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Matt Walker will be Tropicana Field's voice of Rays for a day

ST. PETERSBURG

The fans at Tropicana Field will hear only Matthew Walker's enthusiasm.

"Now batting, No. 1 — Sean Rodriguez!"

The charm that earned him the nickname "Matt the Sports Magnet."

"Now batting, No. 20 — Matt Joyce!"

When his voice is broadcast over the Trop's sound system Tuesday, they won't hear the takes between his stuttering; they won't see the specialized wheelchair he sits in or how Matt's cerebral palsy often keeps his tiny left arm askew.

"Now batting, No. 3 — Eva-a-a-n L-o-o-o-o-n-goria!

All they will have is Matt's voice.

• • •

Out of Matt's 30 or so visits to Tropicana Field so far, the Tampa Bay Rays have won 29 times, something that his father, Steve, 53, notes with a smile. He and his son love baseball, and in many ways baseball is what keeps both father and son going.

Matt, 15, was born with spastic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects how the muscles grow and work together. When he was delivered at All Children's Hospital in 1994, he weighed 3 pounds, 4 ounces. Today he is 4 feet 6 and weighs 70 pounds, less than half the average weight for his age.

He began playing with the Little League Challenger Division when he was 4. For the past five years, Matt has been the announcer for the Miracle League, based at Violet's Field near Tyrone Square Mall. Kids with autism and Down syndrome play with others who use wheelchairs and crutches. They play on a field that is soft and trip-proof. No scores are registered, and no statistics are kept, so everybody wins.

Matt plays various positions, but his role as stadium announcer is what gets him noticed.

"Here's this kid in the wheelchair, grabbing the mike, making all of the announcements, the lineups, coming announcements," said Whitney Johnson, of WDAE-620 AM, "The Sports Animal." "And next thing you know he's singing the national anthem."

Johnson, who volunteers at Violet's Field, made Matt his special baseball correspondent on the station: Matt the Sports Magnet.

"All right, where do you want me?" Johnson recalled Matt snapping when he first showed up for work at the station.

Rick Vaughn, the Rays' spokesman, noticed him, too. Since January, Matt has often been the voice that journalists in the press box hear when they call a number for up-to-the-minute scores.

While at the Trop, Matt is also an announcer for WKID radio in Clearwater, calling in home game scores.

• • •

Steve Walker does not tell his son, an eighth-grader with straight A's at Meadowlawn Middle School, that a career as an announcer is impossible. On the other hand, he is awed by his son's passion for radio and encourages him to pursue it, despite obvious challenges.

The Rays hear magic in Matt's voice. Perhaps it's his dogged determination, or his ability to keep smiling through it all.

At Tropicana Field, other kids have been allowed to announce the lineup, but none has been given the same access. Matt was allowed to interview Longoria (although he forgot to turn his tape recorder on).

So on a recent weekday afternoon, Matt was given the chance to record player introductions to be used in Tuesday's game against Toronto. The night before, he and his dad had practiced pronouncing the players' names, including the less familiar ones of the visiting Blue Jays. They took an elevator to a suite alongside the sound room in a nearly empty stadium.

There, Steve Walker kneeled alongside his son holding up a roster sheet. Reciting most names took several tries. Sometimes Matt, clearly excited, would forget to say "Now batting" or the players' number.

But when he got it right, it was music.

"You keep that up, you'll be stealing my job!" joked Rays stadium announcer Greg Kalil.

Twenty minutes later, the lanky teenager left the stadium with a stack of business cards and a few less of his own.

"I am a natural with these guys," he said. "Bing, bang, boom! Give me a mike, and it all flows."

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Hear Matt at Tuesday's game

What: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Ticket information: 1-888-326-7297 or raysbaseball.com

Matt Walker will be Tropicana Field's voice of Rays for a day 08/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 5:52pm]
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