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Announcer Has Passion for Games He Cannot See

April 26, 1993|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Like any other baseball announcer, Don Wardlow springs to his feet during the seventh-inning stretch and takes a quick break from the action. Grabbing an old, clunky microphone, he leans out of the press box and leads fans in a rousing version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

It's a crisp April afternoon, and the 811 die-hards who have come to see their minor-league team play are in a festive mood. As Wardlow sings, parents burp newborns, old-timers sway to the music and kids stand up on wooden bleacher seats, straining for a better look at the man with the microphone.

If only he could see them.

Don Wardlow--voice of the New Britain Red Sox and budding baseball raconteur--is blind.

"What a be-e-e-a-a-utiful day here at Beehive Field!" he chirps, as the fans cheer his a cappella singing and settle back into their seats. "And what a great game we've got going! It's all here on Red Sox radio!"

Baseball, as even the most casual fan knows, is a game of statistics. Who was on base when Kirk Gibson cracked his home run in the 1988 World Series? Who scored the Dodgers' only run in Sandy Koufax's perfect game? The answers add up to a wealth of legend and lore, making the record book a holy book. And you can find Wardlow's name in it--under W for wishes that come true.

He's the first blind person to announce live professional baseball games. Yet to hear him tell it, it's no surprise. As a boy in Metuchen, N.J., Wardlow dreamed of broadcasting in the big leagues. After years of trying, he's gone from resumes and "Dear Don" letters to a radio contract with the Boston Red Sox farm team in double-A ball.

Not bad for a guy who was literally born without eyes and who makes his way through the world with Gizmo, a Seeing Eye dog. But there are some things he obviously can't do.

"Look, if a pitcher steps off the mound and picks up a hot dog wrapper that blew in from the stands, I'm not going to know that," says Wardlow, 30. "That's where my partner, Jim Lucas, comes in. He calls the play-by-play, and I do all the color stuff. I'm the guy who fills you in on the players and everything else. We do it all together."

They make quite a pair. Lucas, a tall, gangly fellow in his 30s, rattles off the facts to a radio audience as the game unfolds. Meanwhile, Wardlow, an easygoing guy with a clear tenor voice, serves up a stream of friendly chatter, oddball stories and statistics.

Listen to them as they handle a slow moment in a recent Red Sox game:

Lucas: "First pitch, and there's a routine fly ball to our man in right field. Chick makes the catch, and there's one pitch, one out."

Wardlow: "You know, Jim, we talk about how big this park is. But did you know that in the Appalachian League around 1939 they had a park in Pennington Gap, Va., which you could fit this park in?"

Lucas: "Was the centerfield fence 500 feet away?"

Wardlow: "I'll tell you. The short porch in right field was 620 feet, yup. The left-field fence was 640 feet, and centerfield was 1,050 feet."

Lucas: "Wow. First pitch is in for a strike."

Wardlow: "And I'm convinced if they had a broadcaster back there in Pennington Gap, they'd have stuck him in a booth behind centerfield."

It's baseball banter, so smooth you'd think it was rehearsed. And in a sense, it was. Long before they got a professional contract, Wardlow and Lucas would go to Yankee Stadium, sit up in the bleachers and announce games into a tape recorder. They spent hours listening to recordings of famous broadcasters, trying to master a difficult art and land their first job.

There were years of frustration, because few clubs would take a chance on such an odd couple. And before that, Wardlow had to overcome the skepticism of a culture that scoffs at the very idea of a blind man behind the mike.

"People said that I saddled myself with an albatross by sticking it out with Don," says Lucas. "And you'd think a key requirement for broadcasting is to have eyes. But you know, I've come to see it differently."

*

Minutes after he was born in 1963, doctors told Peggy Wardlow that her son, Don, had no eyes. The news came as a shock; her three previous children had no disabilities. She was overwhelmed and fearful.

"I wasn't prepared for any of this. No parent is, I guess," says Mrs. Wardlow. "But from the start, there was something special about Don."

It wasn't that he overcame his disability with ease. In grammar school, he needed constant help from friends and teachers. There were incidents of teasing in junior high, and concerns that he might lapse into self-pity.

Then baseball came to the rescue.

"Every night, I'd twist the radio dials and pull in broadcasts from all over, from New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia," Wardlow recalls. "And when I learned how to read with Braille techniques, I began reading every book on baseball I could find. I was absolutely in love with the game."

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