Minor League Baseball
Breaking through the sound barrier
Seattle Times staff reporter
Luis Figueroa pays no attention to people who say he'll never amount to anything in baseball. He doesn't listen to negative talk. He just won't hear of it. He doesn't even react when opposing fans harass him.
It's not that he's impervious. He just has an option few ballplayers have: He turns off his hearing aid.
Figueroa, the starting third baseman for the Tacoma Rainiers, is legally deaf. When he was 6 and home in Puerto Rico, he developed a high fever and lost more than 90 percent of his hearing.
He can pick up some noise and vibrations with the use of the hearing aid, but he communicates mostly by reading lips, in both Spanish and English.
"He's an equal guy to us," said Tacoma left fielder Adrian Myers, who has been his teammate the past three seasons. "It amazes me the way he's able to play the game. A lot of deaf people would have just given up on the game. But he's determined to get to the big leagues. You look at him — this guy can play."
Figueroa, 26, signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1995, has hit around .300 for most of his healthy seasons in the minor leagues. He hit .345 for San Antonio and San Bernardino last season. He's at .312 this season for the Rainiers. He leads the regulars with 25 walks and has the fewest strikeouts, just 16 in 234 at-bats.
He has one fewer sense than the rest of his teammates, but he's just one notch below his dream of becoming a big-leaguer. His story would be regarded as exceptional, if not for one thing: There are two deaf players in the Mariners' system.
Left-handed pitcher Ryan Ketchner is a standout for Class A Inland Empire. He is 6-3 with a 4.19 earned-run average. He has struck out 74 and walked only 13 in 68-2/3 innings, and opponents are hitting .248 against him. He is one of two on his club selected for the Cal League All-Star Game next week.
"The only other deaf player I know of was Curtis Pride (who hit .256 for four major-league teams from 1993-2001)," said Benny Looper, the Mariners' farm director. "I don't know of any others. There probably are, but I'd say it's highly unusual."
Ketchner, who was born deaf, uses Pride as his role model. They talk frequently through e-mail.
Ketchner also makes sure that he acknowledges youngsters who may idolize him. He recently hosted a large group of students from the nearby California School for the Deaf, Riverside.
"Ketchner may be the most popular player in San Bernardino since (Ken) Griffey was there," said Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners' vice president for player development. "He is a very personable kid. He had really taken over in popularity. I was shocked sitting there with him. Person after person would come up to him."
Figueroa is equally motivated, especially during the offseason, when he returns to his island home. He visits schools for the deaf to inspire the children.
"I talk to kids in Puerto Rico a lot, to encourage them to do anything they want," said Figueroa, who can speak well. "I say, 'Don't be embarrassed. Just be yourself and keep trying. It's only one thing, you can't hear. Don't feel bad about it. There are a couple guys in baseball who can't hear anything and they're still playing.' "
Rainiers catcher Julio Mosquera is Figueroa's roommate and unofficial interpreter.
"I make him try to get it," Mosquera said. "He's counting on me now, but I tell him, 'You're not always going to have that person there for you.' He has to try. He's pretty good about it, and when he doesn't understand something, I tell him. We're always together. He can understand everything I say.
"I don't look at him like he has any problems. That's a good thing for all of us."
Rainiers manager Dan Rohn joked that he has threatened "to get him an Outback (waiting list) buzzer so I can use it whenever I need to move him back in the field. I don't see any limitations with him. I just have to warn the third-base coach that he won't answer him."
There is an issue, however, over communication on pop-ups. Figueroa said "it's just instincts" for him go after a ball without regard for other fielders also tracking it. In 1997, while playing for Wisconsin, he collided with shortstop Ramon Vazquez and suffered a season-ending broken wrist.
Figueroa, although still aggressive, is more cautious now. He tries to take a quick glance at other fielders, who have learned to wave wildly when calling for pop-ups.
"To me, hearing is especially important in the field," said Jalal Leach, who plays left field at times for the Rainiers. "You need to hear the crack of the ball on the bat to know how to judge it. His vision must be real good. I know it is, hitting 3-something and he doesn't strike out much."
As a pitcher, Ketchner doesn't have to worry as much about pop-ups because infielders generally take over on balls in the infield. But he has to understand what's going on in team meetings. He has an obliging teammate who cares about his welfare, outfielder Greg Jacobs.
Jacobs, who also made the Cal League All-Star team and is hitting .338, has an older brother, Brett Jacobs, who developed spinal meningitis at 2 and became deaf. That gave him sensitivity in dealing with the hearing-impaired.
"I think when you're younger it's tough," Jacobs said. "Kids make stupid comments. Ketch has the respect as an athlete. The pitcher is the center of attention. He's doing what he's doing deaf and doing it well. I'm amazed and shocked and have so much respect for him."
Ketchner, 21, the Mariners' 10th-round draft choice in 2000 out of John I. Leonard (Fla.) High School, has a fastball in the upper 80s, a curveball and an excellent changeup. That changeup makes his fastball appear even faster and is the reason he has so many strikeouts. He is among the organization's better prospects but needs to develop his repertoire.
"He has pitched well," Jongewaard said. "He's not a hard thrower, but he knows how to pitch. He has pitching instincts. He competes. He has done a nice job. He really has been a nice surprise for us."
Figueroa is further up the baseball ladder, but there is still the question whether he can take the final step. He's not very fast and doesn't have the power desired in a third baseman, with just 15 career home runs.
"He has always hit, but he's limited at third," Jongewaard said. "He does not run well at all. He's a pure hitter, using the whole field, but does not profile (well) for third base. Being a third baseman and not hitting home runs, you'd have to hit for an awfully high average."
But Figueroa does have an advantage.
"This guy can tune out the crowd just like that," Myers said. "A lot of guys try to rag on Figgy. I look at them and think, 'You're wasting your breath.' "
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