Deaf Little Leaguer throws perfect game

Thomas Colamartino, 11, pitches in the first game

Thomas Colamartino, 11, pitches in the first game of a double header with the Levittown Tigers at Redwing Field. (April 29, 2012) (Credit: Joe Buglewicz)

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It was opening day of the Little League season, and Thomas Colamartino was on the mound for the Levittown Tigers. The pressure was on.

"You can't pitch! You can't pitch!" hecklers yelled from the stands at Redwing Park in Levittown.

"Light switch!" one of Thomas' coaches shouted.

It was a cue for Thomas, 11, to turn off his hearing aids, shutting out the barbs that were meant to distract him.

It was a Sunday afternoon, the fourth inning and it would be the last pitch of the game. As he prepared his delivery, Thomas recalled, "I closed my eyes and prayed to God saying, 'I hope this is a strike.' "

It was.

The southpaw had faced 12 batters from Bellmore's Long Island Storm, and struck out seven of them on the way to a 12-0 win. It was that rarity of rarities in the baseball world -- major, minor or youth league -- a perfect game.

"Nobody made it to first base in the entire game. No hits, no walks, no runs," said Mike Cavanagh, one of Thomas' three coaches.

Even in the majors, there are only 21 on record, noted Ralph Diez, another coach. "A perfect game is very uncommon, very difficult to achieve," he said, "probably the most difficult thing in baseball."

None of Thomas' coaches has coached a player who pitched a perfect game. According to ESPN, Little League Baseball, the national organization, does not keep official records of perfect games thrown, but estimates only 50 to 60 occur each year.

 

Hearing aid at 3 months

As an infant, Thomas was diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing loss, the result of a recessive genetic disorder, said his mother, Jennifer Colamartino. It progressed to severe, then profound, hearing loss.

"He got his first set of hearing aids when he was three months old," she said.

Because he cannot hear individual voices from a distance over the noise at games, Thomas relies on hand signals to communicate with his catcher and coaches.

"He has to be more adept at picking them up, which makes playing a little harder for him, but he does a good job of picking them up," Cavanagh said. "It's hard to talk to him when he's on the mound."

Being deaf is not Thomas' only challenge. He has allergies and asthma and must use an inhaler. "He has to take two puffs before he plays," said his mother.

Thomas grew up surrounded by a family of devoted Mets fans. He was only a few months old when they took him to his first game in 2001, on opening day at Shea Stadium. He started playing baseball when he was 4 and joined the Levittown West Little League when he was 6.

"I'm known as a young [Johan] Santana," Thomas said, referring to the Mets' lefthanded pitcher. "That's what people call me because I'm a lefty."

On the morning of his signature achievement he went to Redwing Park thinking it would be just another day.

"When I woke up I was hoping I would stay in the whole game," Thomas said. "If I'm not pitching they'll send me on the bench a lot." He batted in the first game, but before the second game, "my coach, Ralph Diez, told me, 'You're pitching, so get ready.' "

Credits his teammates

"I thought I was gonna pitch really good, but I didn't see a perfect game coming," Thomas said. "It just happened. I definitely could not do it without my team."

But as the game progressed, his coaches sensed it, and so did his mother and grandmother, who both attend all his games. The anticipation varied.

"We were worried about jinxing him," said Thomas' other coach, Joe Barrella.

Susan Tarantino had full confidence in her grandson, but said she kept it to herself. "I felt it would happen, but said nothing."

Cavanagh recalled thinking, "Don't blow it now, you've got one more pitch."

Catcher Scott McKinnon, 11, Thomas' good friend and neighbor, said he also "noticed it, but I didn't want to say anything to him, because I didn't want him to, like, freak out that he didn't give up any hits. He's a really good pitcher. I didn't have any doubts in my mind that he could do it."

Once he did it, his teammates made sure he knew he had done something spectacular.

"They all ran out to me on the field," Thomas said. "They were all excited and nervous. Everybody was jumping up and down. I said, 'Wait, the game is over?' They didn't say anything; they just jumped on me. I felt happy, excited."

His grandmother can vouch for that.

"He was smiling for a week," she said. "He slept with a smile."

Assistance at school

At the Wisdom Lane Middle School where he is a sixth-grader, Thomas does his schoolwork with the help of a teacher who goes to classes with him and communicates with him through a transmitter with a microphone that she wears. "If she goes to the other side of the room, I can hear her," said Thomas, who can also read lips. His favorite subjects are reading, language arts, math and social studies.

Tarantino said her grandson "doesn't consider himself a person with a disability. It's never stood in his way."

When he's not playing football with Scott, Thomas watches sports or sitcoms, and he also like to sketch.

His perfect-game ball is in his bedroom display, among dozens of other balls Thomas said he got mostly for pitching, in addition to trophies and models of prominent sports figures.

His parents are divorced, but dad Danny Colamartino is with him on weekends "teaching me because I'm weak at batting. I also play first base and outfield rightfield, but I don't like it that much."

Danny Colamartino anticipated great things of his son. "His second year pitching I started seeing he might be a great pitcher, plus being a lefty is always key," he said. "The biggest thing with him is his control. I always knew he was good."

Thomas said he believes he can pitch a perfect game again. "I'm thinking it's possible now," he said, adding that he would like to play professional baseball when he grows up.

"I'm not planning, I'm hoping to be a baseball player," Thomas said. For the Mets? "That's a hoping too," he replied.His coaches are optimistic.

"The sky's the limit as long as he stays focused and has the desire to do it," Cavanagh said. "There's no reason he can't achieve his dream if he really believes in it."

Unspoken language

Instead of coaches and teammates shouting calls for balls and strikes, safe and out to Thomas, calls are relayed by gestures.

Coach says:

"In his situation baseball signals are instrumental: where to throw the ball, high or low; what kind of pitch to throw, fast ball or change up; where to position himself on the field," said Ralph Diez. "A finger up, a motion across the chest; signals have meanings."

Thomas says:

"The shortstop and me have to communicate with the catcher. Hat to nose may mean let a ball go by; cap to belt to cap may be bunt."

Catcher says:

"When he throws I give him a sign that's usually relayed from the coach to me to him," said Scott McKinnon. "I will move my hand and show him outs. I may put my hands down to tell him to go down on a pitch. It gets him through the game easier."


-- MERLE ENGLISH

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