Triplets Bring Inspiration to the Deaf
Published: May 4, 2004
ST. PAUL, May 3 - The sounds of baseball wafted throughout Midway Stadium on Monday morning as 44 men tried out for the St. Paul Saints, a minor league team in the independent Northern League. The pop of ball against leather. The crack of wooden bats.
But the biggest impression of all was made by three players who could not hear any of it.
Chris, Craig and Curt Kuhn are identical triplets, born deaf. Their disability never affected their love for baseball, however. At the age of 28, after not having played competitively since college, they decided to try out for a professional team.
Although they did not succeed, they achieved two ancillary goals: to prove that they could compete at that level and to show deaf children that someday they could, too.
"We didn't want to look back and feel like we never tried," Craig, a right fielder, said through a sign-language interpreter. Chris, a center fielder, added: "It's never too late to try. Even though we didn't make it, the message is still out there."
From 1996 to 1999, the Kuhns played Division III baseball at Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world specifically for the deaf and hard of hearing. Though they played well, each batting around .300 with solid defensive skills, the brothers passed on pursuing pro ball in favor of starting regular careers. (They work in various capacities for their old high school, the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, Ill.)
They grew to miss playing so much, though, that they decided last year to work out this winter to take a shot at a pro tryout. After watching them for two days, George Tsamis, the Saints' manager, said they blended in well with the other dreamers, a mix of former collegians and minor leaguers who ranged in age from 18 to 44. "They look a lot better than a lot of other guys here," Tsamis said during batting practice. "You can't tell they haven't played in five years. And you certainly can't tell that they're deaf."
The triplets grew up on a 100-acre farm in Ursa, Ill. They quickly fell in love with baseball and held their own in local youth leagues. Their father, Gene, a cabinetmaker, once got them child-size baseball mitts. "Tears nearly came to their eyes," he said. "That wasn't what they wanted at all. They wanted the real thing."
Other than having to steal glances at other players to avoid collisions on pop-ups, the Kuhns, who also cannot speak, strove to play down their disabilities. Their favorite major leaguer was not Curtis Pride, a hearing-impaired outfielder for several clubs in the 1990's, but Terry Pendleton and Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals.
On Monday, they joined 41 others trying to take a first step toward the majors. The Northern League attracts many fringe prospects who, after not getting signed by any major league team, want to keep playing in hopes of getting discovered later. One player who hit the jackpot was Kevin Millar, the current Red Sox slugger who got his professional start with St. Paul in 1993. The Saints held the tryout to find two players to fill their roster.
At 9 a.m., Chris and Craig Kuhn joined the outfielders, while Curt, a second baseman, took grounders. Other than the occasional presence of an interpreter to relay instructions, they blended right in. Craig uncorked some strong throws from center field to home plate. Chris, after bobbling a few balls, did the same from right field. Curt showed range and raised eyebrows with a few nifty dives.
"He was very aggressive, that's for sure," Ed O'Brien, a 25-year-old shortstop, said of Curt, with whom he turned a few double plays. "It seems like he's trying harder than most guys. You can tell he's giving it his all."
In batting practice, the brothers showed signs of not having played in five years. With Tsamis frequently checking his clipboard to remember which Kuhn he was watching - each is a muscular 5 feet 11 inches and 190 pounds - the triplets struggled at first to manage much more than ground balls. But by the end of the third round of pitches, each was spraying line drives as frequently as most of the other players.
After the three-hour camp, none of the Kuhns were among the 12 players asked back for a follow-up tryout on Tuesday. But before they began their eight-hour drive back to Jacksonville, the brothers received encouragement from Tsamis. "You should definitely get in an amateur league this summer and practice against live pitching," Tsamis told them. "If you do, I'd like to look at you again next year."
The Kuhns immediately began signing to each other about possibly playing in a league in Springfield, about 30 miles from home. "I kind of wish we had tried out after college," Curt said. "We can play with these guys."
If nothing else, they can continue to set an example for the deaf children they work with back home.
"The kids here really look up to the Kuhns," said Mickey Jones, an administrator at the Illinois School for the Deaf. "It's extremely important for younger kids to watch what they're doing. Some deaf kids, they assume they can't do things. If they see that they can, that changes their attitude."
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