LACEY - Daniel Wharton is on the pitching mound, beaming.
The River Ridge High School junior utility player has just struck out his fourth batter during a 2A Evergreen Conference baseball game against Black Hills earlier this month.
The dugout explodes: “Yeah, atta kid, Daniel. Way to get ’em.”
While he sees the celebration, Daniel, who is deaf, is searching for the sound.
Later in the game, after the Hawks get out of a bases-loaded jam, teammates flash smiles, giving Wharton and others high-fives as they return to the dugout.
When the Hawks resume EvCo play against top-ranked and league-leading Chehalis on Friday, you probably couldn’t pick Wharton, a 5-foot-7 junior, out in the lineup if you didn’t know he was wearing the No. 19 jersey. He’s just one of the guys, teammates say.
Wharton has 95 percent hearing loss, but he doesn’t see it as a liability, or as a disability that keeps him from playing the sport that has become his passion.
“I don’t know what I could do without baseball in my life,” Wharton said verbally.
American Sign Language is Wharton’s first language, followed by English, although he admits his signing is a bit rusty.Wharton’s parents, Brian and Cathy, discovered their first born son’s inability to hear when he was approximately a year old. At age 3, Daniel had surgery to receive a cochlear implant in his right ear, a battery-operated device that provides him with a sense of sound. When he doesn’t wear the device – mainly when he sleeps or bathes – Daniel’s world becomes silent. When he pairs the cochlear implant with his ability to lip-read, understanding conversations is second nature.
He took speech therapy until he was in eighth grade, so he is able to communicate verbally with others. His vocabulary is strong; the word “honesty” gives him the most trouble.
Brenda Chrisman, an interpreter for North Thurston Public Schools, has worked with Wharton for the past seven years. She attends all of his classes, after-school activities and also is in the dugout during baseball games. She stands as close to River Ridge coach Chad Arko as possible during games, so she can communicate to Daniel what Arko is saying to the players. He also has adapted well to the tone of Arko’s voice in the past few years.
During a recent game with Tumwater, Wharton played left field for the first time, and signing became a bit tricky because of the visibility and distance between the dugout and the outfield. At times when Wharton is pitching, Chrisman will go out to the mound to fill in the gaps when time is called.
“Because Daniel has an extensive knowledge of baseball, he gets it,” Chrisman said. “Daniel is very independent. He has no problem calling me over.”
Wharton’s passion for baseball developed at a young age. His father, who is the Yelm High School principal, was an outfielder at Whitworth University in the mid-1980s. He taught sons Daniel, 17, and Dylan, a 14-year-old starting outfielder and pitcher for North Thurston, the game and it became Daniel’s instant love. Brian Wharton said frustration popped up in a few ways when Daniel was younger, mainly when the batteries died in his cochlear implant during games, which caused Daniel to be uncomfortable.
In addition to being a Mariners and Diamondbacks fan, and frequently tuning into baseball games on television, Wharton has an extensive knowledge of baseball history. His favorite professional player is Randy Johnson. And a few months ago, he began umpiring youth league games.
“(Baseball) is something that brings him a lot of personal joy,” Brian Wharton said. “I think he’s going to be an incredible coach someday because of all the difference experiences he has.”
This season, Wharton has been the Hawks’ answer to the vacant position, playing left field, third base, shortstop, second base, and pitcher. You name it, he will play it. Wharton also was the starting pitcher in the team’s first win of the season – a 10-3 victory over Black Hills on April 8 – when he pitched four-plus innings and struck out four to pick up his first win. Being focused and concentrating on the batter while pitching is “something I’ve been good at my whole life,” Wharton said. He also was the catcher on the junior-varsity team as a freshman, a position Arko admitted he had doubts about at first.
“Everything revolves around the catcher,” Arko said. “I always wondered how it would work out. Baseball is a big benefit, because it’s a non-verbal sport.
“He’s willing to do anything,” Arko added. “It’s pretty unique, and to be deaf and be able to do that, it’s amazing.”
First baseman and friend Caleb Grant, who has played with Wharton since the two were in fourth grade, said it can be difficult sometimes to communicate between Wharton and another position player when there’s a popup in the infield.
“That’s been a struggle,” Grant said, “but if he says he has it, you let him take it. He sees our hands flailing, and he knows we’re calling it.”
At 2-12 overall, River Ridge, the three-time 2A District IV tournament champion, is on the verge of not making the district tournament and missing out of the regional playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Wharton is looking forward to the future. He aspires to play a higher level of baseball, if that becomes an option. After high school, he hopes to earn a degree in computer engineering. He has a 3.8 grade-point average and takes Advanced Placement classes in calculus and language/composition. He also enjoys physics and Spanish, and is involved in school leadership.
This past basketball season, he was a member of the “C” team, but he plans to focus solely on baseball this coming offseason and for next year, which will be his senior year.
“I’ve been training hard for baseball,” Wharton said. “My goal is to be the best athlete my body will allow me to be.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/prepsportsblog