AHSAA Class 6A baseball state semifinals: Hank Baker doesn't let his partial deafness keep him from playing center field for Central-Phenix City

jerickson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 9, 2012 

Any signs that Hank Baker has to battle anything out of the ordinary are subtle.

A hand signal here or there from Baker to the dugout. A long, focused gaze from the outfield, eyes intently locked on everything.

Baker is partially deaf, but at this point, any possible problems on the diamond have long been conquered.

Central-Phenix City's center fielder rarely even thinks about it anymore.

"I never use my hearing as an excuse," Baker said. "I just play the game. I mean, I've been playing since I was 3 years old, so I know what's going on. It's never been a problem."

An ear infection took away Baker's hearing when he was

5 months old. An operation partially restored it, and the hearing aids he wears now help, too.

For the most part, Baker's hearing is no longer an issue.

He is an exceptional lip reader, so conversation becomes a problem only if he looks away. At times, it can be tough in class if a teacher looks away, a move that makes it hard for Baker to read lips.

With his hearing aid, Baker can hear people just fine, as long as they're standing close enough for him to pick it up.

"He just has to pay attention a lot," his brother, Jay, said. "He has to sit in the front of every class. In baseball, he has to pay a lot of attention with his eyes."

Baker, a senior, has been a key player for Central as the Red Devils have marched through the Alabama High School Athletic Association playoffs and landed in a semifinal matchup at Fairhope.

The best-of-three series starts 6 p.m. Friday with a doubleheader.

Few players are more instinctive in center field.

Baker rarely takes a bad step on a fly ball. Even on a line drive straight at him, which is the toughest ball for any outfielder, he gets the right jump.

"I'd rather not have to catch a lot of ground balls," Baker said. "I like to run around and throw the ball as hard as I can, so I feel good in the outfield."

Baker took a roundabout path to center field this season.

Forced to play in the infield early in the year when shortstop Blake Johnson went down with an injury, Baker struggled to make the adjustment.

When Johnson returned to the lineup, Baker went back out to the outfield, where he feels most comfortable.

"Hank's been a pleasant surprise," Red Devils coach Chris Heaps said. "When Blake came back, it kind of pushed Hank out of a spot, but he's found a big role for us."

His athleticism makes Baker a versatile offensive player, too.

The Red Devils emphasize on-base percentage over batting average, and Baker is an expert at getting on base. When he is there, he can be deadly on the base paths.

"He's probably one of our better athletes," Heaps said. "And he's a real good base runner."

Now, Baker and the rest of his teammates have one big goal left to accomplish this season: A trip to Montgomery would be the perfect ending to this season.

"It's been really exciting in the playoffs," Baker said. "Being the first team at Central to make it to state would mean a lot."

AHSAA semifinals

Class 6A

Friday

Central at Fairhope (DH), 6 p.m.

Saturday

Central at Fairhope (if game), 2 p.m.

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