DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER READS LIPS SPEAKING ENGLISH AND SPANISH!

by Stan Griffin

If you could ask every hearing impaired person in this country, "Can you read lips?," you’d get a lot of "Yes" answers. However, change the question to: "Can you read lips in more than one language?", and the number of "Yes" answers will drop dramatically.

One who would answer "Yes" to the second question is Luis Figueroa, a 27-year-old infielder who is playing his tenth season of professional baseball this year for the Nashville Sounds. His two languages are English and Spanish.

Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico in 1977. At the age of six, he lost 3/4 of his ability to hear when an infection and high fever did considerable nerve damage. Within days, Figueroa was fitted with two powerful hearing aids which bring his hearing up to 50% of normal. (Even so, he is considered legally deaf.)

He began reading lips–in both languages– at an early age, learning his English from captions on TV sets. As a result, he never bothered to learn sign language. He says, "People who can’t hear need sign language. But I don’t need it."

Figueroa began his pro baseball career in 1994 when he became the property of the Seattle Mariners. He spent nine years working his way through their organization. Last season (2003), he played for the Tacoma Rainiers, a Seattle AAA farm team. This was his first complete year at that level, one step below the major leagues. He did well, batting .281, second highest on the club.

Over the winter (2003-2004), Figueroa played for the Carolina team in the Puerto Rican Winter League. His batting average of .422 led the league, and he was named to the Baseball America All-Star Team.

In February (2004) Figueroa was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent. They assigned him to the Nashville club where he is playing now. At the end of June, he was leading the team in hitting.

His age (27) is relatively advanced for a baseball player still in the minors, but he hopes to reach the major leagues eventually. Figueroa would like to follow in the footsteps of another deaf Sounds player. Curtis Pride is the only modern-era deaf player to make it in the majors, where he played in 350 games.

Figueroa found out early that excelling in his favorite sport–volleyball–would be difficult. "Volleyball is harder ... Everybody plays together and very close, and everybody is calling for the ball ..." Baseball, though, " ... featured space and silence ... (and) strategies and signs were often delivered ... by hand signals ..."

Figueroa occasionally speaks to schoolchildren in the U. S. and in Puerto Rico. His message to the hearing-impaired is optimistic. "I tell them you can do whatever you want to do. Anything is possible."

He likens life to a highway. "I enjoy (it) ... I set goals ... I don’t let ... being hearing impaired get in my way. It is only a speed bump ... (on his way to the major leagues)."