Here in Daniel Boone country, Curtis Pride's star is rising in a quiet, compelling way.
This is a rookie league, the lowest shrub in the baseball bushes, and Pride is a 17-year-old deaf outfielder who is proving that, more than disability, he has ability. He proved it at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Md., where his athletic elegance in three sports won him a mantle full of awards, a basketball scholarship to William and Mary this fall and that rarest of tags: Future Unlimited, despite a 95 percent hearing disability.
When Chuck Hiller, who manages the New York Mets' Kingsport farm team, learned a writer was in town recently to watch Pride, he said, "I wasn't gonna play Curtis tonight, but I'll get him in there."
A shifty right-hander named Bob Faron had a two-hit shutout and the Johnson City (Tenn.) Cardinals had a 3-0 lead over the Mets when Pride came to bat in the seventh inning. With his compact, left-handed swing, Pride had had just one single in seven previous at-bats.
Is it possible that Lewis Carroll was working the red-and-white wooden scoreboard on this night? On a 1-2 pitch, Pride slammed a fastball about 390 feet to right-center field for a two-run homer. Faron kicked the dirt on the pitcher's mound. A crowd of about 175 let out a collective ooh.
Teammates rushed out to greet Pride at home plate. An entrepreneurial kid hustled into the pasture beyond the fence to retrieve the ball (and get a buck for its return). Hiller looked toward the reporter, his incredulity quickly turning to a knew-it-all-the-time wink.
The next morning, the Kingsport paper noted that Lee May Jr., the Mets' No. 1 draft pick and son of the former big leaguer, had joined the Kingsport team and that, on the preceding night, "Pride, a deaf outfielder, left his mark on Johnson City."
Back home in Silver Spring, John Pride knew of his son's homer long before the morning editions hit the front porches of Kingsport. Since Curtis Pride is unable to talk on a telephone, father and son communicate on the phone by each typing on a suitably connected telecommunication device for the deaf. The conversation the night of the home run went like this:
Son: "I didn't start again. GA. go ahead. "
Father: "Hang in there. GA."
Son: "But I did get to play and I went one for one. GA."
Father: "What did you get? GA."
Son: "I hit a home run. And I crushed that sucker!!!!!!!!!! John Pride recalled exactly 10 exclamation points. I hit it 430 feet. GA."
Father: "How do you know it went 430 feet? GA."
Son: "I just know." 'So Much Confidence'
The passage of time and the accumulation of accomplishments by Curtis Pride during his first 17 years make it seem nearly impossible to believe that late in the summer of 1969, John and Sally Pride walked away from Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., having learned that their baby suffered from a sensory neural hearing loss that rendered him 95 percent deaf and wondered, "What kind of future does this kid have?"
People still ask this of Curtis Pride today, except it is said with anticipation, not hesitation. Each day is like a stunning sequel to the previous day for Pride, who listens to the world mostly by reading lips and looks at the world with the same fascination with which the world looks at him. Except he looks harder.
"The most important accomplishment in my life would be overcoming my deafness," Pride said. "If I had let my hearing get in the way, I probably wouldn't have come this far.
"I have so much confidence in myself. You have to have confidence to get where you want."
Pride recently graduated from Kennedy High School where he became a local legend. The school awarded him the first-ever Brady Straub Award, named for the school's beloved football coach who died of cancer this year, for being a "scholar, athlete and gentleman." The school neglected to add "example."
All Pride did was: hit .509 with five home runs on the Kennedy baseball team last year; score a Montgomery County-record 60 goals in about 40 career games (sometimes being quadruple-teamed) on the Kennedy soccer team; average more than 20 points a game as a point guard on the Kennedy basketball team last season. And don't forget his 3.47 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale).
Better still, as far as friends were concerned, Pride was so adept as a lip reader that when students were gossiping 20 feet away in a school hallway, Pride would be asked to lip-read.
"It was like those scenes where they look through the binoculars in James Bond movies," he said.
