"I'M NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING!"
by Stan Griffin
At the age of six, Curtis Pride played one T-ball game and then said, "I'm going to be a baseball player." Twelve years later, he signed a contract to play for the major league New York Mets. In the intervening years, he was: (1) an outstanding high school athlete excelling in baseball, soccer, basketball, wrestling, swimming, track, and gymnastics; (2) named as one of the top 15 youth soccer players in the world (the only American) and a member of the U.S. National All-Star Soccer Team which traveled to China to compete for the 1985 Junior World Cup; (3) a "Parade Magazine" high school basketball All-American and a four-year starter as point guard on the College of William and Mary basketball team. On every one of those squads, Curtis was the only hearing-impaired athlete.
Curtis' parents became aware of his deafness when he was 17 months old. He was diagnosed as "congenitally deaf with a profound (95%) sensorineural loss." (In other words, he lost all but 5% of his ability to hear.) During the time Sally Pride was pregnant with Curtis, she was struck by rubella (German measles). The year was 1968, there was a national outbreak of the disease, and it took away most of Curtis' hearing.
John Pride moved his family in 1971 from Washington, D.C. to Silver Springs, Maryland. Curtis spent the first three years of his schooling in special education oral classes. Beginning with grade 4, he was "mainstreamed" (put into classes with hearing students). He followed his mother's advice when being teased and pushed around by other students: "You can never, ever let them (his tormentors) stop you from doing what you want to do." Curtis finally knocked down one of them to earn their respect.
From the beginning, Curtis refused to learn sign language, preferring to depend on lip reading. He wore a hearing aid, but it usually produced only "an undecipherable noise."
When it was time to enter junior high school, Curtis insisted on staying in the public school system (against the advice of his parents). Through his high school years, Curtis was the only hearing-impaired student.
At John F. Kennedy High School, Curtis worked hard in the classroom. He was described as an "A" student, graduating in 1986 with a 3.6 grade point average. He had always been "crazy about sports," and his parents encouraged him. He broke several county records (single season and career) for soccer, basketball, and baseball. His basketball skills earned him a full scholarship at the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, Va.). But baseball was his first love.
Curtis was a 10th-round free agent amateur-draft pick by the National League's New York Mets. He wanted to play pro baseball, but he also wanted to use his basketball scholarship at William and Mary, believing that " ... education was very important." So he worked out an unusual deal whereby he played baseball during the summers. Each fall, the Mets would release him, and he would attend college until the following summer. At that time he would re-sign, and this cycle repeated itself for four years.
An N.C.A.A. (National Collegiate Athletic Association) ruling made it possible for Curtis to remain an amateur in all sports except baseball. As a result, during the time he was attending college he was allowed to compete in basketball. His participation was a resounding success; he was a varsity starter for all four years.
Curtis graduated from William and Mary in 1990 with a degree in Finance. As much as he loved baseball, he realized that " ... there are no guarantees ..." and "I need something to fall back on."
Because of his part-time status with the Mets, Pride's pro baseball career "got off to a frustrating start." During his four college years, he missed spring training and ultimately half of the season. After seven years with Mets' minor league teams, he had advanced only as high as the "AA" classification. (Baseball minor leagues are categorized from D up to AAA.) By that time, Curtis was "not considered a major league prospect" by the parent team.
In 1993 Curtis became a free agent (allowed to sign with any team); he accepted an offer from the Montreal Expos who promised to give him more playing time.
His first year as a Montreal "farmhand" was on a "AA" team. He was so successful that by June was advanced to their "AAA" team, one step below the major leagues. His play continued to improve, and he was called up to Montreal in September, becoming the first hearing-impaired player at that level in almost 50 years. His combined statistics for 1993 showed his batting average to be .324 with 21 home runs and 50 stolen bases.
Pride stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 195 pounds. He bats lefthanded and is a righthand-throwing outfielder. He is described as a "powerful, aggressive player" and a "terrific fastball hitter," according to Expos manager Felipe Alou.
1994 was baseball's "Year of the Strike." Pride had no chance to return to Montreal until June, 1995. He played in 48 games there, half of them as a pinch-hitter. Sent down to the "AAA" Ottawa team, he helped them win an International League championship.
In 1996 Curtis signed with the American League's Detroit team. His first year as a Tiger found him appearing in 95 games, 31 of them as a "designated hitter." He finished with a batting average of .300.
