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EXCEPTIONAL VISION DON WARDLOW CAN'T SEE, BUT FANS LISTENING ON THE RADIO ARE NEVER IN THE DARK

July 08, 1996
July 08, 1996

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July 8, 1996

EXCEPTIONAL VISION DON WARDLOW CAN'T SEE, BUT FANS LISTENING ON THE RADIO ARE NEVER IN THE DARK

Slouched behind the press-box table, Don Wardlow adjusts his
sunglasses and leans into his microphone. "L-L-L-i-i-ive from
New Britain Stadium," he exclaims, "R-R-R-ock Cats
R-R-R-a-a-adio is on the air!"

This is an article from the July 8, 1996 issue

On the field below, the starting pitcher for the Double A farm
team of the Minnesota Twins jogs to the mound and begins warming
up. Wardlow, however, can't see him. In fact, as he announces
the starting lineups for today's Eastern League game between the
hometown Hardware City Rock Cats and the visiting Portland Sea
Dogs, Wardlow can't see any of the players. Or any of the 2,500
New Britain, Conn., fans filing into their seats. For that
matter, Wardlow can't even see the seats. But that doesn't stop
him from describing the scene for his radio listeners.

"It's a bea-ooooo-tiful day for baseball," he says, beaming.
Then, turning to his broadcast partner, play-by-play announcer
Jim Lucas, he whispers, "Sun's still out, right?"

As the first blind radio announcer in professional baseball
history, Wardlow relies on instinct, wit, razor-sharp hearing,
his partner's exhaustive preparation and his faithful guide dog,
Gizmo, to perform his duties as color commentator with Lucas.
The two men have been the official voice of the Eastern League
franchise for four seasons. During that time they have
established their own regional baseball radio network, buying
the airtime and selling all of the commercials, which they
produce themselves. "What they've accomplished is unique in
baseball," says Andy Young, announcer for the rival Sea Dogs.

"If this is a dream, please don't wake me until the season's
over," adds Wardlow. "I'm having too much fun."

For Wardlow the dream began with a nightmare 33 years ago in
Metuchen, N.J. The youngest of five children, he was born
without eyes, a condition that occurs in roughly one of every
100,000 births. "You're never prepared for a shock like this,"
says Don's mother, Peg Wardlow. "The doctors couldn't explain it."

Wardlow's introduction to baseball came eight years later, when
he listened for the first time to a New York Mets game on the
radio. A year later his father took him to a game at Shea
Stadium. "I still remember the sounds--the crack of the bat, the
pop of the catcher's mitt, the roar of the crowd," says Wardlow,
who was introduced to Mets announcer Bob Murphy that day.

"From that moment on, I was hooked," says Wardlow. "While the
players were gods to all the other kids, my idols were the
broadcasters." Wardlow began recording games from the radio and
listening to them over and over again.

Not far away, in Skillman, N.J., another youngster was also
dreaming of becoming a big league radio broadcaster. Lucas, a
year older, says, "I was fanatical about announcing, even going
so far as to narrate our trips to the supermarket." (Mom is now
passing the broccoli in aisle 2.)

Lucas eventually enrolled as a communications major at Glassboro
State College in southern New Jersey, and while he was
announcing a game, another student approached him. "Are you up
for a challenge?" asked Wardlow as he introduced himself. "Would
you announce baseball games with a blind guy?"

Wardlow had been rejected by all of the other student
broadcasters. "Clearly, Don knew baseball," says Lucas. "He just
wanted a chance to prove himself. Who was I to say no?" The
partnership, and a friendship, started.

After college Lucas worked for a collection agency, while
Wardlow became a quality-control technician for Recording for
the Blind, a Princeton-based group that records books for the
vision-impaired. On weekends the two baseball fanatics traveled
to major league stadiums in New York City and Philadelphia,
where they sat in the upper decks and practiced calling the
action into a tape recorder.

In 1990, after seven years of practicing together, Lucas and
Wardlow decided they were ready. They sent audition tapes to
every professional baseball team in the country, from the minor
leagues to the majors. Only one team called them back.

"I thought that if they were crazy enough to spend all those
years practicing announcing up in the cheap seats at Yankee
Stadium, then they deserved a chance," says Mike Veeck,
president of a Class A team then based in Miami and called,
appropriately enough, the Miracle.

