Mike Curto is currently in his fourth season as radio broadcaster with the Tacoma Rainiers, Seattle's franchise in the Pacific Coast League.
Neyer: A Triple-A player, even if he's not considered a great prospect, must always be thinking in the back of his mind, "If [insert name of any major leaguer here] gets hurt, I could get The Call."
But it's not like that for a Triple-A broadcaster, is it? How often do broadcasters go from Triple-A to the major leagues?
Curto: No, the radio broadcaster is not sitting in the hotel room, waiting for The Call. There's no point in me hoping for Rick Rizzs to come down with strep throat. A Triple-A broadcaster's only hope for advancement comes during the off-season, when there may be an opening or two in the big leagues. However, it can be interesting to see how the major leagues fill these positions.
They do sometimes hire a Triple-A announcer. For example, last winter the Angels hired two radio broadcasters.
One of them, Terry Smith, was hired from the Columbus Clippers of the International League. This was extremely encouraging for minor-league broadcasters.
The other, Rory Markus, was a "local sports personality" who did USC football and basketball, and also was a reporter for an L.A. TV station. Many major league jobs go to broadcasters with his type of background. Markus had actually done minor-league baseball in the 1980s, but then went a different route to get to the major leagues. And stories like Rory's tend to make Triple-A broadcasters wonder, "Am I doing this the right way?"
In recent years (since I reached Triple-A and began to pay attention), a Triple-A broadcaster has been promoted to the major leagues roughly every other year. This year it was Smith. A couple of years ago, the Red Sox promoted Don Orsillo from Pawtucket. And before that, the Brewers "called up" Matt Vasgersian from Tucson.
Neyer: So how'd you get your start? Young men are forever asking me how to get into my business, but I would guess you get the question even more often than I do, because broadcasting is a more "visible" profession. More kids grow up wanting to become baseball broadcasters than baseball writers.
Curto: I assure you that you hear that question far more often than I do. However, from time to time I am asked ...
Like many professional broadcasters, my desire to enter broadcasting developed when I was a child listening to local major-league games. For me, it was hearing Hank Greenwald call San Francisco Giants games. I was a terrible player -- I got cut in Little League, which apparently wasn't against the rules where I lived -- so I wanted to be the broadcaster. Fast-forward a few years, and I was fortunate to be accepted to UC Berkeley, which has a great student radio station. As a freshman at Cal, I volunteered at KALX before I attended my first class, and after much work I was eventually given a chance to do baseball and basketball play-by-play.
The single most important advice I can give to anybody who wants to be a play-by-play announcer is to volunteer. Almost every community has at least one non-profit listener supported radio station at the far left of the FM dial, and that station is almost always looking for volunteers. Even college stations take volunteers from the community who are not enrolled in school. Find a station that has a sports department, volunteer, be willing to do anything, and get some experience.
By the time I graduated, I had done major-league spring-training games (KALX has a long relationship with the Oakland A's). By a stroke of pure luck -- and the hitting of Geoff Blum, Jon Zuber, Chris Clapinski, and Matt Luke -- Cal went to the College World Series my senior year, and I called those games. That cemented the desire for me; I wanted to turn pro, and decided to pursue a job in the minor leagues.
I thought that with all of the experience I had, it would be easy to score a job. I didn't even bother looking at the low minors, figuring I was ready to go straight to full-season Class A.
Needless to say, I was young and dumb...
It took me four years to reach full-season Class A. In fact, it took me two years just to get my first radio job with a short-season independent-league club. The competition for these low-level, low-paying jobs is incredibly fierce. Believe it or not, even the independent-league teams get 50 to 100 applicants for a radio opening. Securing one of these entry-level jobs requires a combination of networking, luck, and talent (and probably in that order).
My "break" came when a fellow baseball job-seeker I met in 1992 named Alfredo Portela called me out of the blue two years later. He had just been hired as GM of an independent team, and he still had the demo tape I'd handed to him at a hotel bar in El Paso, Texas. So I quit my job and moved from downtown San Francisco to Lafayette, Indiana.
Neyer: Independent league? I know that the life of a Class A broadcaster is, shall we say ... spartan. But what was it like, schlepping around with the Lafayette [whatever they were called]?
Curto: Leopards. In Lafayette, it's Leopards. Appropriate, since the ballpark is next door to the zoo (there were always more people at the zoo than at the ballpark). I was there for the first three months - as it happened, the only three months -- of the Great Central League. Lafayette had a front-office staff in place six weeks before the season began ... getting a jump-start on the other three teams (Minneapolis, Champaign-Urbana, and Mason City, Iowa).
All four teams were owned by the league president, who had allegedly made his money in the adult-entertainment industry. Made sense. After all, minor-league baseball is Family Entertainment. Entertaining families, making families ... what's the difference?
And all four teams were always out of money. Once we were on the road, in Mason City. Payday came and went with nary a check for the Leopards. The president and the vice president (who looked like she worked for him in his other endeavors) drove into the parking lot of the stadium and paid the entire team in bundles of cash out of the trunk of their Buick.
