Most people would be taken aback to find out that a girl has been a perennial all-star selection over the past five years for the Spring Hill Dixie Baseball League. Imagine that same girl has profound hearing loss.
Sydney Sauto, 13, has hurdled obstacle after obstacle in her young life to become one of the best ballplayers in Hernando County. And she's done it all while being completely deaf in her right ear and having severe impairment in her left ear.
"She comprehends only about 80 percent of what's spoken to her," said Lory Sauto, Sydney's mother.
Diagnosed with enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, Sydney needs a sign language interpreter in all of her classes at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill. But she can read lips so well that many don't even realize her hearing is an issue.
Always athletic, Sydney played soccer until her parents found the sport too dangerous when combined with her syndrome. She still plays basketball, but her true love is on the diamond.
"There's just something special about being the only girl out there sometimes," Sydney said. "I enjoy getting to know the coaches and the other kids."
At 7 years old, she was a regular in the after-school program at the YMCA in Spring Hill. With both parents working full time, she kept busy throughout the afternoons. One day, the facility received a donation of gloves and balls from the Tampa Bay Rays, and a curious Sydney brought the gifts home to ask her father, Mike Sauto, about them.
Once he explained the game, Sydney and Mike began an almost daily ritual of playing catch after school. When the Spring Hill Dixie was having signups, she jumped at the chance.
In her first full season she was named to the league's all-star team. The Dixie all-stars compete in district, state and sometimes even World Series championship tournaments during the summer. Only the best players from the league are eligible, and Sydney has been a regular since 2008.
There is no position she can't play. She loves to pitch and was one of three hurlers, along with Hunter Berger and Jaylon Fuzz, for the Spring Hill Dixie Junior boys team that reached the state finals last month. She started at first base in her first season, but was moved around the infield. She starts in centerfield for her travel ballclub, the Spring Hill Titans, and has become a very good catcher.
She can be found behind the plate for her Explorer softball team. While she prefers baseball over softball, baseball isn't offered at the middle school level. But once she gets back to playing small ball, Sydney loves being out on the mound and at shortstop.
She wondered whether she would be able to continue with baseball as she got older. Then she saw a story about Durant High School pitcher Chelsea Baker. Baker, a rising senior, throws a knuckleball taught to her by former major leaguers Joe Niekro and Tim Wakefield. She parlayed that knowledge into a 3-0 record and 0.74 earned run average with the Cougars last season.
"I was kind of surprised because I hadn't seen a girl pitch at that level," Sydney said. "It was cool to see another girl making it that far, and it kind of told me that I can do it, too."
But what really caught Sydney's attention was Baker's invitation to throw batting practice with the Rays at Tropicana Field in June. Baker even got Rays catcher Jose Molina to swing and miss at her knuckleball a couple times.
"Chelsea helped motivate (Sydney) because she wasn't sure if she was allowed to play baseball in high school," her mother said. "I explained that there are laws that allow her to try out for whatever sport she wants to, but when she saw (Baker), she knew for sure she was going to go out for the team."
Sydney's parents still aren't sure which high school she will attend. Because of her hearing loss, she needs accommodations that are only available at Springstead High. But her older sister, Sarah, is a senior at Weeki Wachee, the school Sydney would like to attend.
Regardless of where she ends up, there is little question about whether she will be successful. Everyone who knows Sydney has been inspired by her drive and determination. As she was motivated by Baker, she could provide the same example for girls down the line.
"I've been a fan of Sydney's for some time now," Dixie all-stars coach Bill Collins said. "She's definitely an inspiration to any girl who wants to play with the boys."