Korean Hoys at bat, on deck and in the holeChungju, North Chungcheong province - Queued in a tent in two facing rows, 17 boys limber their limbs in a series of rhythmic flexes. Walking between the lines of agile bodies, a middle-aged man barks a cadence: “One, two, three! Stretch it, boys! You do not want to hurt yourself.” The sound of the rain pelting the roof of the canvas shelter provides the only competition for the coach’s intimidating commands. The boys remain silent.
After 10 minutes of exercise, the coach booms another order: “Okay, boys, time to play ball! Each of you, grab a ball and toss it to the guy standing in front of you. Now remember to flow your whole body into the movement. Understood?” An eternity seems to pass before the response is heard.
Practice by the boy’s baseball team at Sacred Heart School for the Deaf is just like any of the other baseball workouts held daily across Korea during the summer. Bats rip into balls, which are sometimes caught and sometimes dropped. Players run, sometimes the wrong way. Coaches scream, and the players try to do better.
“Park Jong-min! How many times have I told you to use your wrist! Park Jong-min!” Jong-min continues his warm-up, playing catch with his teammate. The coach tries again. “Hey! Jong-min! Look at me!” Park Jong-min finally responds, alerted by other teammates who saw the coach’s gesticulations.
“He is not wearing his hearing aid. That is why he cannot hear me,” says the coach, Kim In-tae, who took over Sacred Heart’s baseball team in September of last year. In fact, none of the boys inside the tent can hear Mr. Kim. During baseball practice, the boys, all hearing impaired, many from birth, leave their hearing aids in their lockers to prevent injuries.
Located in Chungju, North Chungcheong province, Sacred Heart School for the Deaf, founded in 1955, has 182 students enrolled in kindergarten through high school. The boys are part of several firsts: the school’s first baseball team and the first baseball team in Korea’s history comprising children with hearing disabilities.
On paper. the skills required to play baseball include no obvious auditory component. The game is one of pitching, hitting, running and catching, for which a strong arm, quick wrists, speed and sure hands are essential. Beyond that, being able to hear the crack of the bat as it meets the ball or the thump of the ball entering the opposing player’s glove can be the difference between a hit and an out. But talent, a desire to win and good coaching are what take the day.
So how does Mr. Kim coach his players?
“Well, I am still learning this and that. During practice, I scribble down whatever I think is necessary to talk to the boys and ask the teachers here how that goes in sign language,” Mr. Kim says. He continues, “The only time when I do not need sign language is when I am angry. The boys just know by looking at my face.”
Mr. Kim, who used to be an amateur player for Korea First Bank, is assisted by Lee Myeong-gyu, who has been a teacher at the school since 1997. Of the two, he has by far the most knowledge of sign language. He often acts as a bridge between Mr. Kim and the boys.
“When they wear their hearing aid they can hear you yelling. Each of them has been hearing his name all his life so that is what they understand best. They understand some words but not many,” Mr. Lee says. He notes that the players also read lips.
Sacred Heart made history last month, participating in the Bonghwanggi High School baseball tournament in Seoul. The school was given special consideration by tournament officials who awarded the team a slot. Before the tournament, its main competition was against a dozen middle school teams. Sacred Heart lost its first game in the tournament to Seongnam West High School 10-1, but the thrashing could not diminish the sense of accomplishment.
“When we first started this team, many people were skeptical, even inside our school. We had boys training as individuals to participate in sports like judo,” Mr. Lee says. “With baseball the basic challenge is the same, just on a different level.”
Mr. Kim says he agrees with his assistant. He knew it would be hard to field a team but he was not prepared for what he encountered. “We had kids who could not run 50 meters feet] straight because of their lack of balance. Many could not even throw a ball 20 meters. Our biggest problem was, and still is, defense,” he says.
Again, the game is about talent, but as if to demonstrate his point Mr. Kim bats a ground ball to Kim Seong-ho, an infielder. The ball hops toward Seong-ho. After a couple of seconds, he is in motion, scooting to his left and scooping the ball with his glove.
“See how late the reaction is? Baseball is about coordinating the eyes with the hands. But it all starts with seeing and hearing the ball when it leaves the bat. For us, there is no routine catch.”
Few Korean role models exist for these players, being that they are the pioneers. But there is one person inching toward the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame who proved long ago that a hearing disability should not keep a player on the bench. William Hoy, who played professional baseball for several teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, between 1886 and 1902, batted .288, had 2,054 hits and 597 stolen bases in 1,792 major league games. He was the first outfielder to throw three runners out at the plate in the same game. Signals used today for balls and strikes were first devised to accommodate Hoy.
At Sacred Heart, teammates and coaches cannot use audibles on defense. Thus, the coaching staff focuses on training for game situations over and over. Perhaps Hoy's story suggests a solution to this quandary.
A look at the scorecard shows no difference between Sacred Heart and any other baseball team. Jang Wang-geun, the biggest player on the team, bats cleanup, and he, like the rest of the team, has a distinct advantage -- yes, advantage.
“When you are in the batting box the sound of a fast ball can be very intimidating. Our kids are fearless,” Mr. Lee, the assistant coach, says with a laugh.
Asked how far he can hit a ball, Wang-geun points toward the sky with a bat, in the universal language for a home run.
Being composed entirely of disabled players, Sacred Heart faces another problem. Of the 17 members, only 10 are actually high school students, meaning that except for exhibition games none of the middle schoolers can participate in official contests. The team is only two injuries from being disqualified when playing a regular-season game. Hence, efforts have been made to recruit players. Mr. Kim says that since the team's first official appearance in the August tournament calls have been coming from hearing- impaired players at regular schools and from boys with a hearing disability who would just like to play baseball for the first time in their life.
“We are not out there to win but to have fun and show people what we can do. If we could send one of our players to the pros, even as a backup player, for us that is our championship,” Mr. Kim says.
A Korean Hoy would be nice, but being able to just “play ball” is apparently all that really matters.
by Brian Lee