High School Sports

On the diamond, Northwestern outfielder isn’t hindered by handicap

Watch him in the field, watch him at the plate, there’s no reason to think there’s anything wrong with Michael Patrick.

Mostly, that’s because he won’t allow you to think there is.

Patrick, Northwestern High’s centerfielder, continues to excel on the diamond despite being 90 percent deaf, and not knowing how long the remaining 10 percent of his hearing will hang on.

“I was born this way, so it’s all I’ve really ever known,” Patrick said. “I’ve never really looked at it as anything that would slow me down.”

By all appearances, it hasn’t. Patrick entered the playoffs hitting .430, and has a chance to propel the Trojans into the Class AAAA Upper State tournament Wednesday night against Wren at 5 p.m. (the Trojans will have to lose twice to not advance).

Patrick accepted a scholarship offer from Winthrop to play baseball next spring, adding to the list of things that seem to come so easily, so naturally to him.

“I’ll be completely honest, if his parents hadn’t told me he was hearing impaired, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to figure it out,” Northwestern coach Mitch Walters said. “It’s gotten to the point you don’t even think about it anymore, really.

“There’s just no way of knowing it’s a handicap to him.”

Patrick grinned and said: “I don’t mind being different,” but to watch him among his peers, you’d never know he was.

He wears hearing aids during the school day that help. But when it’s time for practice or a game, he stashes them, for a reason only a teenager would get.

“I don’t think my hat looks right when they’re in,” he said with a laugh.

That kind of humor helps disarm folks. Teammate Kyle James, who lines up in right field next to him when he’s not pitching, said Patrick wasn’t special when it comes to the razzing players give each other.

“We bust on him just like everybody else,” James said. “Something will happen, and we’ll say, ‘Dude, can you not hear?’ That kind of stuff.”

It might sound insensitive, but in the context of the dugout, it’s acceptance. Patrick laughed and recalled times when he’d be talking to someone, and teammates would come up and say, ‘Man, you’re phone’s ringing, will you answer it already?’ on the rare occasions he doesn’t have it on vibrate.

But as much as they can joke about it, his condition is no laughing matter.

His parent realized something was wrong short of his third birthday, when his mom strapped him in his car seat to go pick up a pizza. She was talking to him, and didn’t understand the silence until the tiny voice from the back seat said: “Mom, you’re going to have to turn around and look at me, because I can’t hear you.”

He was beginning, by that point, to figure out how to lip read, but that triggered years of doctors appointments. They started at Duke, but continued seeing different specialists for years. When he was 9, a doctor at the University of Iowa gave them the news no one wanted to imagine.

Patrick was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, and was told that it was irreversible. Since then, some doctors have held out hope that technology could make a cochlear implant possible or effective, but others have cautioned not to expect it.

It’s getting worse by the day, and he can tell. Truth is, they told him he could be totally deaf by the time he’s 25, something Patrick shrugs off not out of denial, but as something beyond his control.

“I don’t worry about that right now,” he said. “Because I’m just trying to do everything as normally as possible.”

When asked what he’d miss most if he lost all his hearing, he twisted his face around for a moment, before saying: “I can honestly tell you I’ve never thought about that at all.”

With the hearing aids he wears during school, he has a better chance of navigating the hallways at Northwestern. He sits up front in his classes to watch a teacher talk, saying: “If I can’t see you talking, I’ve got no shot.”

That makes the cafeteria the equivalent of a heavy metal concert, a wall of indistinguishable noise. His father, Michael Patrick, said there are different tones his son could hear based on pitch. He’s never heard a bird sing or a referee’s whistle, but male voices and the pulsating bass of the music most teenagers listen to resonate with him.

As for baseball, he’s also figured out how to adapt others to what he’s always been dealing with.

“Since I’m the centerfielder, I’m pretty much in charge out there anyway,” Patrick said. “So guys know if I call a fly ball, just to get out of my way and let me have it, because I have no shot of hearing them.”

There have been crashes when the communication broke down, including a nasty one with Josh Crump. And Walters has to be cognizant when Patrick’s on the basepaths (often, as his .554 regular season on-base percentage indicates) that yelling “Get down,” or “Go,” is essentially useless.

But he also knows that trying to stop Patrick is pretty pointless.

“It’s probably harder for the rest of us than it is for him,” Walters said. “I move around a lot when I talk, and I have to remind myself to stand still so he can see me talking, that kind of thing.

“He’s just a baseball player at heart, and he’s a competitor.”

He’s learned there are things he can’t do. Spanish class was a bear, since he struggles to hear a portion of the English that’s thrown his way. That’s why being able to take American Sign Language as his foreign language at Winthrop is a relief, more so than the fact he might have to use it himself.

To this point, the family hasn’t started learning either. He has two brothers, one older, one younger and no one else in the family has any degree of hearing loss. That’s left the family struggling for answers, but proud of the resolve he’s shown.

“He doesn’t believe in excuses,” the elder Michael Patrick said. “He’s never missed a beat when it comes to his hearing, and he just has this, ‘happy to be here,’ quality that you respect. Most of all, he just wants to be a normal dude.”

Right now, that means playing baseball. Dad played at Clemson, and with a college career beckoning, Michael Patrick doesn’t want to limit himself.

But as he joked with his dad recently, he also has a fallback plan.

“We were sitting around watching a game, and he just looks at me with this big grin on his face,” Michael Patrick said of his son. “And he says, ‘You know dad, I’ve figured it out. ...

“‘I’d make a great umpire, because they’re better off not hearing anyway.’”