Pride's high school success prompted more than 200 colleges to recruit him and proved merely a springboard to the bigtime: Last year, he went to China with the U.S. national soccer team for youths 16 and younger. Pride scored the winning goal against Bolivia in a game played in front of 90,000 fans in Workers' Stadium, and was named one of the 15 most outstanding players in the world for his age group, along with Diego Maradona's kid brother, Hugo.
In one game, Pride said he removed his hearing aid, which wasn't working in the rain, "and it was so loud in the stadium I could hear the people." A Pro and a Collegian
Last month, Pride signed an unusual contract with the Mets, who drafted him in the 10th round even though Pride already had announced he would attend William and Mary on a basketball scholarship next fall.
The Mets gave Pride a $7,500 signing bonus and the standard $700-a-month rookie contract to play two months in the Appalachian League this summer. The Mets also agreed to give Pride his unconditional release in mid-August, so he still can accept his basketball scholarship in the fall in accordance with NCAA rules.
In return, John Pride gave the Mets a handshake agreement that his son will re-sign with the Mets each summer, at the close of college classes. This includes the summer following Curtis Pride's senior year at William and Mary, even though technically he will be a free agent eligible to sign with any major league team.
Sports agents might quibble over such a deal, but John Pride said, "If it had been a tradeoff between a free education and the chance to play professional baseball, baseball would have had to wait."
John Pride said the deal won't be broken. "I've tried to stress to Curt the same thing my father stressed to me and that is, your honor and integrity are worth more than money."
The Mets had brought Curtis Pride to Shea Stadium five days before the June 2 draft. They gave him a morning tryout and stuck his name above a locker, right alongside those of Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter and Pride's idol, Darryl Strawberry. Pride said he was so happy he almost pinched himself.
Pride is the youngest player on the Kingsport team and is the only player about to begin college. Most of the others live on the fine line of uncertainty, swinging for all or nothing in baseball. Their college degree can wait, maybe forever.
Stephen Schryver, director of the Mets' minor league operations, said of Pride, "Essentially, we're getting a great athlete with arm strength we feel we can refine as he plays more, and who is a line-drive hitter, with extra-base power and not home-run power . . . We're very interested in him."
As a reserve outfielder with Kingsport, Pride had had only 17 at-bats through Thursday's game, getting three hits for a .176 average, scoring three runs and driving in four.
"My dream is to play in the outfield with Darryl Strawberry when Dwight Gooden is pitching, but my education is the main thing," Pride said.
He hopes to be in the majors in "four or five years," but John Pride said "seven or eight years is more like it . . . I have to work on patience with Curtis." A Family of Athletes
Determination rushes through Curtis Pride's 6-foot, 200-pound body. From the waist down, he's built like Pele. In every other way, he's the spitting image of John Pride, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services as director of program operations for the administration on developmental disabilities.
Athleticism is in Curtis Pride's genes. His father went undefeated in track, running the 220 (personal best: 21.5 seconds) at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio.
A half century ago, Curtis Pride's grandfather, John W. Curtis, was a high school basketball phenom in Marietta, Ohio. In 1930, Curtis barnstormed around the country with an all-black basketball team, Olsen's Harlemites.
It's all detailed in a scrapbook at the Prides' home, but the book stops before John Curtis began his 42 years of work at an Ohio steel mill. Learning to Cope
In 1969, doctors told John and Sally Pride that the problem their son was having didn't relate to sound reaching his brain. Rather, it was the brain's inability to interpret the sound properly.
Without the aid of hearing devices, Curtis Pride could hear noises 95 decibels and higher, say, a motorcycle at about eight paces. Persons with normal hearing can hear sounds at a level of about 35 to 40 decibels.
Wearing a hearing aid, Pride is able to hear conversation, although the words often become garbled. He works hard at listening.
"I'd be less than truthful," John Pride said, recalling the time he learned of his son's disability, "if I didn't say that I went through a 'Why him out of all these kids?' attitude." No one on the family tree ever had had a hearing defect, as far as anyone knew.
John Pride said his wife was stronger at the time and said, "We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves or for Curt if he's going to have a decent life. We have to start reading and learn how to help him."
Maybe the turning point for Curtis Pride came at Weller Road Elementary School. Kids picked on him, teased him about his hearing disability, then started shoving him. The last was a big mistake.
