not learn sign language until he arrived at Gallaudet.

Pride says his players’ deafness is a challenge when it comes to hearing the
ball off the bat, catching flies and throwing to cutoff men. He says he’s
trying to teach them to be instinctive.

Of the 15 players on the season-ending roster, 10 are freshmen or
sophomores. Pride wants to find pitchers and aggressive players “who will go
from first to third (base), dive for balls and be willing to get hit by a

He has much knowledge to impart. He says Scioscia taught him the value of
aggressive baserunning. Torre and Alou gave him confidence, and Cox taught
him communication.

“Bobby let everyone know their roles and made me feel part of the team even
though I was a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter,” Pride says.

Scioscia says Pride was a terrific athlete and teammate. “He worked hard to
become a good player. One thing that sticks in my mind was how much he
studied and understood the strategy. He was very intuitive, and this will
aid in his coaching,” Scioscia says.

Hard finding talent

Pride is uncertain about his future aspirations but says he wanted to leave
the pro game for coaching and says, “We can do something special here.”

But finding deaf baseball players isn’t easy. Weinstock said there are five
deaf high schools that have programs, with two in California and others in
Indiana, Maryland and D.C.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Weinstock says. “But Curtis has
his own network for finding kids.

“A lot of times, instead of finding them, they find us because of Curtis’
name recognition.”

Pride estimates his pool of potential recruits is between 20 and 30. “Half
of them aren’t good enough to play, and the other half are being recruited
by Division I and Division II schools,” he says.

Nonetheless, Pride says his next recruiting class consists of five “Division
I-type players … who are going to help.”

His current players say Pride gives them hope and the ability to empathize.

“We’re improving,” says sophomore pitcher Jeremy Shepps, who knew of Pride
since 2001. “There’s a big difference between before and after Coach Pride.”

A member of Pride’s first recruiting class, Billy Bissell, an all-state
baseball and football player from Brewer, Maine, was attracted by the chance
to play for Pride in an atmosphere where there were deaf classmates.

Bissell’s mom, Lynn, said her son couldn’t be happier. She said he felt the
sting of discrimination growing up.

“It was a small number of coaches that said he couldn’t play, but it was
just enough to hurt him,” Lynn says. “My son has a ‘I’ll-show-them’
attitude. Billy was mesmerized by Pride. He went to Gallaudet because of

Gabel, who has one year of eligibility remaining, feels that way, too. He
grew up on Staten Island, N.Y., and has 15 of Pride’s bats and 20 of his

Gabel was at Yankee Stadium the night Pride hit his home run. He has
pictures of himself with Pride in a Yankees uniform and another in a Red Sox

He was working in Manhattan when his mom sent him a message about Pride’s

“I thought it was impossible,” he says. “It was the best news for the deaf
community. It’s a thrill. When I was young, I had to chase him down. Now,
he’s my friend.”


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