Enrique Oliu, Rays’ Blind Broadcaster, Navigates a Year Without Fans

The soundtrack of the 2020 baseball season, played amid a pandemic, is undoubtedly different. The pop of the catcher’s mitt, the thwack of the bat and the fervor from the dugouts sound louder without the buffer of tens of thousands of cheering fans.

A certain energy, though, is sorely missing from games with empty stands: There is no natural crescendo to big moments, no gasps or boos after deflating ones.

Perhaps no one in Major League Baseball feels the changes on this auditory roller coaster more acutely than Enrique Oliu, 58, the longtime Spanish language radio broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite being blind since he was born in Nicaragua, Oliu has forged a 21-year career with the Rays, relying on both his deep knowledge of the sport to tell stories on the air and his sharp sense of hearing to pick up clues about what is happening on the field.

A distinct whistle sound at Yankee Stadium meant a strikeout by the visiting team. The theme song of the movie The Natural signaled a Texas Rangers home run at home. Reactions from fans told him whether a ball fell in for a hit or into a glove.

That baseball symphony, though, has changed this season, with some notes playing stronger than ever and others disappearing altogether. Oliu is relishing the vibrant soundscape, even if the lack of fans has made his job a bit harder at times.

ImageOliu partly relies on in-game sounds, like the ball hitting the catcher’s glove, as well as factoids from his wife while he calls games. 
Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

“It’s the best that it could sound,” Oliu said recently. “It takes me back to when I would imagine games in my room growing up, when I made up my own stuff and I struck out people I didn’t like and everybody I liked got a base hit.”

Even though this unique, shortened regular season is more than two-thirds complete, the sport still feels different to Oliu. He isn’t complaining, though. He loves sports and broadcasting them on the radio. “If two roaches were racing, I’d love that, too,” he said, laughing.

Oliu cherishes the bond that he forms daily with his baseball listeners in radio land, as he calls it. His wife, Debbie, says he has never complained of being tired from pulling double duty; he has worked full-time for 28 years as a community outreach representative and interpreter at the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s office.

He might eventually retire from his day job, he said, but never from behind the microphone. “You’re going to have to bury me here,” he said. He is grateful that his beloved sport is being played at all, even if it doesn’t sound the same.

“I’ve always been a very optimistic guy from the day my parents sent me away to boarding school at the age of 5 all the way up to now,” he said. “I always try to find something good. Is it better not to have baseball? No. So, it’s great.”

Born in Matagalpa, a city in central Nicaragua, where baseball is the national sport, Oliu left home as a young boy to attend a school for the blind in Costa Rica because it was the only one in Central America at the time, he said.

Five years later, without knowing any English, Oliu moved in with his aunt to study at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. There, he learned from a teacher how to visualize what he was hearing while devouring sports on the radio and dreamed of becoming a broadcaster himself, much like Milo Hamilton or Marv Albert.

“My dad always said, ‘How you going to do it? I don’t want to hear about you want to do it. Show me,’” Oliu said. “That was his thing: No one is going to care if you’re blind or not so you better have resolve.”

After building up experience calling minor league and senior professional baseball games, Oliu broke into the major leagues in 1998. Orestes Destrade, who met Oliu at Florida College before going on to play four seasons in the major leagues, recommended his old classmate for the expansion Rays’ Spanish-language broadcast, and Oliu has been with the club ever since.

“Narrating this for more than 20 years, that’s not easy,” said Oliu’s longtime broadcast partner Ricardo Taveras. “It’s not just saying, ‘Oh, there’s a fly ball’ or ‘Here’s the pitch.’ You have to have a strong internal courage and enormous will power. Enrique, even though he doesn’t have his vision, is more complete than many that have our eyesight.”

But Oliu admits the peculiarities of 2020 baseball have made his job tougher than ever. The artificial crowd noise pumped into many stadiums is no match for the real cheers, boos and chants that help guide his calls.

“You don’t get the expectation of fans holding their breath, like ‘Oooh,’” he said. “Once in a while, you get the mitt sound in your headset and the warming up of the pitcher. But that can be distracting as well, because you think it’s a pitch being made, but no — it’s just a guy warming up in the bullpen. You get kind of confused.”

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

The previously harder-to-hear sounds, though, have been welcome to Oliu. He can better sense how hard a ball was hit or whether a pitch was a fastball based on the sound it makes when it punches the catcher’s glove. He can hear the dugouts cheering or talking more clearly, too.

These might sound like subtle changes, but they are how Oliu visualizes the game — and his finely tuned ears can pick them up. “If an ant runs by, Enrique can hear it,” Taveras said, laughing.

What Oliu has missed the most about this season, even more than the roar of the crowd, is real humans in the seats and for him to talk to face-to-face before a game. While Taveras handles the play-by-play duties, Oliu is the color analyst, so it is his job to fill the broadcast with context, anecdotes and nuggets of information.

In past seasons, Oliu would typically roam Tropicana Field with his wife before home games, stopping by the clubhouse, visiting broadcast booths and the press box to chat with players, coaches, scouts and other broadcasters, as well as fans. (For road games, Oliu and Taveras work from Tropicana Field, with Oliu keeping tabs via audio and television feeds.)

Coronavirus-related restrictions have killed that routine. Oliu still prepares for games with his wife, Debra Perry, by poring over statistics, listening to interviews and baseball radio stations, and reading about the Rays and their opponent (he has dozens of voice alerts on his iPhone).

But he has called this more impersonal form of baseball “sterile,” and he misses his friends throughout the game.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

“He’s always told me: He’s done other sports, like football, where one day a week you talk to a coach,” said Perry. “Whereas in baseball, you build your relationship with writers, coaches, your team and other people who come in. I think it’s the first year your relationships are not an advantage. You can still call someone, but it’s not quite the same as talking in person and getting the day-to-day feel.”

But, she added, “Enrique is pretty resilient. He’s learned to adapt.”

Thankfully for Oliu, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball history that he can lean on during broadcasts. And it helps that the Rays have been entertaining (they had the second-best record in the American League entering Friday), and that Oliu and Taveras have a playful rapport on and off the air; Taveras, who is from the Dominican Republic, calls his broadcast partner “Mi querido volcan” (“My dear volcano”) as an ode to Nicaragua’s many volcanoes.

Early this season, Taveras said, he and Oliu felt “a little empty” broadcasting games without the energy and sounds from fans. Even though Taveras said he still gets goose bumps from watching great plays because he loves baseball so much, he admitted he might add a little extra emotion to his already exuberant home runs calls to make up for empty stands.

“I still think Enrique hasn’t gotten used to the no fans part, even though he hears things better now,” he said. “But he’s dealt with that, because he’s a maestro when it comes to baseball.”

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