John Pride remembers his son's occasional outbursts of tears and anger and, above all, frustration. Over his wife Sally's objections, he gave his son some advice: "Punch 'em out, Curt."
John Pride recalled: "So finally Curt punched this kid out and he was surprised by how easily he did it." Which was good. And bad.
Curtis Pride began to test his new-found strength again and again until, his father remembered, "he was punching out everybody who even looked at him funny."
So John Pride talked to his son again, smoothing things out. Kids learned a new respect for Curtis Pride, who learned a new respect for himself.
Kids always looked up to the athletes and now they were looking up to Curtis Pride. Goals for a Lifetime
Sometime around his 14th birthday, only 3 1/2 years ago, Curtis Pride listed 40 goals he hoped to accomplish in life. It was a telling list, a compilation of a kid's hopes and dreams.
Some were kid's stuff: to score more than 10,000 points in a video game; to not watch TV for a week. Many related to sports, all of which he achieved: to break the county scoring record in high school soccer; to top the 1,000-point mark in high school basketball; to hit a specified number of home runs. Another was to catch a 20-inch bass, which he has yet to achieve.
"I caught an 18-inch one," he said, "but that doesn't count."
Other goals were challenges: to read the encyclopedia from A to Z -- "I got as far as K." Others were taken from the American dream: to get married; to have children; to give to charity. Still others were pipedreams: to become a millionaire and to live in a mansion.
John Pride said, "Curt has a strong personal need to succeed." Curtis Pride said he always has had to work harder than other kids just to catch up.
At William and Mary, he will have tutors, notetakers (so he can read the professor's lips) and the use of a word processor. He plans to major in some branch of science.
Pride said he wrote out his goals because "I wanted to push myself." Now that he has accomplished about half of the goals, Pride said, "The list is still at home. It's in a secret place."
John Pride drove to Kingsport a couple of weeks ago. He brought his son's fishing pole, a VCR and a 1978 Plymouth station wagon with 83,000 miles on the odometer so his son wouldn't have to keep paying $9 a day for cab fares from the hotel to the high school field where the K-Mets play.
Boredom sets in easily at the Tennessee Motor Lodge where he and most of the Kingsport Mets live two to a room, each paying $200 a month. Curtis Pride watches TV shows that include captions. He loves "Dynasty" and "The Colbys." As for musicians, he dislikes Prince. "He's evil," he said.
Sometimes, Pride goes shopping with teammates, other times they play miniature golf, sometimes they go to Aunt Emma's Restaurant to eat the vegetables.
Sometimes Pride goes solo, either fishing or writing letters (always asking people to "please write") and sometimes he sits and reads college books given to him by his older sister.
He brought a basketball to Kingsport so, in his spare time, he can practice jump shots from 19 feet 9 inches, the three-point limit in college. He never plays pickup games "because if I got hurt, I'd be in a lot of trouble."
He said he never had problems shooting pressure free throws in front of heckling crowds in high school.
"I just turned my hearing aid off," he said.
Pride said he never will play soccer competitively again, and that thought seems to pain him.
Jeff Schultz, Pride's soccer coach at Kennedy, said when area coaches gathered to choose all-star teams they agreed there should have been three teams: "Curtis Pride, First Team and Second Team." The Big Leagues
So many accomplishments and so much attention and yet Curtis Pride is just a kid.
His dream is to play the ultimate kid's game -- major league baseball. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, major league baseball's official statistician, the only deaf player ever to enter the major leagues was William Ellsworth Hoy, who played from 1888 to 1902 and hit .288 for his career.
It was because of Hoy, who was almost completely deaf, that home plate umpires began to make hand signals on strikes.
Yet to Curtis Pride -- who is disappointed at his lack of playing time this summer but figures "it beats cutting lawns" -- history doesn't matter. Just the future.
As he walked to the team bus after hitting his first professional home run, two autograph-seeking kids looked from 20 feet back and pointed. "There goes No. 30, the guy who hit the home run. We missed him," said one.
Curtis Pride's back was turned, so he didn't hear the kids. The smile on his face, though, said he knew people were cheering.