|05-21-2005, 05:44 AM||#1|
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'I'm deaf in my left ear'
MICHAEL CUDDYER: The Minnesota Twins third baseman lost his hearing in one ear at age 11, but he has become such a master at repositioning people that few would suspect it.
BY TOM POWERS
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
MINNEAPOLIS - Michael Cuddyer has mastered several subtle moves over the years. He knows how to gently guide a friend to a certain section of a movie theater and how to unobtrusively rearrange the seating at dinner.
"There's times I'll be walking, someone is on my left side, and I'll casually switch sides," he said with a smile. "You won't even notice."
He has become something of a master at repositioning people. For the past 15 years, Cuddyer's life has included a constant series of these small adjustments.
"I'm deaf in my left ear," he said. "There can be someone right in front of me saying my name, and I'll have no clue where it's coming from. I'll turn around."
Cuddyer lost the hearing in his left ear at age 11 after about a bout with a rare viral infection. After suffering through a high fever for more than a week, he realized one evening he no longer could hear the television while lying on his right side.
"I remember when he came up to me and said, 'Mom, I can't hear when I lay on this side,' " said his mother, Marcia Harris. "The doctors said this was such a fluke viral infection. They said you were more likely to win the lottery than have this happen to an 11-year-old.
"But Michael has handed it so maturely ever since it happened."
He has handled it so well that many people don't even know about the situation. When a young ballplayer is drafted, he is required to fill out a health form. It specifically asks if there are any hearing problems. Cuddyer checked "no."
"Because it wasn't a problem," he said. "It isn't a problem."
And he didn't want to raise any red flags. That approach certainly has worked. Cuddyer has been in the Minnesota Twins' organization since he was drafted in 1997 and now is an established big leaguer. Yet many in the front office remain unaware.
Asked about Cuddyer the other day, farm director Jim Rantz said he had no idea he was deaf in one ear. General manager Terry Ryan said he didn't know, either, until about a month ago.
Manager Ron Gardenhire and most of his Twins teammates are aware of it, however. As a third baseman, Cuddyer's bad ear is toward the field. So there has to be another form of communication, perhaps visual, in certain situations.
"Normally, the shortstop lets the third baseman know when an off-speed pitch or an inside fastball is coming," coach Al Newman said. "It helps with that first-step quickness. The shortstop usually gives a little hissing sound or a whistle.
"But we can't do that. We've been trying to devise a way to let him know."
Cuddyer said he and the shortstop have worked out a method of communication, but he isn't at liberty to discuss it. The Twins don't want their opponent stealing the signs.
Other than that, Cuddyer has no problems on the field. It wasn't always that way, however.
"Right when it happened, I was playing Little League, football, soccer and basketball," he said. "It messed up my equilibrium for a while.
"For a while, it definitely was a concern. It was a big adjustment in sports, at school. Each school year, the first day of school, I'd tell the teacher that I needed to sit in front of the class and that I needed to sit on the left side."
He went on to become a prep sensation in Virginia and was drafted by the Twins ninth overall in 1997. Now the everyday third baseman, Cuddyer is one of the team's more quotable players. Reporters often crowd around his locker after he has a good game.
"You really have to pay attention," he said. "For the past 15 years, I've been saying, 'What?' But it's really nothing major at all. You just have to learn to be more attentive."
When there is a crowd and Cuddyer cannot position himself properly, he subtly moves his right hand back as if he were going to scratch his neck or straighten his hair. Then he cups his right ear forward. It's a virtually non-detectable gesture.
"By the time I was drafted at 18, I'd already had this for seven years, so it's not a big deal," he said. "Everybody who is close to me knows I'm deaf in my left ear. Yes, it's there. It's not a problem."
He thought for a minute and then laughed.
"You know what the hardest thing is? The phone calls. I can only listen on one side. I get tired and wish I could switch, but I can't switch. But it's just a little thing."
Cuddyer doesn't mind talking about it if he is asked, but it's not something he'll ever bring up. At this point in his life, it's not a big issue for him.
"I really had to adjust at first," he said. "You deal with it, cope with it and make do with it. Then you realize: this is how it's going to be. You lose your hearing completely in the left ear and you have to learn to use the right ear.
"I paid more attention to things. I didn't want anybody to notice."
Said his mom: "It just shows you that it's how you handle something that makes it a disability or not."
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light."
- Helen Keller