CHICAGO — Blind since birth, Bryce Weiler hears more at a ballpark than most people see.
The sound of the bat tells him whether a ball is headed into the outfield or swerving out of play. The pop of a catcher’s mitt signals whether a pitcher is still going strong or running out of steam.
Picking up on such audio cues has helped Weiler, a 26-year-old Chicago resident, broadcast more than 100 baseball, basketball and soccer games during the past six years.
He serves as an analyst, dishing out statistics and stories in the pauses left by the play-by-play commentator, trying to give the audience a sense of what it feels like to be in the crowd.
“He hit that ball a little too hard,” Weiler said at a recent University of Illinois at Chicago baseball game when a single failed to advance a runner from first to third. “He had so much speed on that ball that it zipped and bounced out to the center fielder. That could be a crucial moment here with the runner on second; if it’s a short ball to the outfield, there’s still a chance to get a runner at the plate.”
The remark was spot-on — the result of an almost-superhuman focus on his partner’s words and the sounds of the game.
To Weiler, it was no big deal. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone; he was simply trying, once again, to take a step toward turning his passion for sports into full-time employment.
“That’s the thing,” he said after finishing three innings in the radio booth of visiting Georgia Tech. “(People) think it’s really interesting, but it never translates into jobs.”
Breaking into the sports business isn’t easy for anyone, usually requiring years of dues-paying and frenetic networking. But experts say people with disabilities have an especially tough time.
“The unemployment rate for people with disabilities trends in the vicinity of 70 percent,” said Linda Mastandrea, a Chicago disability-rights lawyer and Paralympic athlete. “That’s a large number of people who aren’t working. You stack that onto what’s already a difficult industry, it makes it a challenging climb.”
Lucikly, Weiler has always been up for a challenge.
He was born with retinopathy of prematurity, a disorder that diminishes the sight of premature infants by causing abnormal blood vessels to grow throughout their retinas. He has never been able to see much more than light and shadow, and now even those are fading.
But growing up in Claremont, a postage-stamp town in southeastern Illinois, he listened to ballgames broadcast by the University of Illinois and Indiana University and became hooked.
He attended the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and went to college at the University of Evansville. The school has a robust sports program and a radio station that relies on student participation. Soon after arriving on campus, Weiler went to see station manager Tom Benson about calling games.
“My first reaction was (a skeptical) ‘OK!’” Benson recalled. “I said, ‘You know you’ll have to do more than other people to do this job.' He said, ‘That’s never been a problem.’”
Weiler started by providing commentary for the women’s basketball team, memorizing statistics and players’ back stories so he would have something to contribute to the narrative woven by the play-by-play announcer.
He soon added soccer, baseball and softball to his repertoire but left football alone — formation shifts and pre-snap movement make the sport too difficult to follow.
Benson, who often did play-by-play with Weiler, said Weiler was rough in the beginning but became a solid announcer by his senior year, thanks to his preparation and dependability.
“When other students said they couldn’t do it, Bryce was willing to do a game,” Benson said. “He has opened doors because of his perseverance.”
Weiler went on to call more games at Western Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in sports management and started a full-out blitz on the industry, calling and emailing dozens of professional teams and hundreds of colleges.
Last year, one of his emails landed in the inbox of Baltimore Orioles executive John Angelos, who was struck by Weiler’s story and ambition. He wrote back, and from that correspondence came an offer to help the club reach out to fans with disabilities.
“His sports acumen is very sharp,” Angelos said. “He was very revenue-focused from the beginning as well as being outreach-focused, which you don’t always get with people who work in sports. People tend to separate into different worlds.”
The Orioles gig gave Weiler a start. Then, last month, Weiler’s big break finally arrived, courtesy of another shot-in-the-dark email.
Anthony Iacovone, owner of the New Britain Bees minor-league baseball team, was impressed by Weiler’s accomplishments. He’d been looking for a way to expand the club’s community ties, and Weiler struck him as the right person for the job.
So Weiler will soon head to Connecticut for a full-time position that will involve creating programs at the ballpark for people with disabilities and helping people with disabilities fill other club jobs.
Weiler still hopes to get in the broadcast booth but said he’s happy with the career turn. He wants other people with disabilities to enjoy sports as much as he has, he said, and, for anyone seeking to follow his path, he offered this advice:
“There isn’t always going to be someone out there to champion your cause or help you overcome the obstacles and challenges in your life. You might have to do it yourself.”