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The Loudest Cheer

by Michael Bowker

In the history of baseball, few players with his handicap had made it to the Major Leagues. But Curtis Pride had some special reasons to keep trying...

Slumped on the locker-room bench, the young ballplayer was oblivious to the noise of showers and banging lockers of the other players. Curtis Pride was trying to concentrate his thoughts.

The past few weeks had been difficult. He had broken up with his girlfriend, and he missed his family back home in Silver Spring, Md. Now, his minor-league team, the Binghamton (N.Y.) Mets, had lost another game. Pride had struck out, extending a batting slump that summer of 1992.

As Pride pulled off his jersey, he felt as low as he could get. Then turning his head suddenly, he caught sight of his teammates. One was gaping stupidly, in mocking fashion. Another held his hand behind his ear as if he were deaf. Others were laughing. When they saw Pride looking, they stopped and turned to their lockers.

Curt fought for breath. My own teammates! Anger overwhelmed him, and he stood and faced the taunting players. The locker room grew quiet as Pride, fists clenched, his powerful six-foot frame tensed, walked slowly toward the two men.

They watched warily as Pride stopped just inches away. "I can't hear you, but I can feel, just like you," he said in carefully measured tones. "My handicap is deafness. Yours is intolerance. I'd rather have mine."

The players were surprised by the eloquent words, so unlike what is usually heard in a locker room. They looked away, embarrassed.

As he turned to leave, Pride suddenly wanted to quit. All his progress, the years of effort and sacrifice, seemed to come to nothing. His dream of becoming a Major League baseball player, the first deaf one in nearly 50 years, was fading.

When their robust baby boy Curtis was born in December 1968, Sallie Pride, a registered nurse, and her husband, John, a consulting firm executive, were ecstatic.

By the time Curt was five months old, however, Sallie decided that her boy's vocal sounds, which were often high-pitched screeches, did not seem normal. One morning Sallie and John sat Curt down on a rug and knelt behind him. "Curt," Sallie called out softly. The boy didn't respond. Then John called, louder. Curt didn't move. Finally, desperate, John shouted, "Curtis!" There was no response.

Sallie looked at her husband with tears in her eyes. "Our baby can't hear us," she said. Doctors never found the cause.

With an irreversible 95-percent hearing loss, Curt attended special classes in his Washington, D.C., suburb. But the studious boy never learned sign language. Instead, Sallie and John chose a program to help their son read lips. They were aware that some children who used sign language would never learn to speak because they could fall back on the signing when they were misunderstood.

"He feels isolated enough already, " John told Sallie. Then he added, "I think sports might help. He can meet other kids and compete on an equal footing." Sallie agreed, and six-year-old Curt was enrolled in a local Tee-ball league, a youth version of baseball.

Curt came to the plate in his first game with a runner on base. Sallie and John watched from the stands as he hit the ball over the center fielder's head. Curt flew around first and caught up with the other runner before they reached second. Unsure of the rules, Curt hesitated, then darted around the slower boy.

Laughing, Sallie and John shouted, "No! No!" But Curt, his eyes alive with excitement, tore around third and raced home. "I'm going to be a baseball player!" he repeated over and over that night.

In fourth grade, Curt was allowed to take some regular classes with hearing students. "I'm finally going to be with all the other kids," he told his mother excitedly. But the first day, Curt came home vowing never to return. Boys had taunted him in the hallways and on the playground, mocking his different speech.

Sallie wrapped her arms around her son. "There will always be cruel people," she said, holding him for a long moment. "But you can never, ever let them stop you from doing what you want to do."

From that day forward, Curt wore his mother's advice like armor.

In seventh grade, Curt was given the choice of continuing his special classes or attending a nearby junior high. Against the advice of school authorities, Curt chose the neighborhood school. "I know I can do it," he pleaded. His parents agreed.

Curt's teachers tried to remember that he depended on lip-reading, but on occasion they forgot and spoke facing the blackboard. Outside class, Curt struggled futility to follow the other students' conversations.

By the end of the first week, he knew he needed help. During a Saturday game of catch, he talked it out with his father. "Sometimes," John told him, "you have to be brave enough to trust someone."

The following Monday, when a shy student named Steve Grupe sat down beside him, Curt took that chance. "Hi, I'm Curt Pride, and I'm having a little trouble," he said. "I wonder if you can help."

To his relief, the boy smiled. "Sure," said Steve, who knew Curt's reputation as an athlete, "if you give me some baseball pointers!"

The boys became inseparable, studying at each other's houses and playing soccer and baseball in the park. Steve helped Curt take notes, and when teachers turned their backs in class, he mouthed their words. As Curt, excelling in sports, became popular in school, he introduced Steve to everyone he met.

Curt's athletic gifts became brilliantly apparent in high school, where he won national recognition in soccer and set school records in basketball. But baseball was his first love. After high school, he was drafted by the New York Mets and also accepted a basketball scholarship from the College of William and Mary.

