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Ketchner hears the call of the bigs02/23/2005 5:35 PM ET
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Jim Colborn, the Dodgers' multilingual pitching coach, was addressing his flock the other day when he caught the eye of Ryan Ketchner across the clubhouse.
Colborn and Ketchner had yet to meet, but the coach knew what he needed to know. He stopped talking, but suddenly spoke unexpected volumes. Using sign language he learned while growing up with a deaf best friend, Colborn spelled out: "Hi Ryan. My name is Jim, the ace pitching coach."
"That was awesome," said Ketchner, who was born virtually deaf. "It will be cool when I get to the Major Leagues. He doesn't have to come to the mound. He can communicate to me from the dugout with signs."
Ketchner is a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher who won't make the Major League team out of Spring Training because, among other reasons, he's recovering from October surgery to relocate the ulna nerve in his elbow.
But he has no doubt he will be a Major Leaguer and who's going to tell him otherwise? When he does, he will become what is believed to be the first deaf pitcher in the big leagues since Luther Taylor in 1908.
"That," he said, "would be cool."
Ketchner is on track to become this generation's Jim Abbott, who carved out a successful career as a left-handed pitcher without much of a right hand, and in the process became one of the game's most admired role models.
Ketchner, too, thinks only of the possible and makes it happen, to the delight of those similarly challenged.
"I had a dream, to play baseball," said Ketchner. "I can do that. When I was little, I saw Curtis Pride and he was deaf and he told me I could do it.
"My first year at short-season, low Single-A, a group of deaf kids came to watch me pitch in Everett, Wash. They were happy to see me play. After that, each year deaf kids come to my games. I show them it's no problem, you can do anything. Maybe you don't think you can, but you can."
Pride, also hearing- and speech-impaired, has been on the fringe of the Major Leagues for a decade and currently is in camp with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Pride is Ketchner's role model.
"I met him when I was in high school," said Ketcher, who is represented by Pride's agent, Joe Strasser. "He's been the example for me. I always want to know how he's doing."
Ketchner said the only obvious negative for a deaf pitcher is that the catcher can't talk to him from behind the plate without taking off his mask to allow Ketchner -- and anybody else -- to read his lips. On the other hand, said minor league pitching coordinator Rick Honeycutt, "He doesn't have to hear any of the bad stuff from the fans."
Ketchner was a 10th-round pick out of high school by Seattle, and was acquired by the Dodgers at the end of Spring Training last year with Aaron Looper for Jolbert Cabrera. He went 8-7 with a 3.02 ERA at Double-A last year, was a Southern League All-Star and was promoted in September to make one start at Triple-A, where he allowed one run in seven innings. His combined 2.92 ERA was second among Dodgers minor leaguers.
"The scouting report on Ryan was pretty right on," said Honeycutt. "Below-average fastball, good command, good changeup, okay breaking ball, good competitor, hearing impaired. We got him, we got to know him and fell in love with the guy.
"He already knows how to pitch. He works hard at every facet to compete. He's got no fear. When you're around somebody like that, somebody who has done what he's done in spite of it all, it makes you appreciate what you have and what you can accomplish."
Ketchner's parents weren't sure what was going on when Ryan was a toddler, but they suspected his silence wasn't a good sign. So at the age of 18 months he was tested, and that's when they learned he was deaf. He wears hearing aids, which allow him to hear muffled sounds and detect vibrations.
"You always think that will happen to somebody else's kid," said his mother, Kim. "There was no known history of that in the family. They still don't know how or why. It's a freak thing. He's missing hairs in the ear that transmit noise.
"But he's never used it as an excuse for anything. He wants to be treated like anybody else. He wants no concessions. He wants nobody to feel sorry for him. As we taught him, if you want to be a strong person, take what's dealt to you. You know, it could have been a lot worse. There are kids born without limbs."
Like Jim Abbott.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.