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The Big Picture: Broadcast duo turned baseball on its ear

Monday, June 23, 2003

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The blind baseball announcer doesn't want me to write about him. "I'd like to be a private citizen now," Don Wardlow was saying last week. He is no longer a baseball announcer. He is no longer a constant sidekick and color commentator to a bespectacled college buddy and seeing-eye play-by-play guy. He is no longer a guide to an elementary schoolgirl with retinitis pigmentosa, the daughter of the baseball team's owner.

No, these days he's merely a beacon for all of us.

Sorry, Don, but this tale requires telling.

"We cherish the 1,500 games we did together," Jim Lucas was saying from behind home plate at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, or The Joe, for short. "We realize we lived a dream for 12 years together.

"It's, you know. . .," he added with a shrug, looking at his questioner and looking for the words, "the way it is."

Go back, back, back precisely two years minus two days. In this very space, you read about Don Wardlow and Jim Lucas and little Rebecca Veeck and Mike Veeck, the genetic heir to the carnival-barking baseball Barnum otherwise known as father Bill. Theirs was a story so warm and fuzzy, two Hollywood screenwriters sought to do justice to the script.

In the beginning, in 1984, Wardlow and Lucas came together as young radio geeks at Glassboro State, now Rowan College, when the former asked the latter: Are you up for a challenge? Would you broadcast games with a blind man? They spent seven years with a tape recorder and guide dogs Gizmo or Noble leading the man born without eyes, touring ballparks and performing mock broadcasts. After one local Pilsener and a couple of innings inside long-gone Three Rivers Stadium, Wardlow was commenting colorfully into his microphone: "This damn Iron City -- hic." Although they still couldn't land a professional broadcasting job after sending letters to 176 teams, they managed to plant a couple of stories in USA Today and The New York Times about a blind announcer for hire.

Enter Veeck, son of the man who once dispatched a midget to pinch-hit and the lad who infamously invented Disco Demolition Night. On July 1, 1990, the young Veeck gave them a Miracle -- one game with his so-named Class A team in Pompano Beach, Fla. The blind man and his bespectacled buddy promptly bombed.

The owner liked their gumption anyway and awarded them a full-time gig. From there they went on their own to New Britain, Conn., then returned to Veeck's employ with his independent Saints in St. Paul, Minn., and, in 2000, his Class A Charleston RiverDogs. For three seasons in this antebellum city and around the South Atlantic League, the broadcast buddies delivered. Lucas described every last detail, down to the number of tugs on a batter's glove, in order to edify his audience and his partner. Wardlow offered statistics and tidbits and players' dirtbiking tales, all of which he either gleaned through chats or over his audio-enhanced Internet, from which he transcribed on his bulky typewriter notes in Braille.

From that beginning 18 years ago, though, they had an agreement: Give it 10 years, with a yearly option to renew.

Last fall, after another sultry Southern summer of Asheville and Augusta and Hickory and Hagerstown (where Wardlow once welcomed a blind wannabe announcer into the booth), after another round of 100-hour weeks on buses, Wardlow invoked the clause. "I think I'm going to have to use it," he told Lucas.

His wife suffers from hydrocephaly, water on the brain. Despite medication, seizures would set upon Melanie Wardlow and hospitalize the hearty woman who used to sell programs at RiverDogs home games. Her husband couldn't stand the thought of being on the road when she took ill. Once her doctor prescribed a life change, Don Wardlow grabbed the leash of his latest guide dog, Ezra, and walked away from the game he knew so intimately since he was a child in central New Jersey, listening to Yankees and Mets broadcasts on a transistor radio.

The hardest-working color commentator in any sport now strolls with Ezra to his job at an Alamo rental car agency in the Goose Creek suburb. He comes home for lunches with Melanie. He toils 9 to 5.

"He's the best worker they have, which is no surprise with Don," Lucas said proudly.

Sadly, the kind folks of South Carolina's low country are missing the prose and poetry of the sidekick announcers. Lucas seems to miss it, too. They were so close and so alike, a couple of Jersey guys, both 40, both married to women familiar with baseball; Lisa Lucas used to be the RiverDogs' game-program coordinator.

Oh, Veeck invited Lucas to stay as a part-time play-by-play guy, doing most of the home games, and as the assistant general manager. The detailed announcer rewards the boss by overseeing employee relations -- a pet project -- and helping to concoct such wacky promotions as Silent Night. On July 14, fans will be given duct tape for their mouths and writing materials for communication so the RiverDogs can attempt to hush up and set some sort of baseball record for keeping mum at a ballgame.

Lucas, with two children of his own, finds himself announcing a lot less often than expected -- maybe three-fourths of the home games -- and more often shaking hands in the stands or working the box-office lines that remain long into the second inning.

"In the off-season, when Don retired, I thought this was the way it would go," Lucas said. "It was just a magical combination with Don. For 12 years of my life, it was the exact thing I wanted to do with the exact person, but some of the magic drained out of our bodies."

Wardlow and Lucas remain close. Wardlow and the game he embraced for a lifetime do not; he steers clear of The Joe, although he did listen to Roger Clemens' 300th victory with those beloved Yankees.

He left behind baseball for a wife who needed him more.

In the end, even more than teaching Rebecca Veeck so well that the 11-year-old plans to become an author or illuminating so many others about overcoming challenges, it was the most eloquent commentary the blind announcer could ever proffer to athletic America: Like your game, but love your family.

Only one of them can get along without you.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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