Going to college meant missing much of the season with the Mets' farm teams each year. Not until he graduated could Pride turn to baseball full time. In 1991 at the Mets' level-A farm club in the Florida State League, he attended spring training and played a full season for the first time. The year proved disappointing. Though Curt was good enough to get promoted to the Binghamton AA team in 1992, he didn't feel he was considered a strong Major League prospect. In Binghamton his play deteriorated. Finally, he was benched. Pride became withdrawn. Then the locker-room taunting occurred, deepening his summer slump.

Feeling despondent, Pride called his parents on his text telephone, a computer like machine with a keyboard and small screen. "I think the Mets have lost faith in me," he typed. "I'm not sure I want to go on."

That night, John and Sallie drove to Binghamton. The next morning they took Curt to breakfast near the team's hotel. "Honor your commitment to finish the season," his father advised. "Then if you choose not to play baseball, that's fine. Just make sure it's your decision."

At home in Silver Spring after the season ended, Pride thought seriously about giving up on baseball. In the back of his mind, he began to think that deafness really was too big an obstacle to overcome. Then something changed his mind.

Curt Pride returned to a job he had enjoyed during the previous off season, helping students with learning and physical disabilities at his old high school. Now he was asked to tutor a class of ninth-graders.

On his first day, Pride sat beside a dark-haired boy. "I don't need your help," the boy snapped. "Stay away."

All the students were watching, and Pride knew he was being tested. "I'm only here to help show you what you can do," he responded, "not tell you what you can't."

Within a week, the students were peppering Pride with questions about baseball and being deaf. Then one day, the dark-haired boy asked Pride, "Aren't you afraid people are laughing behind your back?"

"You just have to be tough enough to ignore them," Pride answered. "What matters isn't what they think, but what you think about yourself."

On his last day, the entire class crowded around. "You're cool, man. We'll be following your career," said one boy who later surprised teachers by making the honor roll.

Pride scanned their faces. How could he admit that his own challenge was too great? "I'd be letting them, and myself, down if I quit now," he later told his mother.

Before baseball season began, Pride got an offer from the Montreal Expos. As a free agent, Pride could sign with any club. When the Expos promised he would play every day, he quickly agreed.

At the team's Harrisburg, Pa., farm club, manager Jim Tracy knew Pride's strengths--and his weaknesses. He persuade Pride to quit thinking about home runs and concentrate on getting on base, where he could take advantage of his speed.

Pride started the 1993 season brimming with confidence. Hitting to all fields, he tore up the league. In late June, Pride was promoted to the Expos' AAA farm club in Ottawa. He continued his torrid hitting, and by September he was wondering whether he would get a shot at the Majors that season.

On the morning of September 11, Pride was outside the Ottawa locker room when one of the players said manager Mike Quade wanted to see him. Pride and his teammates had been playing good-natured jokes on one another, and Pride figured he was being set up.

He walked cautiously into the locker room and saw Quade, smiling, on the telephone. From across the room, he lip-read Quade's final sentence: "Yeah, I'll tell Curt he's being called up."

Pride felt a thrill. He was being called up to the Major Leagues!

Curt Pride was startled when Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou yelled out his name. The Philadelphia Phillies were leading Montreal 7-4 in the seventh inning. With one out and two runners on base, Pride thought Alou would send in a more experienced pinch hitter. But Alou was calling him.

In his first time at bat a few days before, Pride had driven the ball deep to right. "I can hit Major League pitching!" he told his parents. Now his old friend Steve Grupe was in the stands to watch him play, and his new team was depending on him.

Bobby Thigpen, the Phillies' flame throwing relief pitcher, was on the mound. As Pride gripped the bat, Thigpen fired a hard slider. Pride waited; then at the last moment his bat exploded across the plate. The ball shot like a bullet between the outfielders and bounced all the way to the wall.

Racing around first, Pride slid into second in a cloud of dust. Safe! Both runners scored! In the stands, Steve Grupe leapt up, pummeled the air with his fists and whooped.

Excited, Pride looked to third-base coach Jerry Manuel to see if he had the green light to steal on the next pitch. But Manuel was motioning to the stands. Pride looked up. All 45,000 fans were on their feet, stamping and cheering.

As Pride stood, frozen, the thunderous ovation continued. Manuel, tears welling in his eyes, motioned for Curt to doff his cap.

Then, as the stamping and cheering reached crescendo, something incredible happened. It started as a vibrating rumble, then grew more intense until, for the first time in his life, Curt Pride actually heard people cheering for him. The silent curtain that had separated him from his dream had parted.

Montreal Expo Curtis Pride Proved his big-league potential that first season with four hits in nine at bats-a .444 average. In addition to his double, he banged a triple and a home run.

"My message for people with disabilities--or to any person who has been told he can't do something--is simple," says Pride. "Ignore it. The answers are inside your own heart."

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