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Stuttering isn't stopping the Astros' George Springer, who's now talking the talk

Stuttering isn't stopping the Astros' George Springer, who's now talking the talk
George Springer of the Houston Astros answers questions from the media ahead of the World Series. Springer used to avoid talking because of a stutter. (Justin Heiman / Getty Images)

George Springer begins to speak, hesitates, continues, pauses, then finishes with a perfectly pronounced recitation of one of the most important lessons of this World Series.

“I can’t let anything in life I can’t control slow me down or stop me from being who I want to be,’’ he said.

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Those 22 words proved it.

Springer, the Houston Astros’ center fielder, is one of the most courageous players in the Series, yet his struggle is mostly hidden, his bravery unknown.

His difficulty is not in trying to hit a fastball or chase down a line drive, but in talking about it.

Springer, 28, speaks with a stutter, a communication disorder that has afflicted him since childhood. He has learned to deal with it so that it is noticeable only in momentary stops and starts in his speech. It is nothing that keeps him quiet, which was evident during an awe-inspiring achievement Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

He hit a two-run home run in the 11th inning that gave the Astros a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers in Game 2 of the World Series.

The achievement occurred during his postgame interview.

For several minutes, he sat by himself at a table in front of a roomful of journalists and provided lengthy, expressive and detailed answers to eight questions.

There were brief pauses. There was the occasional repeated word. But if you didn’t know he was a stutterer, you might have just thought he was nervous. He was that smooth. He was that empowered.

“There was a point in my life where I used to hate this stuff,’’ Springer said of interviews. “But it kind of grew on me, and the more I kind of embraced who I am, it made me enjoy it more.’’

Springer loves to talk and does so constantly, with teammates and reporters and even from left field in a unique national television interview during the middle of this year’s All-Star game in Miami.

He talks so much, unabashed and unbridled, that it would take another stutterer to truly understand the painstaking process that brought him to this point.

I get it. I am also a stutterer. Like Springer, I spent my early childhood trying to make myself understood. There was teasing. There was embarrassment. There were hours spent in speech therapy.

My stuttering led to my interest in writing. It was the only way I could communicate. By the time I was in high school, I had acquired the tools to help me speak freely, and today I manage it well enough to appear on television. But with my fast speech and occasional stumble, the struggle is always there.

I am still sometimes ridiculed about it on Twitter. My speech pattern has been described in ways that both insult and infuriate. I have long since learned to ignore the criticism and keep on yakking, but those lessons didn’t come quickly or easily.

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Believe me when I tell you, George Springer is one tough dude.

“I’m a human being, man, I’m a normal person. I just happen to stutter,’’ he said. “Some people have brown hair, some people have blond hair; some people stutter, some people don’t.’’

He said this while sitting at a table in the Dodger Stadium Dugout Club earlier this week during World Series media day. Even though Springer is one of the Astros’ stars — he led the team with 34 home runs — there were only a handful of reporters around him. Most of the attention surrounded flashier players such as Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve.

Springer doesn’t mind the shadows. He used to beg for them. Growing up in Connecticut, he was the kid who would never raise his hand in school, the kid in fear every time he opened his mouth.

“I was the guy who didn’t talk,’’ he said. “I would avoid speaking at all costs.’’

He was often teased. Sometimes he was bullied. The phone was torture. Restaurants were worse. If he wanted an entrée he knew would be tough to say, he would gesture. If he was with his family, his sister Nicole would order for him.

“If I wanted a steak sandwich, I would just point to it,’’ he said. “I was too scared to say it.’’

He recalls a couple of attempts at speech therapy, but he said he was blessed with encouraging parents, an ability to express himself in sports, and a small group of friends who understood.

“If therapy works for you, great. But for me, I also developed my own ways to handle it,’’ he said. “My parents always tried to slow me down, and that helped, because I always spoke way faster than I’m supposed to. Then when I was around all my friends, it didn’t really seem to bother them. If I did it, they would wait until I was done, then finish the conversation.’’

By the time Springer enrolled at the University of Connecticut on a baseball scholarship, he had one main request for his coach.

“I didn’t want to take any classes where I had to make presentations,’’ he said.

As he became a first-team All-American college player and later a first-round pick by the Astros in the 2001 draft, he discovered that his speech improved when he was talking about baseball. He also tried some homemade tools that any stutterer knows.

“I’ve learned how to switch words without anybody knowing it,’’ he said. “I would speak with my hands. I would slow down my sentences.’’

He grew confident enough to begin giving talks to stuttering groups. After his rookie season in 2014, he was speaking to a group from the Stuttering Assn. for the Young (SAY) when he decided he wanted to spread his story further.

“I had an epiphany,’’ he said. “I realized, seeing these kids and seeing the pain that they go through because they feel bullied and they feel isolated, and that’s so sad. So I decided right then and there, I’m going to expose myself as somebody who stutters, and if you see me in an interview or you see me on TV and I do it, I hope you do see it.’’

George Springer hits a two-run home run in the 11th inning of Game 2 against the Dodgers.
George Springer hits a two-run home run in the 11th inning of Game 2 against the Dodgers. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Springer has become a SAY spokesperson and hosts an annual bowling tournament, with the proceeds sending kids to Camp SAY, a two-week summer camp for young people who stutter.

“When you stutter, it’s a very isolating feeling for a lot of people,’’ Springer said. “I was 17 before I met someone else who had a stutter. Now for all these kids who get to attend summer camp with kids who stutter, that’s great. They can see they’re not the only people out there.’’

His Astros teammates know his story and admire his journey.

“He’s conquered a lot,’’ pitcher Dallas Keuchel told reporters.

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More than 3 million Americans stutter, according to the Stuttering Foundation, a national nonprofit that offers services and support to stutterers and their families.

“Stuttering is a seriously misunderstood disorder,’’ said Dr. Ronald Webster, president of the Hollins Communications Research Institute, a Roanoke, Va.-based speech treatment center. “The public understands so little about stuttering, they think it’s a trivial childhood problem or indicative of a mental deficiency, and that’s just not true.’’

Webster commended Springer, saying, “It’s great to hear the stories of stutterers who are fighters, who are moving on, because by doing so they often inspire others to do the same.’’

I will love watching George Springer fight during the rest of this Series, and it will have nothing to do with the baseball. I love that he has taken one of sports’ time-honored cliches and turned it on its head.

He doesn’t just walk the walk. He talks the talk.

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