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Sunday, July 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

AquaSox hurler brings new signs to team

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EVERETT - Last week, before the game, in the Everett AquaSox bullpen, Ryan Ketchner met with a group of hearing impaired children from Snohomish County. They watched with rapt attention as the Everett pitcher rapidly spoke to them in sign language.

"I talked to them about baseball and also talked to them about how my life was and how their life was going to be growing up," Ketchner said last week. "I told them they could do anything they wanted. I told them, when I was little, some people made fun of me, but not anymore."

When Ketchner's parents discovered their son was hearing impaired they had two choices. They could shelter him, protect him from the inevitable insensitivities of playmates and classmates. Or they could treat him like any other son or daughter and let him know he wasn't different from any of his friends.

"Ketch definitely falls into the latter category. He does not let his disability affect his life in any way," said Everett Manager Terry Pollreisz. "He's got a great attitude about things. The way he goes about things, if it wasn't for seeing the hearing aids, you almost would not know that he had a disability. He's become tremendously independent."

Ketchner was 18 months old when his parents were told what they already suspected. Their son was deaf. Even with hearing aids, he only would be able to hear vibrations.

"It's one of those things you never think happens to one of your children," Kim Ketchner said by telephone from Lantana, Fla. "It happens to someone else's child. But we never let it keep Ryan from doing anything.

"We told him he could do anything he wanted to do. We've always told him to go for it. I think baseball helped him a lot. Kids stopped teasing him when they found out how good he was."

When he pitches for the AquaSox, he doesn't hear the infield chatter. He can't hear the crowd cheering him when he leaves the field.

His world is quieter, but not terribly different. Ketchner communicates through sign language and reads lips well. He speaks slowly, but over time, his teammates have been able to understand him.

"He's one of the most talkative guys on the team," roommate Skip Wiley said.

Wiley knew Ketchner in high school in Florida. They grew up 45 minutes apart and played in some of the same American Legion and Showcase games. When both were chosen by the Mariners in the 2000 draft - Ketchner in the 10th round, Wiley in the 13th - and sent to Peoria, it seemed natural they would room together. Now they are best friends.

"When we first were roommates I really didn't understand him too well," Wiley said. "I couldn't communicate with him that well. But Ketch took it upon himself to teach me sign language. Once I started to pick it up a little bit, he didn't tell me I was slow. He was patient with me. Now I'm to the point when I can sign pretty fast.

"When we were first roommates, it was really hard. At first I didn't understand what he was saying. But it was just a matter of getting used to his voice. I was a little shaky about it at first, but it all came together when I learned the signing. Now a lot of the other guys are learning."

The Northwest League is a difficult life for anyone. Long bus rides. Lousy per diems. Too many Big Macs. A lot of lonely nights spent a long way from home. It is hard for any young player to handle, but no more difficult for Ketchner.

"The fact that he doesn't hear has not been a problem," Pollreisz said. "He's not going to let it be. He's a very focused young man, and maybe that disability has become a strength. He operates very well. When we're around him a lot we don't think about him as having a problem."

Ketchner, 19, is a left-hander with three pitches and throws them all for strikes. He has allowed only three earned runs in his first 9-2/3 innings with Everett. Still, he has years to go before the big leagues. And the odds against him remain staggering. But Ketchner doesn't pay attention to odds. He doesn't believe in disabilities. He's done whatever he's wanted to do.

"When he's on the mound, they really don't even know he's hearing impaired," Wiley said. "He doesn't let it affect him at all on the baseball field.

"I'd never been around anybody with a disability before, but now that I've been around him, he's just like everybody else.

"He talks as much as anybody else. Everything doesn't come out right at first, but he tries and you can understand him. And I've learned from him. Learned to treat everybody the same. Everybody."

Ryan Ketchner can't hear, but he can pitch. That's all you really need to know about him.

Steve Kelley can be reached at 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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