BREWER, Maine — When Billy Bissell was about 10 years old, his sign language interpreter recognized his love of baseball and decided to do him a favor.
A letter to Major League Baseball followed, wondering if there were any active deaf or hard-of-hearing players.
Not long after that, Bissell got a package in the mail with an autographed baseball from outfielder Curtis Pride, believed to be the only deaf player in modern major league history.
Bissell, himself born with a hearing impairment that leaves him reliant on hearing aids and an acute ability to read lips, was pleasantly surprised by the gesture.
“It was great,” the Brewer High School senior said Sunday evening. “I still have the ball right here.”
Now a three-sport standout for the Witches, Bissell won’t have to go far if he wants another autograph from Pride. He plans to play baseball and study this fall at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — where Pride is the head baseball coach.
“The coach there had invited me down for a visit, and I really liked it,” said Bissell, who may seek a degree in the medical field, possibly physical therapy. “And it really fit what I wanted to do for my education as well.”
Gallaudet University is considered the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students.
Bissell visited the school in late March, then Pride — who played in the majors for more than a decade with the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Montreal Expos and Atlanta Braves — came to Brewer to scout Bissell when the Witches hosted Oxford Hills of South Paris on May 11.
Pride, trying to rebuild the Division III Bison baseball team after an 8-23-1 finish this spring in his first season at Gallaudet, encouraged Bissell to join his program. The combination of academic offerings and athletic opportunity prompted Bissell to attend Gallaudet.
And the pursuit of a childhood dream to play pro baseball someday with guidance from a unique role model didn’t hurt, either.
“Coach Pride has talked to me about it, and he’s going to help me,” said Bissell. “I just have to get to work.”
Bissell has emerged as one of the top players in the region this year while leading Brewer to an 11-4 record heading into its regular-season finale Tuesday at Mount Ararat of Topsham.
The Witches’ starting center fielder is batting .455 (20-for-44) with 18 runs scored, 21 RBIs, five doubles, a triple and five home runs in 14 games, and he’s played errorless defense.
The son of Bill and Lynn Bissell also was a key figure in Brewer’s Eastern Maine Class A title run last spring, and also has been a significant contributor on Brewer teams that have competed in the Senior League World Series and American Legion state tournament.
“From a baseball standpoint, he really came into his own last summer as far as being one of the best outfielders in the state,” said Brewer baseball coach Dave Morris. “He throws the ball well and he can run down just about anything. When he gets the ball in the outfield and you’re on second or third base and thinking about scoring, he makes it extremely difficult to do that.
“As a hitter, he’s really been working hard on hitting the ball the other way. Very seldom does he hit a weak ball, because he has tremendous torque with his body.
“I’m glad he plays for me.”
Bissell also helped Brewer’s basketball team have its best regular season since 1984 last winter, and was named a McDonald’s East-West Senior All-Star. Last fall, he was the leading rusher for Brewer’s football team.
“No. 1, Billy is a gifted athlete, which is something I think everyone can recognize,” said Morris. “Not a lot of kids coming out of high school can run like he can run. He can jump, too, and I think his up side in terms of physicality is tremendous.”
While Bissell will attend a university known for its programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Gallaudet also is home to many hearing students — including many of Bissell’s future teammates.
“When I went down there I thought everyone was going to be deaf or hard of hearing,” said Bissell. “But it wasn’t like that at all. A lot of the kids have their hearing; I’d guess 75 percent of the baseball team are all hearing.
“You don’t have to be deaf or hard of hearing, you just have to be able to sign.”
And that’s one area where Bissell will have to improve so he can communicate more effectively with the deaf and hard-of-hearing students he will meet on campus. He will attend a “jump start” program at Gallaudet from July 23 through mid-August that will help him learn sign language and get otherwise familiarized with the school.
“Billy is just a tremendous example for anyone as far as being someone who is hearing impaired but doesn’t use that as a crutch at all,” said Morris. “In the four years I’ve had him, it’s never been an issue.
“He just has very high expectations for himself.”