May 28, 2015
Cristian Torres knows about throwing a curve. Beyond painting the corner of the strike zone with his fastball, he’s had to face a curveball from life: Torres was born with a hearing disability.
The senior Irish pitcher from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, was the second in his family to be diagnosed at a very early age with moderate to severe hearing loss. His older sister, Alexandra, was born with the same disability.
“My sister is my hero,” Torres says with a smile. “I watched her play sports and do well in school. She graduated from Harvard and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in cancer biology. She never let the disability stand in the way of doing the things she wanted to do. Whenever I’m down, I can always count on her to give me some perspective and remind me to keep pushing ahead. She’s been the most important person in my life for as long as I can remember.”
As a child, Torres wore noticeable hearing aids that often elicited comments or questions from other kids in his classes. “They would say, `What are those for?’ or make fun of me for wearing them,” he recalls. “It made me really uncomfortable and I didn’t want to talk about it.”
The technology has evolved since his childhood.
“When I was young they would fall out a lot, they’d get dirty or break when I was playing sports and I’d have to try to fix them with tape. It was especially hard wearing them under helmets because they’d crush against my head and fall out when I took my helmet off. It was just a big hassle all the time,” says Torres.
The hearing aids he wears now are tiny and fit entirely inside his ear–you’d never know they are there. The problem now is how quickly the batteries wear down. He keeps spares in his backpack, his locker and his game bag to ensure he’s never without power. He takes the hearing aids out when he’s sleeping to conserve the batteries.
With advances in technology, though, come other difficulties. If they break or become too dirty, it’s a month-long process to send them to a repair facility and wait to receive them back.
“I keep older pairs around so if I have to send mine out, I still have something while I’m waiting, but the technology is definitely not as good and during that time I have more difficulty hearing,” he says.
Beginning in elementary school and up through high school, Torres had a therapist who met with him each week to work on speech and lip reading.
“She’d have new words for me each time we met, and she’d speak softer and softer until she wasn’t producing any sound at all. That’s how I learned to read lips,” he says.
At Notre Dame he has worked with Disability Services and the Sara Bea Learning Center to obtain the help he needs in order to do well academically. He sits up front in classes and takes his own notes, and he also has a designated note-taker with whom he reviews after each class to make sure he heard everything and wrote it all down correctly. His professors have learned they cannot talk while turning their backs to write on the board because then he isn’t able to read their lips to be sure he’s hearing what they’re saying. The larger a classroom–or especially in auditoriums where sound is amplified and coming from all different directions–the more difficult it is for Torres to hear.
“Coming to Notre Dame was a really big transition,” he says. “Between being so far from home, trying to figure out how to get what I needed in classes and then adjusting to the workload and training schedule, my freshman year was really hard.”
His biggest support has been his baseball teammates.
“They have never treated me differently because of my disability. In fact, they are very intentional about making sure I’m included and that I understand everything that’s going on around us. I will sometimes have to guess at what people are talking about if I don’t quite hear everything, and I’ll make a comment in response that doesn’t actually have anything to do with what’s been said. But instead of laughing at me they just correct me and it’s no big deal,” Torres says.
“I love these guys, and it’s been great getting closer to them over the last four years.”
How close? Torres shares a house just off the southwest side of campus with seven other seniors from the baseball team.
“`Clean’ is not a word that would likely be used to describe our house,” says fellow senior pitcher Matt Ternowchek with a laugh. “If girls are coming over, we might tidy the common areas a little bit. Mostly we just hang out a lot and play video games obsessively. And make fun of each other. Like Mac here, who had a first date a couple nights ago. We got him pretty good.”
Senior outfielder Mac Hudgins looks like a deer in headlights as he’s called out by his teammate.
“See, this is why I like Torres better than you, `cause he doesn’t get all up in my business,” Hudgins says in defense.
Ternowchek capitulates: “Yeah, Cristian is pretty much the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Just really, really nice. He works hard and gets the job done. It’s been awesome having him in the house.”
Irish head baseball coach Mik Aoki contextualizes the previous exchange.
“Cristian has really matured into the mainstream of the team dynamic here. He’s part of our core and he represents the best of the culture that we are intentional about fostering. But he’s had to work at it. It’s not been easy for him, and we’ve not handed him anything on a silver platter. We don’t treat him any differently than other guys, and he has gone through a pretty significant growing-up process over the last four years.
“Now he’s a leader. The guys respect him for what he’s done because he’s earned it. We’ve made him get up in front of the whole team on multiple occasions and talk about one of the five pillars (of Notre Dame– education, excellence, community, faith and tradition) and he’s always been well-prepared and done a great job. He’s going to graduate and go out from here and really be a point of pride for the team and the University.”
Torres began playing baseball at age five after watching his older sister’s softball games. He also picked up soccer, basketball and football along the way, but eventually settled on baseball.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s on the field where Torres’ hearing disability proves least of a hindrance.
“Even with my back to the outfielders, if there’s a pop fly and I hear the guys are calling it, I don’t need to try to understand exactly what word they’re using because it’s almost always the typical, `Ball! Ball!’ call,” says Torres. “Yet there’s almost never a time when I actually need to be able to hear exact words when I’m on the field. So that’s a great thing about baseball and pitching, at least for me.”
More difficult is his ability to hear and participate in large group settings where lots of people are talking at once. Cristian is unable to focus his hearing on one person among a crowd of people in conversation, so he has to pick someone’s lips to read while tuning out the rest. At pool parties or the beach, he also has to choose between getting in (which necessitates removing his hearing aids and prevents him from participating at all in conversation) or sitting on the side.
“It can be frustrating, yeah,” he says, “but that’s where perspective comes in. Our Friends of Jaclyn buddy Daniel had cancer. What I have to deal with in no way matches what he went through. Do I sometimes feel sorry for myself and wish I didn’t have this disability? Sure. But it actually motivates me to work harder and do even better, to prove to myself that I’m able to do anything I commit to. That’s what my sister taught me.
“Most people don’t realize right away that I have a disability, so if I can be excellent at baseball or excellent in my school work, then people are even more amazed once they learn that I can’t hear. I think it’s important for kids especially to realize that you can’t let anything hold you back. If you’ve got a stumbling block in your way, work that much harder to get past it–because you can. People are going to doubt you or want to make allowances for you or treat you differently. But the harder you push yourself to excel, the more you’re going to have to be proud about for yourself.”
Torres has plenty to be proud of–three monograms, a collegiate baseball career and a Notre Dame degree.
He’s grabbing the curve of life and making it his own.
— By Renee Peggs, special correspondent