Deaf Cabarrus County baseball player 'listens with his eyes'


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Disability can't strike him out -

Michael Hagwood, right fielder on the Northwest Cabarrus High baseball team, sprints around first base and slides into second just ahead of the throw.

The dugout explodes: "Way to go, Michael!"

He beats the ball again on the next play, flying past third and plowing across home plate. His teammates line up with high-fives.

Michael slaps their hands. But he doesn't hear their shouts of celebration.

He didn't hear "The Star Spangled Banner" before the game. Or his coach's send-off: "Have fun while you're out there." Or the occasional heckling from opponents. Or the crack of the bat.

Like old-time baseball player "Dummy" Hoy, who is credited with introducing hand signals to the major leagues, Michael is deaf. Like Hoy, he refuses to let his inability to hear affect his ability to play.

When the Trojans take to the field tonight in the South Piedmont Conference Tournament, you probably couldn't pick Michael out of the lineup if you didn't know he wears the No. 19 jersey.

"I've always wondered if he was a better baseball player because he couldn't hear and that forced him to pay more attention to the game," said John Bertone, who coached Michael for six years on the Carolina Copperheads travel team. "Or would he have been an even better player if he wasn't deaf? I don't know the answer."

Michael and Joe Hubbard, who coaches the Trojans, worked out signals. "It's phenomenal to watch him running bases," Hubbard said. "He's a tremendous athlete. He's basically by himself out there. If a pitcher picks off at a base he's at, we can't holler at him to go back. He's on his own."

Still communicates

Michael began playing baseball at age 4, and by age 7 it was his passion.

"Not being able to hear parents and the opposing players, he's focused on what he's doing," said his father, Lee Hagwood. "He listens with his eyes."

Michael said he feels frustrated at times, concerned that his deafness may be seen as a liability. But he doesn't see it as a liability.

Because of the use of hand signals in baseball, Michael can usually follow what the umpires and his coaches are saying. Many scholars say Dummy Hoy invented the signals with his third-base coach in 1888 so he could understand the umpire's calls. Hoy's given name was William Ellsworth, but he preferred his nickname and still holds baseball records.

Michael aspires to a higher level of baseball, too.

He played JV for Northwest Cabarrus in 9th grade, then moved up to varsity in 10th grade. He prefers pitching and other infield positions, but this year, his junior year, he has played in right field and as a designated hitter.

After high school, he hopes to go to National Technical Institute for the Deaf in New York State. He wants to learn welding - and play baseball.

'A bright outlook'

Michael's mother, Jackie, and his sister, Savannah, are also deaf. It's a genetic trait. They communicate with sign language. When Michael plays ball, an interpreter, Erin Scapes, stands in the dugout and, if necessary, tells him what the coaches are saying.

"They do not let their hearing impairment slow them down," Lee Hagwood said of his children. "They have a pretty bright outlook. I think everybody puts limits on themselves whether they are hearing or deaf. We encouraged them not to limit themselves."

Taylor West, a senior who plays center field, said he and Michael sometimes use their hands and eyes to communicate, but when they're rushing for a fly ball, Taylor still finds himself calling for it even though Michael can't hear him.

"He'll wave me off," Taylor said, "or he'll make a noise."

Players who can hear have collided with each other, Scapes said, but none with Michael.

"When I go to catch a ball out in the field, the disadvantage is that I can't call for it," Michael signed with Scapes interpreting. "I've had a lot of experience and I know what to do and I'm fine. But the sound of my voice is very different because I'm deaf."

At the tournament tonight, as the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" sound over the field, No. 19 will line up with his teammates, ball cap over his heart, showing respect for his country, while anxiously awaiting the first pitch.

As Michael said, other than being deaf, he's just like any other player on the field.