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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
Rays

Rays are blind fan’s light in the dark

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PORT CHARLOTTE — This is the story of baseball and of Twitter and Twitter friends and a dream coming true.

A story of how one Evan Longoria at-bat during the Rays’ magical summer of 2008 changed the life of a woman, who weeks earlier had lost her eyesight. Of a Twitter family that mobilized for a cause.

This is the story of Randi Oomens, who wonders what she did to deserve all this. Not the multiple sclerosis that eventually claimed the last of her vision in 2008 when she was 29, Oomens doesn’t dwell on what was, but the love and support of close friends she looks forward to meeting at the end of this month and a ballclub that opened a world she never knew existed.

“The Rays,” Oomens said. “They’re the best thing about going blind.”

Oomens lives in Tucson, Ariz., with her guide dog, Jayden, and her boyfriend, Brian Anderson.

She and Jayden, a yellow Lab, will attend the Rays’ season-opening three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays in a suite donated by the Rays along with 12 tickets to each game.

Her round-trip flight and hotel tab have been picked up by her friends and others who learned of her dream to attend a game at Tropicana Field through Twitter.

Oomens will meet players and manager Joe Maddon and his coaches. Rays pitcher David Price wants his dog, Astro, to meet Jayden. There will be a Rays home jersey for Oomens and a visit to the radio booth during one of the games.

There will be grouper sandwiches on the beach and a trip to Longoria’s Tampa restaurant, Ducky’s. One of Oomens’ Twitter followers volunteered his time and his SUV to ferry her around town.

“Are other baseball teams and their fans like this?” Oomens asked. “I don’t know?”

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It was @MandaGator and @PrTwain who helped make this possible for Oomens, better known as @raynaadi on Twitter. They began following Oomens not long after she joined Twitter during the 2010 season to learn more about the knee injury suffered by then Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett.

One night while tweeting with the two, Oomens mentioned how she would love to attend a game at the Trop.

“Why not come for Opening Day?” Amanda Hebden (@MandaGator) suggested.

Oomens said she couldn’t. Traveling was too much for her at that time. Plus, she couldn’t afford to pay for such a trip.

But Oomens did travel to a Rays game, making the drive to Phoenix last August when they played the Arizona Diamondbacks. Price arranged a field pass for Oomens and Jayden. Oomens finally met Dave Wills and Andy Freed, the Rays’ radio team.

“They are my eyes to the Rays,” Oomens said.

Oomens also traveled to Denver earlier in the season. The Rays were in town to play the Colorado Rockies. Oomens made it to Coors Field for a game.

The subject came up again last November during another round of tweets.

If Oomens could physically handle the trip to Colorado, she could handle one to Tampa Bay. But the cost? They estimated it would run $1,600.

Hebden suggested Oomens open a PayPal account and Rays fans on Twitter could donate. Interesting, Oomens thought. She had opened a PayPal account a week earlier to buy a $2 audio file.

“We thought it would be really cool if we could cover half the trip,” Hebden said.

As of Friday, they had raised $1,591.

“So much love,” Hebden said.

Butch Linder (@Butch964) is not surprised. He called the Rays who tweet each other during games a “passionate group.”

“(Twitter) explodes every night,” Linder said. “It’s every at-bat of every inning of every game.”

Wills tweets during games, generating a running dialog with his followers.

Sometimes, he said, it feels as if there are 100 fans in the booth with him and Freed. Included is Oomens.

“When we found out why she was listening to Rays games out in Arizona, it was a very touching kind of a tragic story,” Wills said. “But to know that all that turmoil she was going through, from three or four hours away we could provide some kind of respite and something to look forward to, it’s incredible.”

Price said he is amazed by the loyalty of Rays fans on Twitter, energized by their support.

“The Rays get a lot of negative publicity about how many fans don’t go to games, how many fans they don’t have,” Don Miller (@bbnewssource) said. “But I’ll tell you, they have a tight-knit group of fans who really care about the team.”

And, apparently, each other.

In early January, Miller wrote about the plans to get Oomens to the Trop — #RoToTrop on Twitter — on his website and tweeted the link.

“With all her problems, all she wants to do is go to a Rays game at Tropicana Field,” Miller said. “We got to make that happen.”

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The problem began in 2006 when Oomens lost the vision in her right eye. Two years later, she was completely blind.

Her boyfriend purchased the MLB Extra Innings package in 2008. Oomens, if you can believe it, was not a baseball fan at the time.

“Not at all,” she said.

But one night Oomens heard the violin intro to the Tantric song, “Down and Out,” which is one of her favorite songs.

“What are you watching?” Oomens asked.

“A Rays game,” Anderson said.

Anderson explained “Down and Out” was Longoria’s walk-up song. Then he explained who Longoria was and what the Rays were doing that season to the rest of the American League. Oomens was intrigued. Soon she was hooked, following every game.

“That’s a great story,” Longoria said. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”

In 2009, Oomens purchased MLB’s At-Bat package so she could follow the Rays on radio. The following year she was on Twitter, tweeting “Evan! Evan! Evan! #Rays #electric violin” every time she heard Marcus Ratzenboeck’s violin solo on “Down and Out” as Longoria comes to bat.

Twitter is where Oomens met Hebden and the rest of the crew. They direct message every day.

“When we mentioned coming to Tropicana Field in 2010 it was a complete pipe dream, something for the bucket list,” Hebden said. “We are both in shock. I’m blessed to be a small part of this.”

Thanks to her Twitter friends, Oomens has talked to Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist, outfielder Matt Joyce, pitcher Chris Archer, infielder Sean Rodriguez and Price through the Phone-A-Friend stage at the Rays’ annual Fan Fest.

“For her to have a love of baseball and the love of the Rays like she does, especially in her situation, is cool,” Price said. “She’s definitely a diehard fan, I know that.”

Price is looking forward to meeting Oomens. He said Astro is excited as well.

Oomens will be here for six days. She has a legion of loyal friends who speak with her regularly through the wonders of social media. They can’t wait to finally meet her.

“She’s going to be a rock star,” Linder said.

“This has all happened so fast,” Oomens said. “2014 is shaping up to be awesome.”

It is the love, Hebden said. The love of good, caring friends and a good baseball team.

“A season that starts with this much love,” Hebden said, “is going to finish in an amazing way.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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