Monday, October 27, 2008

Blind announcer gives Tampa Bay Rays' fans color commentary in Spanish

From The Associated Press Oct. 27:

Enrique Oliu (pictured) breathes baseball. The crack of the bat and the cheers of the crowd run through his veins.

He's also a human baseball encyclopedia, with an uncanny ability to make his listeners get a full feel for the game.

Oh, one other thing about the color analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays' Spanish radio broadcasts: He's blind.

"I always run into skeptical people, but I've never had any problem doing my job," Oliu said during the World Series between the Rays and Philadelphia. "I'm a smart guy, and I've always wanted to be a leader, to be an example."

"As my father used to tell me when I was a kid, 'You've got to decide if you want the band to play your music, or if you want to play someone else's music,'" the 45-year-old native of Nicaragua said.

Born blind, he was 10 when his parents sent him to the United States to attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. Oliu quickly showed interest in sports and later majored in communications at the University of South Florida.

"I started knocking doors everywhere, trying to get a break. I covered for free a lot of stuff just to get into radio," he said.

His first job doing professional commentary was with a minor league affiliate of the Montreal Expos in 1989 in Jacksonville, Fla.

All his perseverance paid off in 1998 when Tampa Bay Devil Rays, about to make their debut in the major leagues, asked him to become the color analyst of the team.

Several hours before each game at Tropicana Field, Oliu starts his routine of interviewing players, coaches and colleagues to gather every possible piece of information and detail to help him in his broadcasts.

Oliu also fashions a mohawk haircut, the style of choice for these Rays.

At the booth of the radio station, Genesis 680 AM, he works alongside his wife, Debbie. She whispers to him statistical data and descriptions about the game.

"The rest is just intuition and instincts," he said. "You know I played this sport and bunch of others, adapted, but I played. Blind or not blind, I have an opinion and I just state mine. That's what people want."

Oliu and broadcast partner Ricardo Taveras do all 81 home games. When the Rays are on the road, as they were in Philadelphia this week, Oliu and Taveras do their broadcast from a studio at Tropicana Field off a television feed.

The one person who never stops marveling at Oliu's gift is Taveras, who has done play-by-play with him since 1999.

"You never stop learning with him. He has such an amazing memory. He hates being called blind," Taveras said.

"I mean, you could tell him something and he will remember it in a thousand years," he said. "That's his biggest virtue. That's has made him successful".

But what Taveras really considers remarkable is Oliu's "sixth sense" to guess plays ahead of time.

"I will never forget when there was a roller toward second base and he goes to make the description, 'roller to second, the second baseman fields it, throw to first and he's out," Taveras said. "I was shocked. I didn't know what to say. I told him, 'Hey Enrique, how do you know that?' Nobody was telling him anything.

"He just said that, 'I just heard the crack of the bat and I knew it that the ball was headed to second base.'"

No doubt that Oliu's crowning achievement is getting to work the World Series with the Rays. He mentions spring training trips to Mexico and Venezuela as his most rewarding experiences.

"As a blind person, it was something that gave me a lot of pride, to work in countries in which there are now laws to protect the rights of the handicapped," he said. "I was so proud of showing people that you can do it."