Veeck, whose father was the legendary owner and promoter Bill
Veeck, invited Lucas and Wardlow down to Florida in July to do a
game. Five months later Veeck offered the broadcasters a job for
the following season.

"Sure, they provided a publicity gimmick for our team, but I
wouldn't have hired them if they didn't have talent," says
Veeck. The duo announced Miracle games throughout the 1991 and
'92 seasons. Then Lucas heard about a Double A team in
Connecticut that was not broadcasting its games.

"Jim came to me with an offer I couldn't refuse," says Gerry
Berthiaume, general manager of what was then the New Britain Red
Sox, a Boston farm team. Most minor league teams pay
broadcasters a salary, but Lucas offered to do New Britain's
games at no cost to the franchise. His plan: He and Wardlow
would buy their own airtime on a regional radio station, then
sell their own commercials to pay for it.

In 1993 the pair began preparing for its first season in Double
A ball. There was only one problem. "No one wanted to buy ads
for our broadcasts," says Wardlow. So he and Lucas came up with
another scheme: Advertisers would pay for their commercials only
if New Britain won.

It was a clever idea, but the team lost its first 12 games. "We
knew we wouldn't get rich announcing minor league ball, but this
was ridiculous," says Lucas. Fortunately, Gizmo, Wardlow's black
Labrador, had attracted one sponsor, the Iams pet food company,
which was willing to pay, win or lose.

The Red Sox finished with a 52-88 record in 1993, and Lucas and
Wardlow cleared about $5,000. The following year they fared only
slightly better.

In 1995 New Britain joined the Minnesota Twins' farm system and
changed its name to the Hardware City Rock Cats, in honor of New
Britain's reputation as the toolmaking capital of the country.
This season the Rock Cats moved into a sparkling new stadium,
though they still have a losing record. Wardlow, meanwhile, has
built up a following throughout the 10 Eastern League cities.

"Don is an inspiration wherever we go," says Sean Gavaghan, a
Rock Cats relief pitcher. "When we're on the road he and Gizmo
always attract a crowd."

When the team travels, Lucas takes Wardlow on a practice run
through the hotel so Wardlow knows how to lead Gizmo outside
when nature calls. On one visit to Binghamton, N.Y., however,
Lucas went to sleep before showing Wardlow around. "Gizmo had to
go, so Don went down to the lobby on his own," recalls Lucas.
But instead of going outside, Wardlow made a wrong turn and
wound up in the middle of a wedding reception in the hotel's
ballroom. "After I figured out where I was, I asked the bride
for a dance," says Wardlow.

In each preseason Lucas spends hours dictating statistics and
personal information about every player in the league into a
tape recorder. Wardlow then translates all of the material onto
Braille paper that he can refer to while broadcasting. Before
each game Lucas records updated statistics for the two teams,
and Wardlow spends about three hours organizing the material.
"Their work ethic is second to none," says Portland's Young.
"Don may be the best-prepared color commentator in baseball."

During the seventh-inning stretch of today's game against the
Sea Dogs, Wardlow leans out of the press-box window holding the
public-address announcer's microphone and asks the fans to join
him in singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The crowd reacts
with gusto. "Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined
all of this," says Lucas. "I'll sometimes look over at Don
during a game, and he'll have his back to home plate, announcing
into a blank wall, and I'll crack up on the air. Here's a guy
born without eyes announcing a baseball game on the radio, and
I'm there beside him! Someday we hope to be doing it full time
in the major leagues."

It is the stuff fairy tales are made of. And his fairy tale,
says Wardlow, "is still coming true. I just may be the luckiest
blind man on earth."

Mark Wexler lives in Washington, D.C., and is the editor of
National Wildlife magazine.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GABE PALACIO Wardlow and Gizmo are stars on the Eastern League circuit. [Don Wardlow and seeing-eye dog Gizmo]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GABE PALACIO Wardlow preps for the game with player Anthony Lewis before joining partner Lucas in the booth. [Don Wardlow, Anthony Lewis and seeing-eye dog Gizmo; Jim Lucas and Don Wardlow]