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Cash would be a big hit with deaf players

(ran East, Beach, West editions)

Tom Mueller lofts a softball toward home plate, then gestures base-stealing instructions in American Sign Language to players on the field.

The catcher, Tom Bauer, completes the designed play by throwing out the runner. The hot afternoon practice in Clearwater bears fruit.

The 9-year-old deaf softball team is working on its defense because base stealing, typically forbidden, will be allowed at a tournament the team will enter next month in Lakeland.

"Last time we played there we made a lot of mistakes," Bauer said before practice at Chesapeake Field on McMullen-Booth Road.

The team, based in Pinellas Park, is confident it will win the Lakeland tournament.

Team members also think they will do well in a southeast regional tournament for deaf teams next month in Charlotte, N.C. And they think there is a good chance they will win a national tournament in Columbus, Ohio, in September.

"This year we think we have the best chance of all. Everybody's hungry," said infielder Todd Newman, 25.

The team, nicknamed Thunderheats, represents Tampa Bay Association for the Deaf, a charitable organization that encourages athletic activity among its members who are either hard of hearing or deaf.

Thunderheats, with 18 players from the Tampa Bay area, are among comparatively few deaf softball teams in the state. There are teams in Orlando, Miami, Lakeland and West Palm Beach and a loosely organized one in Tampa, Mueller said.

There are about 100 well-organized deaf softball teams in the country, he said, and a champion is decided at an annual tournament put on by the National Softball Association of the Deaf.

What the team could use now more than practice, however, is money.

"We need about $2,000 for new pants, transportation and hotels," said Mueller, 36, whose sign language was interpreted for a reporter by his 10-year-old daughter Bonnie.

The team's striped shorts are fine for Florida games, Mueller said, but they will need long pants for the Ohio tournament.

About half the players will drive to the Charlotte tournament to save money, Newman said. Others will fly. Players are hoping they will raise enough to fly to the Ohio tournament and be able to rent vans for getting around.

A recent fund-raising effort through the mail is attracting a few donations, team treasurer Ben Smith Jr. said. The team already had $1,500 in its treasury before the campaign started.

Smith borrowed a reporter's notebook and wrote, "That is not enough."

How to donate

To make a donation to the Tampa Bay Association for the Deaf's softball team, write Thomas Mueller, c/o TBAD, 6230 99th Circle N, Pinellas Park, FL 34666. Donations are tax-deductible. The not-for-profit organization's tax-identification number is 59-2396162. Mueller also can be reached through the Florida Relay Service at (800) 955-8771. Callers also can ask the operator for (813) 544-3711.

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