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Deaf baseball player aims for major leagues

By Craig Stanley
NBC News 

Austin Solecitto is in the middle of a stellar senior year. With the help of his 90 m.p.h. fastball, the left-handed Indian Hills Braves pitcher led his high school baseball team to a 16-6 season and they’re headed to the state playoffs.

The 18-year-old New Jersey native from Franklin Lakes, N.J., has easily become one of the top pitchers in his region, grabbing the attention of scouts across the nation.

While his above-average athletic ability is evident, there is something else about Austin that sets him apart from his peers.

Austin is deaf. He was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at the age of two, after Austin’s parents, John and Gloria Sollecito noticed unusual behavior in their budding toddler.

“I used to think he just didn’t like me, ‘cause I’d call him and he wouldn’t come,” Austin’s father said. “I said, ‘Something’s wrong.’”

Before reaching the age of six, Austin had two implant surgeries to mitigate his hearing loss. Since then, Austin has adapted to his disability by picking up ways to enhance his communication skills, including lip reading and hand signals, especially while playing baseball.

“You wouldn’t really know he’s deaf,” said John Sollecito. “People think it’s, you know, a radio thing or he’s listening to an iPod. He’s exceeded my expectations as far as what I envisioned it was going to be like when he grew up.”

Click here to watch the trailer for "I See the Crowd Roar," a documentary about deaf baseball player William Hoy, who played from 1888 to 1902. 

To compensate for his lack of hearing, Austin wears an external hearing device throughout the day. But it’s not always necessary. Austin says the ability to disable the hearing aid when pitching on the mound has ironically proven to be great advantage on the diamond.

“When I don't hear anybody -- the other team or the parents -- I can just focus that much easier on just hitting my spots,” he said. The focus pays off – according to ESPN, Austin achieved 67 strikeouts during the 2012 season.  

That ability to focus, added Austin’s baseball coach George Hill, is an integral part of Austin’s aptitude.

“I think that is probably his biggest asset -- his composure,” said Hill. “The other team could be yelling, people could be yelling, I could be yelling, and he doesn’t hear you.”

Austin’s accomplishments on the pitching mound – as well as in the classroom – have paid off. The heavily scouted pitcher, who also maintained a 3.7 GPA this semester, will attend Boston College this fall on a baseball scholarship. These feats come as no surprise to those closest to Austin.

“He’s been through a lot with his disability,” his brother, Mark, said. “Some things don’t come easy or as easily to him, so I think what that’s taught him is to stick with it and really persevere. I think that’s where he gets his determination from.”

Austin says he is just doing what comes naturally to him.

“I kind of think my deafness is overblown,” he said. "To me it’s no big deal, like, I just feel like any other person out there."

Now Austin hopes to make into a professional baseball league — a mission that both his father and coach support.

"He's a very special young man,” Hill said. “We'll be watching him and supporting him every step of the way."