Later in the season, the Mason City players did not get paid and they all quit, so the club held a local tryout to field a team for that night's home game. Lafayette pitcher Earl Steinmetz, who had been released by the Braves out of advanced A-ball, struck out 23 local farmers. He made SportsCenter. The poor anchor didn't know the team had gone on strike and said Steinmetz was "a name to remember."
The league folded before the schedule was completed, and Lafayette was the only franchise to survive, joining the better-organized Heartland League the following year. It's amazing how things come full circle: this year, one of Tacoma's best pitchers is Brian Sweeney. Sweeney was signed by the Mariners out of the Heartland League, where he pitched for ... the Lafayette Leopards. As far as I know, Lafayette hasn't had a team in four or five years.
Do you think a ratty 1994 Lafayette Leopards T-shirt would fetch much on E-bay?
Neyer: Probably not a lot, considering the sweat stains.
Sounds like a wild summer; I'm surprised that nobody ever wrote a book about the Great Central League. So anyway, you used the short-lived GCL as a springboard to ... what?
Curto: Well, the Great Central League led me to Bend, Oregon, to join another upstart independent outfit, the Western League. At least they still exist, although the Bend franchise eventually folded (I was two-for-two in bankrupting teams!). I successfully convinced the owner to hire me by telling him that I had been with an independent team that had folded, and thus I could tell him what not to do (yes, folks, that strategy actually worked).
That season I had some good broadcasts and put together a strong resume tape, which enabled me to secure a position in the Cal League with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, then a Padres affiliate. And that's where things really started to happen.
First of all, we had a great manager in Mike Basso, who taught me about minor-league development and what the major-league affiliate is trying to accomplish. Future majors leaguers Matt Clement, Gary Matthews Jr., Wiki Gonzalez, Ben Davis, and the late Mike Darr were all there.
And the major-league Padres were a great affiliate for a minor-league broadcaster. Their PR department made me feel welcome in San Diego (only 90 minutes away), and they allowed me to hang around during their remarkable run through the playoffs in 1998. Plus, in Rancho Cucamonga I worked directly for Hank Stickney, one of the most active minor-league owners and the head of Mandalay Sports Entertainment, a group that owns many minor-league clubs. Stickney always made sure his team was at the apex of Class-A baseball. Notably, he hosted the first ever California-Carolina League All-Star game in 1996, which I got to broadcast simply because I was there. A great showdown occurred in that game when Durham's Andruw Jones lined a double off the top of the fence against the unhittable San Jose closer, Russ Ortiz (who must be one of the only minor-league closers to become a successful major-league starter).
After my third year in Rancho, Stickney turned over day-to-day control of his team to a new general manager, who promptly fired everybody, including me. Although I anticipated it, this was very discouraging.
Also discouraging was a job that the Padres PR staff got for me: providing stats for Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, who were calling the 1998 World Series for ESPN Radio. My job was to stand between them, researching statistical notes.
Sounds great, right? The problem was that Miller needs no stats. If you ever want to intimidate a young minor-league broadcaster, have him watch Jon Miller work. To me, Miller is the best broadcaster not named Scully. I was really looking forward to watching him work, seeing how he goes about his business. Well, there isn't a lot to see; what you hear is what you get. Miller shows up in the booth with a tiny scorebook ... and nothing else. No notes, no paperwork, nothing. For the World Series. In my booth, there's so much paper that if you light a match, we're going to have some serious issues. Jon Miller must have a photographic memory. His broadcasts are always fact-filled and engaging, yet he has no notes; he was accurately rattling off stats without a reference sheet. I could never do that.
Three weeks after the '98 Series I landed the Tacoma job, and here I sit, in my fourth year in the Pacific Coast League.
Neyer: So while players often make a two-level jump from Double-A to the majors, you made the rare jump from Class A to Triple-A ... which brings back to where we started.
I think my audience would be interested to know what role statistics play in your broadcasts. And more to the point, what kind of statistics play a role in your broadcast? Is there a place for sabermetrics, or do you just not have time for anything more complicated than the Triple Crown stats?
Curto: Like many baseball fans from my generation, I grew up reading Bill James' Baseball Abstracts. However, I cannot expect that all of the fans listening read them, too. As a broadcaster, I try to gauge where the line is on stats -- when is it getting too complicated and boring for the average fan? It's one of those self-critical thoughts broadcasters have between pitches: "Am I using too many stats? ... Was that too much dead air between remarks? ... Does the scoreboard have the count right?" And of course, "If Ryan Bukvich pitches, will I be able to say his name without cussing?"
I think that sabermetrics does have a place in broadcasting, but in small doses. I use the Triple Crown stats for hitters when they first come to the plate, but I also try to mention the on-base percentage if it is particularly high or low. I regularly talk about walks, and this year I've even been "counting" them; that is, when a Tacoma batter draws a walk, I've been saying (for example) "and that's his 22nd walk of the year," like everyone does for homers and RBI. I started doing that this year because there seems to be a stronger interest in the walk stats in the organization. Even our 30-year-old Triple-A slugger, Juan Thomas, told me he's opened his stance this year to try to increase his walks (among other things). It's working for him, by the way.
