VARNELL, Ga. — Blake Phillips has lived his entire life wanting to avoid special attention. For now, the recent Coahulla Creek High School graduate will just have to live with it.
In a few weeks Phillips, deaf since early childhood due to nerve damage, will be one of 500 or so freshmen entering the halls of Gallaudet University for the first time. He'll also be one of a handful of new recruits for former major leaguer Curtis Pride's baseball team at the private Washington, D.C., school for the hearing impaired.
For the shortstop/pitcher and his family, it's validation that not allowing the potentially devastating handicap to dictate a young life was the right thing to do. From the moment the Phillips' found out their son was deaf they decided he would have as normal a childhood as possible.
"We wanted him to know that he could do anything every other child could do," mom Freda Phillips said. "We decided to do total communication, which is where he would talk as much as possible and sign at the same time. He picked up on signing very quickly and we learned how to sign as well, so it was nice to be able to communicate with our child.
"And," she added with a quick glance at her son, "he just loved baseball because his father loved it. He got involved in a lot of things, but baseball was the thing he loved."
And from the start Dan Phillips made sure his son understood that being deaf did not mean having to lower his dreams.
"He showed a pretty unique talent from very early on and he really fell for the game," Dan said. "I did a lot of research about early deaf players and found a player in the late 1890s named William "Dummy" Hoy, who was the first deaf Major League baseball player and who was attributed to, among other things, being the reason umpires use signals.
"Blake actually did a social studies project on him and I think it helped him understand that being deaf shouldn't hold him back."
Dan also told his son about a deaf major leaguer named Curtis Pride, who was in the midst of a six-year career that saw the outfielder play for the Braves, Yankees, Red Sox, Angles, Tigers and Expos. Over a decade later the former big league player and teenager would meet and hit it off right away.
"It's been a neat journey to see how that has come back around now," laughed Dan Phillips.
Of course, it hasn't all been easy. The Phillips were originally told by specialists that their son was either developmentally delayed or autistic. He was not officially diagnosed as deaf until age 4, so Blake lost a lot of the early gains he might have been able to make. He was fit with hearing aids and sign language lessons began immediately for all.
"We've had great, great support from Whitfield County schools," Dan Phillips said. "They've provided him with interpreters and everything he needed. However, all the information he received was, for lack of a better way to put it, second hand. Translating the English language into sign is very difficult, and if you get a teacher that speaks very fast, some things are going to be lost.
"In college, everything is going to be at his pace because they teach in sign. He'll be getting the information the same time as everybody else."
He'll also be getting instruction on the baseball field from someone who has walked in his shoes. Pride visited the family this spring and attended a Coahulla Creek game. The Phillips, who had not considered their son would want to attend school that far from home, were impressed.
"Coach Pride is a phenomenal guy," Dan said. "He communicates very well. The night after Blake's game we went out to dinner and he and Blake sat together and they were going back and forth the whole time. I'll never forget that afterward, Blake looked at me and said, 'Daddy, he's just like me.'"
Pride invited the family to Gallaudet -- which was established in 1864 by an act of Congress -- where they also watched four games and became convinced it was the place for their son to further his development as a person and athlete. However, it took a leap of faith from their son to seal the deal.
"Coach Pride asked Blake if he wanted to stay overnight in the dorms and Blake said sure," Freda recalled. "We had no idea that was coming and we were worried he might feel out of place, but if Blake was so eager to do it, then that was a great sign for us. It went well and now he can't wait to get started."
Blake will have a shot at the starting shortstop position on a team that isn't just out there to have fun. The Bison under Pride won a school-record 17 games in 2011 before winning 25 in 2012 and 21 more this past season playing on the Division III level. The team will hold instructional practices in the fall, where Pride believes Phillips will show his natural feel for the game.
"Blake's most difficult adjustment at Gallaudet, like most of freshmen, is going to be learning how to balance his time wisely among academics, baseball and social life," said Pride, who learned the game under managers like Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia. "I have no doubt that he will do well academically if he applies himself like I know he can.
"As for baseball, he just needs to get some college experience playing against better competition. He is going to have to make some adjustments hitting against better pitching. Shortstop is one of the most demanding positions of all and Blake has only played two years at the position. He is still learning the fine points. He has a lot of potential in both areas."
Blake's high school coach, Michael Bolen, has no doubt his former player will succeed -- more because of his selfless work ethic than natural ability.
"We moved him to shortstop from third base and he never complained," Bolen said. "Whatever you expect of Blake he expects 10-percent more of himself. His game IQ is well above average, and that's what's allowed him to thrive.
"Blake has had every reason to make excuses in certain situations, but he never used them with me. Really, those type of situations only served to motivate him. He was never treated any differently -- and he never wanted to be -- on the baseball field and off the field he's someone you want around young people. He was truly an inspiration with us and I know success will follow him."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...