December 16, 2011
On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.
Curtis Pride, who turns 43 on Saturday, had a relatively unremarkable career, but a very remarkable life: He is the only deaf player to play in the major leagues in the modern era. He played for 11 years in the majors as a journeyman backup outfielder and pinch hitter, and 12 more years in the minors, beginning in 1986 when he was 17, and ending in 2008 when he was 39. He played 421 games in the majors, batting .250/.327/.405, and 1,432 games in the minors, where he hit .278/.370/.446.
After being drafted in the 10th round straight out of high school, he worked out a deal with the New York Mets and the NCAA to allow him to play part-time in the minor leagues over the summer while attending the College of William & Mary on a basketball scholarship. A native of Washington, D.C., he is currently the baseball coach at Gallaudet University in Washington, the only liberal arts university in the United States for the deaf and hard of hearing.
His 421 games played put him 14th among District natives, and his 20 homers tie him for fifth — with Maury Wills, perhaps the greatest Washingtonian player. (Any advocates of Art Devlin, Doc White, Lu Blue or Don Money are free to criticize me in the comments.)
Best Year: Detroit Tigers 1996: .300/.372/.513, 10 HR, 31 RBIs, 11 SBs, 6 CS, 31 BB/63 K, 1.5 rWAR
Pride had decent tools, with a bit of power and a willingness to take a walk, and in 1996 it all came together. He had a career high in games played and plate appearances, playing in more than half of the Tigers' games as a left fielder, designated hitter and pinch hitter. And he stung the ball. He was 27, so it was a natural time for him to reach his offensive peak, but fully half of his career home runs came in that one season, as did nearly all of his other career highs: runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, RBIs, stolen bases, walks, strikeouts, and even sacrifice bunts. Pride was an inspiration to many throughout his career, but never more so than in the summer of 1996.
Worst Year: 1997: .213/.316/.341, 3 HR, 20 RBIs, 6 SBs, 6 CS, 24 BB/46 K, -0.5 rWAR
Unfortunately, Pride was pretty miserable the next year. He struggled to stay above the Mendoza line with the Tigers, though they were a pretty mediocre team overall — at the time they released him, he was still outhitting their starting shortstop, rookie Deivi Cruz — and wound up finishing 79-83. As is so often the case, one of his biggest problems may have been bad luck. In 1996, he benefited from a Batting Average on Balls in Play of .361; in 1997, it plummeted 85 points to .276, and unsurprisingly, his batting average dropped 87 points as well. Ultimately, he probably wasn't as good a hitter as he was in 1996, but he also wasn't as bad as he was in 1997. He rebounded somewhat in 1998, hitting .252 in 70 games with the Atlanta Braves, and earning a reputation around the league as a good clubhouse guy.
Claim to Fame: For better or for worse, Curtis Pride's claim to fame is his disability — and his determination. He's an inspiration to athletes with disabilities, and in 2010, President Obama named him to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He made the decision that he wanted to go to a mainstream high school rather than a school for disabled students; he was the only deaf student in most of his classes. He played multiple sports in high school, graduated with a 3.6 GPA, and then went to play in the Mets farm system while playing basketball at William & Mary.
"The crowd noise won't get to me," he said in an interview with Parade Magazine in 1994. "We have one simple rule [in the outfield]: Any time I call for the ball, it's automatically mine. If someone else calls for it, he'll wave me off with a glove." Later in the interview, he made it clear that he wanted to be a role model for other kids.
"I want inner-city children to know they have no excuse for not being successful... They see people like me, and they see that I overcame a handicap. I never let my deafness hold me back. I never feel sorry for myself. Never. I know I have a disability. I've accepted it. I can't worry about it. I want to make the most of my life. And I am."