By: RoseAnn Sapia
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Imagine attending a game at the ballpark, and it’s completely silent. Your favorite player steps to the plate, but there’s no walkup music, no introduction. There’s no background noise either. No sound effects or PA announcements. No one is chatting between innings or cheering every time a runner crosses the plate.
Many people aren’t accustomed to attending a social outing such as a baseball game with a hushed atmosphere, yet this is similar to what members of the Deaf Community experience when they’re at the ballpark. Experiencing a ballgame as a member of the Deaf Community is unique, and the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, recently went above and beyond to cater to that.
On Sunday, April 28 the Rochester Red Wings hosted Deaf Culture Day at Frontier Field during their matinee against the Pawtucket Red Sox. They teamed up with Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and the Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) to bring the idea to life in the most authentic way.
“We wanted to make this a celebration”, says Dan Mason, General Manager of the Red Wings, adding that they wanted this game to be for the people of the Deaf Community while educating fans who are not Deaf about the culture. Everything from the uniforms worn to content played on the video board reflected this idea.
As part of the celebration, the Red Wings designed a jersey and cap that utilized American Sign Language (ASL). The jersey read “Red Wings” spelled out in ASL, while the cap featured the ASL sign for “R”. After the game, the player worn jerseys were autographed and auctioned off via the LiveSource app with proceeds benefiting RSD and NTID. Discounted tickets were also made available to students, faculty, and staff from these schools and their families to attend the game.
The festivities continued as fans entered the ballpark. Interpreters were stationed at the ticket office, concession stands, team store, inside the seating bowl, and on field for announcements. With assistance from NTID, the video board and closed-circuit broadcast at Frontier Field featured captions throughout the game, which is something they had never done before.
The goal of this promotion was to make this as geared to the Deaf Community as possible, so members of NTID and RSD were active participants throughout the ballgame. Jake Schwall, a student at NTID, signed God Bless America, other students from the schools signed the National Anthem, and all contestants during In-Game Contests were Deaf. A special NTID alum even reprised his role with the Red Wings on the field.
Ogden Whitehead, better known as Recycleman, worked with the Red Wings in the late 90s and early 2000s. He too is a member of the Deaf Community, and would lead the crowd in cheers during the games.
Describing him as having an infectious and outgoing personality, Mason believes Deaf Culture Day was the perfect time to bring Recycleman back in almost 15 years. “He’s such a great advocate for the Deaf Community”, he adds.
All throughout the game, the team highlighted famous Deaf people who made important contributions to society. This furthered the educational and celebrational tones of the day, as people left the ballpark with more knowledge about Deaf Culture.
The Seventh Inning is when the atmosphere of the game really keyed in on the Deaf experience. Referred to as the “Signing Inning”, the seventh was designed to make the Deaf fans in attendance feel at home, while giving all of the fans who were not Deaf a glimpse of what it’s like to be Deaf at a baseball game. The sense of sight was stressed, since there were no additional sound effects during the seventh inning, it was all about what fans could see. The inning put an emphasis on what the Deaf Community has to do to communicate, with ASL being integrated as much as possible.
During the Signing Inning, no music was played, no PA announcements or player introductions were made, and there were no sound effects. Instead, the video board showed the players signing their names as they walked to the plate. During Take Me Out To The Ballgame, a recording of Red Wings players signing different portions of the song in ASL was shown.
— Rochester Red Wings (@RocRedWings) April 27, 2019
Everyone from the players to team employees got involved in the spirit of the day by learning a little bit of ASL. GM Mason learned how to sign his name and “Go Wings”. One usher went as far as learning how to sign “Can I help you?” and “Goodnight” in order to be as helpful as possible. Mason followed that lead and signed “Goodnight” as fans left the ballpark after the game. Even though the Deaf Community knew they weren’t fluent in ASL, Mason could sense their appreciation for making an effort.
“We wanted to make this as comfortable an experience as possible”, Mason states, which is why the Red Wings partnered with NTID and RSD once the idea of hosting a Deaf Culture Day came to fruition.
Every time the team does a promotion, management tries to come up with something that will attract a different segment to the ballpark, whether they’re baseball fans or not.