Each day I prepare a hand-written sheet of situational averages (vs. lefties, vs. righties, with runners in scoring position, etc.) that I compile myself. Most broadcasters do this; the league releases this information, but it is always inaccurate, so most announcers track it manually. I use a computer program, but many broadcasters still make a hand-written, day-by-day card for each player on their team. In my broadcasts, this info stays mostly unused, until there is a key situation when it is pertinent. Then I break it out ... and I magically sound like I know what I'm talking about!
Other non-Triple Crown stats I use are team runs scored, instead of team batting average, to rank team hitting; and I have in the past talked about how it is a more important indicator for a good team to have lots of blowout wins, instead of lots of one-run wins. Also, I am a firm believer that saves are a misleading stat, and just yesterday, I commented about how the PCL saves leaders are far from the league's best relievers this year.
Neyer: Oh, yeah? It's just now occurred to me that I haven't yet asked you a question about the players you're lucky enough to see before most of the rest of us get a chance. So who are the best relievers in the Pacific Coast League?
Curto: The best relievers in the league this year aren't necessarily the young guns. The guys posting the best numbers have been Al Reyes (Nashville), Aquilino Roa Lopez (Tacoma), Jason Pearson (was Portland, now Fresno after a waiver claim), and Tom Shearn (New Orleans). For relief prospects, I like Kevin Frederick (Edmonton/Twins), and the forementioned Ryan Bukvich (Omaha), who throws gas. Top position prospects that I have seen so far include Angel Berroa (Omaha), Mike Cuddyer, Mike Restovich, and Mike Ryan (the Edmonton outfield; the Twins are loaded). We haven't seen a lot of the teams yet.
This might be a down year in the PCL for real prospects. But I wonder what would happen if some team gave 500 at-bats to Phil Hiatt, who hasn't had a legit chance since the Royals played him for half a season in 1993. I think he would rake.
Neyer: A lot of people think that minor leaguers ride busses from city to city, but that's certainly not true for PCL teams, because for the most part it's just not practical. But while you do fly, my understanding is that you generally can't afford charters, which leads to some loonnnggg journeys, right? What's the longest strangest trip on which you've been?
Curto: I have been fortunate enough to miss most of the leagues with the long bus trips. The California League, where I spent three years, has the easiest travel of any minor league. No trip is more than a six-hour drive, and those are rare. I've heard that the Texas League can have some really long bus trips. When I was in the Western League, we had some 12- and 14-hour bus rides, and those were rough. Everybody tries to sleep on the bus, laid out on their bench, with their legs hanging in the aisle or propped up on the armrest of the bench next to yours. Sometimes the small guy on the team tries to climb up into the luggage rack and sleep there, and if he can fit he's got the best seat because he can stretch out.
Once you get to Triple-A, the bus trip becomes a rare treat. None are longer than three hours, and they create a nice break from the new problem: flying.
We fly commercial. One of the problems is that Triple-A cities are rarely accessible by a non-stop flight. Tacoma flies out of Seattle/Tacoma airport, though, which is convenient, and we rarely have more than one stop on a travel day. There have been a few times recently though ...
Once, we were making the trek from Tacoma to New Orleans. Thunderstorms in New Orleans forced us to land in Baton Rouge and wait for the storms to pass. We always fly on game days, and so by the time we landed in New Orleans there was no chance we'd get to the park by 7:05. We got there at about 7:15 ... and the equipment hadn't arrived. They had to unload it from the plane, truck it to the ballpark, and then move it into the clubhouse. The game started at about 8:30 after close to a 90-minute "travel delay."
Another time, somebody decided to save some money and we flew from Tucson to Tacoma, with stops in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Jose before getting home. All on the same airplane; we had to sit on the plane while it unloaded and reloaded at each stop. That was a LONG travel day. Fortunately, we haven't done that again. The one benefit of the stop in San Diego was that we actually saw the Pacific Coast -- a site rarely seen in the Pacific Coast League.
And on every team there are always one or two guys who don't like to fly. Nothing's better than the occasional puddle-jumper for these guys. Last year we were in Dallas, transferring to Oklahoma City (a very short flight). One of our pitchers -- now in a major-league starting rotation -- took one look at the prop plane we were boarding, turned around, rented a car, and drove to Oklahoma City.
Neyer: Great stuff! But now I have to scour my STATS, Inc. books and figure out who rented the car ... In the meantime, let me say thanks for doing this. And I wanted to tell you that one of my great baseball memories is from last season, when I was driving from Seattle to the Oregon coast, and I heard you call the last few innings of John Halama's perfect game ... the first perfect game in the long history of the Pacific Coast League. Whatever else happens, you'll always be the first.