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BLIND ANNOUNCER MAKES THE MAJORS

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In a historic big-league debut, baseball's first blind broadcaster recited statistics, recapped the action and praised the sunny weather.

"It's a beautiful Thursday afternoon for baseball here in South Florida," Don Wardlow said.Wardlow and his partner, Jim Lucas, announced 11/2 innings of the Florida Marlins' 9-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs. The appearance by the two Double-A announcers on the Marlins' radio network was part of an office supply company promotion.

The first major-league broadcast was in 1921; the first broadcast by a blind announcer came 73 years later. As far as Wardlow knows - and he has researched the subject - he is the first blind broadcaster to cover games in any sport.

"We're flying in the face of history itself," he said with a smile.

Wardlow and Lucas announce games for the New Britain (Conn.) Red Sox of the Eastern League. Lucas handles the play-by-play, while Wardlow provides background on the players and teams between pitches.

Wardlow was born without eyes, but a listener would never guess he's blind.

"That's the biggest compliment of all," Lucas said.

The two 31-year-old rookies were introduced to a major-league audience in the third inning by Marlins announcer Joe Angel. Two dozen cameramen and reporters crowded into the press box booth to document the moment.

"Thank you very much, Joe Angel," Wardlow said. "It's going to be Steve Buechele, followed by Rey Sanchez and Mike Morgan in the top half of the third inning."

Wardlow and Lucas also worked the bottom of the fifth and top of the seventh. Gizmo the radio dog, a 6-year-old black Labrador and Wardlow's guide, slept next to his master in the booth.

The guest announcers never mentioned Wardlow's blindness, but Angel did.

"A very big day for a couple of young broadcasters," Angel said. "With all the cameras and newspaper writers, it's not very easy to make your major-league debut under those circumstances. But they've done a phenomenal job today."

Wardlow is a short man who wears sunglasses and likes to whistle. Baseball on the radio became his passion at age 9, when his father took him to a game and introduced him to Mets broadcasters Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy.

Now, Wardlow's mom says he sounds like Howard Cosell. She was part of Thursday's crowd, watching the game from behind home plate - and listening to it on the radio.

Since Wardlow can't describe game action or second-guess umpires, he compensates with meticulous preparation, a keen memory and a devoted partner.

Wardlow and Lucas met in 1983 at Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Wardlow had asked 16 schoolmates to broadcast games with him, and all said no. Lucas said yes.

They bought seats in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium and began to practice. Surrounded by puzzled fans, they announced 125 games into a tape recorder.

"We got a lot of looks," Lucas said. "Don didn't know about the looks."

In 1991, they finally landed a broadcasting job - with the Single-A Miracle and Mike Veeck, son of the legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck. They covered 188 Florida State League games in two seasons with the Miracle, then made the jump to New Britain.

This season, they'll announce 140 Red Sox games on WCNX in Middletown, Conn., an all-traffic station from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Their income: about $7,000 apiece. Their goal: a job in the major leagues.

They spend hours in preparation before a broadcast. At Joe Robbie Stadium, Wardlow sat in the dugouts, rubbed his shoes on the warning track and ran his hand along the outfield wall from one foul pole to the other.

"Just to get a feel for the game," he said. "You never know what you're going to be able to work into a broadcast."

Wardlow and Lucas begin preparing for a night game at 11 a.m. Lucas reads statistics and rosters aloud, and Wardlow makes notes on a Braille typewriter.

By the time Wardlow goes on the air, he has at least 70 pages of information literally at his fingertips. He announced Thursday's game with 200 pages cradled in his lap.

The innings went quickly, the broadcast smoothly.

"The biggest day of our lives, bar none," Wardlow said. "We'll be talking about it 30 or 40 years down the line."