Last season, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, hosted a Deaf Awareness Night. According to studies as recent as 2017, Rochester, New York has the largest per capita Deaf population in America. Mason saw hosting an event similar to that of the Pelicans to be a great way to reach out and get that community engaged at the ballpark.
“In Minor League Baseball we all share our greatest ideas”, Mason says, noting that MiLB is nothing like Corporate America where no one wants to give their secrets away. In order to collectively get better as a whole, individual teams have to better themselves, too. “We share with our brothers and sisters in baseball”, he adds.
Knowing they wanted to host the larger Deaf Community in town at Frontier Field this season, the Red Wings used the Pelicans concept as a starting point, and added new wrinkles for their unique market to see if they could make it a success.
The first step to bringing Deaf Culture Day to life in Rochester was setting up a Steering Committee comprised of people from NTID and RSD in order to make sure every detail and aspect of the promotion would strike a chord with the Deaf Community. The Red Wings turned to John Panara, who although is not Deaf, grew up in a Deaf household and taught at NTID, to help select the committee.
Panara’s family is heavily integrated into Deaf Culture and history. Robert Panara, John’s father who became Deaf at the age of 10 as a result of spinal meningitis, is a Deaf Culture pioneer. He graduated from Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s, and returned there upon graduation as an English professor where he taught for almost 20 years.
After joining the advisory board in 1965, Robert helped to establish NTID, and later joined the school as an English professor in 1967, making him NTID’s first Deaf faculty member. A poet and author himself, Robert would then aid in the creation of the school’s English Department and Drama Club. He taught at NTID for 20 years.
Because Robert did so much for the advancement of Deaf Culture, the U.S. Postal Service had a stamp made in his honor in 2017, three years after his passing. The stamp reads “Robert Panara, Teacher, Pioneer of Deaf Studies”, and shows an image of Panara signing the word “respect”. It is the 16th stamp in the Distinguished Americans series.
The Panara Family’s connection to Deaf Culture Day goes beyond their history and involvement at NTID. According to Mason, Robert loved baseball, and was a Red Wings Season Ticket Holder. What better family to help marry Deaf Culture and Red Wings baseball than the Panara Family?
John Panara was the first person the Red Wings called to invite to be a part of this event. He helped put together the Steering Committee, which included Skip Flanagan, a former baseball player at NTID who currently serves as the Athlete Development Coordinator at the school, among others. The Committee listened to ideas, and guided management to select the ones that would resonate most with members of the Deaf Community.
John even provided the Red Wings with Great Deaf Americans, the book his father authored in 1983, along with slides his father had of famous members of the Deaf Community to use as educational tools throughout the game.
The best thing that came out of the first meeting with the Steering Committee was the creation of the promotion’s name. They agreed they wanted to make this a celebration, and thus, Deaf Culture Day at Frontier Field was born.
Looking back at Deaf Culture Day, GM Mason sees the unique promotion as an overall success. Although it was a cold and overcast day, the Red Wings had a very good turnout, which was an encouraging sign.
For Mason, the best part of the day was being at the ballpark to experience it. “It was cool to walk in the stands to see people speaking in American Sign Language and having a good time”, he reflects.
Deaf Culture Day was really an extension of the services the Red Wings already offer at Frontier Field on a gamely basis. For about the last 10 years, the Red Wings have had interpreters on the field for the National Anthem, God Bless America, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, and some pre-game festivities, which was already more than other MiLB teams provide. This celebration took what was already in place, and raised it to another power.
Now that it’s clear the first ever Deaf Culture Day struck a chord with the Deaf Community in Rochester, Mason knows this is something they want to make an annual event at the ballpark. In fact, they’ve already started meeting to discuss what else they can do next year that would make the celebration even better.
“Hopefully we can encourage other teams, even in other sports, to do something similar.”
To see more moments from Deaf Culture Day at Frontier Field, visit @RocRedWings on Twitter or visit the photo gallery from the game here. Red Wings Deaf Culture Day merchandise featuring American Sign Language can be purchased at the Official Online Store of the Rochester Red Wings here.
RoseAnn Sapia is a Features Writer and the Co-Editor of Lifer for All Heels on Deck. Follow RoseAnn on Twitter to discuss all things baseball (basketball, too) @_RoseAnnSapia.