Pride's 1997 season was disappointing. He appeared in only 79 games for the Tigers (approximately half of those played) with a batting average barely above the .200 mark. In the latter part of August, Pride was released by Detroit. On August 31, the Boston Red Sox announced that he had been signed to a "AAA" contract with their Pawtucket, R. I. team. On September 10, Pride and three others were called up to the major league team. During the remainder of the season, Curtis had two plate appearances with the Red Sox, and he managed to get one hit.
Curtis Pride has been a spokesman for the Better Hearing Institute. He has made many benefit appearances, using every opportunity to encourage young people with disabilities. For the past several years he has spent the off-season as a special education instructional assistant in Montgomery County, Maryland (including his old high school). There he works with physically- and learning-disabled students. He also volunteers as an assistant soccer coach.
Curtis has received recognition for his achievements and community service. Some of his honors are: (1) William and Mary's "William Kratzer Award," presented to exceptional seniors; (2) the National Council on Communicative Disorders' Youth Achievement Award; (3) the "Washington Post's" All-Met Distinguished Alumni Award; and (4) being named one of 1995's "Ten Outstanding Young Americans" by the U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Speaking of his deafness, Curtis has said: "My handicap forces me to focus better ... I can't let my mind wander." He said that it " ... taught me not to quit, not to need sympathy from people or have them treat me differently."
Pride is "looking forward to next year." (1998) He said that he believes Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette "knows the type of player I am ... and I feel Boston will give me a lot of opportunity."
"PRIDE OF THE YANKEES"
Only the fifth deaf player to reach the major leagues, Curtis Pride hasn't given up his boyhood dream: "I'm going to be a baseball player." Throughout his life, he has excelled in other sports: soccer, basketball, wrestling, swimming, track, and gymnastics. In all of them, he was the only hearing-impaired athlete participating.
Pride describes himself as "determined," "motivated," and "stubborn." His parents " ... taught him to believe in himself ... pursue his goals ... go after his dreams." Since the age of 17 months, he has had to contend with a 95 per cent loss of his natural ability to hear. Pride wears a hearing aid in his left ear and is an expert lipreader.
Pride signed with the New York Mets in 1989 and played part-time for their minor league teams while completing his education at the College of William and Mary. (He received a degree in Finance in 1990). Missing spring training each year and about half of each season conspired to keep him from achieving his full potential. After seven years with with Met farm teams, Pride had only advanced as high as the Double A leagues. New York made him a free agent in 1993, and the Montreal Expos signed him that same year.
Since then, Pride has played with four other teams: Detroit, Boston, Atlanta (and most recently the New York Yankees). After 17 years in pro baseball, he had played in 349 big league games in parts of five seasons, compiling a batting average of .256. He bounced between the majors and minors, "never gaining a foothold with any one team."
Pride missed just about all of the 1999 season with a ruptured tendon in his right wrist (caused by a home plate collision). A tendon transplant was needed for this injury.
He played the entire 2002 season with Nashville (a Pittsburgh Pirate Triple A farm team) and was sure he would get a chance with a major league club after finishing with a .300 batting average. Pride was disappointed when he received no offers. So he signed with Nashua (New Hampshire) in the independent Atlantic League. (Coincidentally this team was called the "Pride"!) He made an impression on the New York Yankees who signed him to a contract for their Triple A Columbus (Ohio) minor league team. At age 34, on July 2, he was "called up" by the Yankees to replace an injured player. This was to be his first big league season since 2001.
When he got the news, Pride called his parents by TDD, a teletypewriter device used by the deaf for telephone communication. His mother and father, along with one of his sisters, came to New York City for the Yankees' series with Boston. They wanted to attend the week-end games on the off-chance Curtis might be called on to pinchrun. They were surprised when they found that he was scheduled to start in right field for the Independence Day game.
Pride provided some of the fireworks in a 7-1 Yankee victory with a towering, leadoff home run in the sixth inning. The crowd of 55,000 erupted in prolonged cheers. Pride said he could hear them "a little bit ... (as) ,,, "vibrations," but he had no idea how loud the fans were or that they wanted him to take a "curtain call." The Yankee manager pushed him out of the dugout to acknowledge their applause. Pride said this was a "very emotional experience" and that he had "teary eyes."
Throughout his career Curtis Pride has received requests from parents and teachers to meet with hearing impaired children. He has made many benefit appearances, using every opportunity to encourage young people with disabilities.
It remains to be seen, as Pride's baseball career winds down, whether July 4, 2003 will become his "last hurrah" or will be the "launch pad" for a new and exciting chapter in his life story. Regardless, he will always have that "memorable afternoon" in Yankee pinstripes. As he put it: "To be ... a Yankee and hit a home run in Yankee Stadium for my first hit, it's just a day I'll never forget. It's almost like a dream."
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