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Tampa Bay's Enrique Oliu has a great ear for color

The Rays analyst can't see, but he can translate the game's sounds into insightful commentary.

August 28, 2009|Kevin Baxter

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — The cramped broadcast booth for AM 680, the Spanish-language outlet for the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, is close enough to the infield of Tropicana Field to hear it all.

The crack of the bat, the ball's loud pop as it is snared by the second baseman, the crowd cheering.

Enrique Oliu, color analyst for the Rays' radio broadcasts, takes these sounds and spins them to life, making the game something a listener can see, even if he cannot.

Oliu is blind.

"And now, for the play-by-play, here's the friend of apple pie, Ricky Taveras!" Oliu says in rapid-fire Spanish.

"Thank you, Volcano," Taveras says, in a nod toward Oliu's excitable on-air style.

"It doesn't make sense, right?" Carlos Pena, the Rays' All-Star first baseman, says of Oliu. "It's unbelievable to me. But he does it. And he does it well."

Oliu has an easy answer.

"If sight is perception," he says, "I can see as much as the next person."

And what he sees are the sounds of baseball.

"It's not a carnival act," says Oliu, 47. "My dad always said, do you want to play your own music or play someone else's music?"

From his perch at Tropicana, Oliu rocks back and forth in a rhythm all his own while, on the field, the Rays tangle with the Boston Red Sox.

Taveras, a Dominican with a deep baritone voice made for radio, calmly describes the action while Oliu, with a voice about an octave higher, jumps in excitedly after every pitch.

"Here comes Price," Taveras says as Rays pitcher David Price begins his windup. "Called strike again. A fastball on the outside corner, 93 miles per hour."

"That's what Price has to do," Oliu adds. "Get ahead with his fastball early. Then he can throw his change and his curve. If he can locate his change, he'll have success tonight."

Oliu's dark eyes, mostly hidden below bushy eyebrows and a forehead forever furrowed in a squint, have never registered anything other than extremely bright light and vivid colors -- and those, too, went dark when he was 8.

The sounds from the field and Taveras' staccato play-by-play is all Oliu needs to see what the crowd sees.

"He doesn't miss a beat," says ESPN baseball analyst Orestes Destrade, a former major league player who recommended Oliu for the Rays' job. "The stats he comes up with and the things he remembers -- obviously, God has given him some extra insight."

Says Oliu: "I just think it's different. People forget that a quarterback doesn't really look at his receivers. A quarterback just knows the receiver's supposed to be there and he throws to an area and the receiver's supposed to cut. You forget that a lot of it is just instinct. Anything in life is a lot of instinct."

Down on the field, Tampa's Jason Bartlett comes to bat.

"Hard grounder in the hole at short," Taveras says. "The throw to first. What a play! What a play by Jed Lowrie! He's out!"

"Tremendous play," says Oliu of Boston's shortstop. "He went deep in the hole, got the ball, planted and fired. And it wasn't just any runner. It was Jason Bartlett, who runs well. He went a long way to get that ball. He played it to the side. That was the only option he had."

Oliu was born more than eight weeks early, before his retinas had a chance to fully develop. Yet he was raised no differently than his four siblings -- or any of the kids in the central Nicaraguan farming community where he grew up.

"I used to tell everybody at the house, 'Be careful. Nobody says 'poor Enrique,' " says his mother, Marilyn. "He was brought up just like he was one of the guys. He got to do everything the other kids did. Riding horses, swimming."

School was a new challenge: When Oliu was 10, his mother sent him to live with an aunt in the U.S. so he could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine.

"It was the hardest thing in my life," she says, amid new tears over old memories. "But I saw how intelligent he was and how smart he was. And I said, 'No, this kid, he needs to get an education.' I don't care what we have to do, but he needs to go to school. We can't waste this intelligence. That's probably why I made the sacrifice."

What his mother saw as a sacrifice, however, Oliu saw as abandonment.

"Oh yeah," says Oliu, who adjusted to the new surroundings while learning English and Braille. "It was culture shock."

But the experience made him confident, self-sufficient. He carries a white and red retractable cane but rarely bothers to use it, preferring to softly lay a hand on someone's shoulder or follow deftly in their footsteps to avoid unseen hazards.

"He definitely doesn't act like he's blind," says Lorenzo Fernandez, a friend and former classmate at Florida College near Tampa. "He also doesn't talk like he's blind. He always says, 'I saw that' or 'I saw this.'

"I would see him walking around campus and for the first month I didn't realize he was blind."

One day Fernandez and Destrade, both scholarship players at the college, invited Oliu to sit in the dugout during a game -- and then heard him doing the play-by-play.

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