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Mike Curto is about to begin his 15th season as the broadcaster for the Tacoma Rainiers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He has called 11 Major League Baseball games—the best 11 days of his life. You can read his writing at Booth, Justice and the American Pastime and follow him on Twitter @CurtoWorld.
You wake up, look at the bedside digital clock, and immediately panic. It’s 10:15? What day is it? Where are you?
The room is illuminated by a sliver of light piercing through the gap in the standard mid-level hotel room curtains. Your eyes adjust and you see that the room is huge and underfurnished.
That’s a dead giveaway. You’re in Salt Lake City.
Now you remember. You flew in yesterday from Tucson, a long process that included a two-hour not-between-Tucson-and-Salt Lake City layover in Los Angeles. You went straight to the hotel to check in, scampered across the street to McDonald’s for lunch because you didn’t have time to walk to one of Salt Lake’s many great restaurants, and then hustled to catch the shuttle van to the ballpark.
Upon arriving at the stadium, you spent 30 minutes setting up equipment in your booth before going downstairs to check in on the team. You took 10 minutes’ worth of good-natured insults from your team’s manager before asking him why one of his relief pitchers was wearing a gas mask while running laps (“you’ll have to ask him”).
You went back upstairs to the booth to prepare your stats. After a cursory glance at the team-issued game notes—mostly full of stuff you already looked up online during that layover at LAX—you started your pre-game show.
You conducted a 15-minute pre-game show, called all nine innings of a 3 hour, 46 minute, 11-6 loss by your sleep-deprived team, and then hosted a 20-minute post-game show. You talked to yourself for nearly four-and-a-half hours.
Immediately after signing off, you turned to your laptop and frantically banged out a 450-word story on the game for the newspaper back home. Fortunately, the newspaper’s 10:30 PM deadline is merely suggested and not strict. Often, you are still on the air at 10:30.
Once the newspaper was satiated, you packed up your computer and went back down to the locker room. The players were all gone, but your buddies are the coaches. You grabbed a snack from the clubhouse and a can of domestic light beer from the manager’s secret stash, sat back, and listened to your buddies complain about the game.
The travel day, the sleep deprivation, and the long game culminating with the sour result left everyone a little testy. The 10-minute drive back to the hotel—seven grown men stuffed into the soccer mom van the team trainer rented—passed by in total silence.
You are a Pacific Coast League baseball announcer, and this is your life.
At least the game had three triples.
There is a certain American romanticism to the minor leagues. The image of a group of young men, travelling by bus across middle America from small town to small town in pursuit of the ultimate American Dream of Major League Baseball is a part of our national fabric.
To some degree, that image is an accurate portrayal of the low-level minor leagues. Once you reach Triple-A, things change.
In the Pacific Coast League, the only buses are the ones that pick you up at the airport and drop you off at the team hotel, where you are left to explore the surrounding area on foot.
PCL teams fly commercial airlines everywhere. Direct flights between PCL cities are rare (it should be understood that Fresno-to-Colorado Springs is not a viable commercial route), which means lots of plane changing. Most travel days start with a 6:00 AM flight, which means that the team bus leaves the hotel at 4:00 AM, which means that you set your alarm for 3:15 AM, or just three hours after you got home from last night’s game.
Triple-A baseball players are expert airport loungers. Any PCL veteran worth his salt can quickly rank the air hubs west of the Mississippi in all of the important categories: food options, girl watching, and gate quality (can you stretch out across the seats or do they have those sadistic armrests?).
Regular travelers notice when 30 well-dressed professional athletes board the plane, and this can lead to some funny circumstances. It was over 10 years ago, but I still remember Manny Alexander walking down the aisle to find that one of his teammates upgraded himself by stealing his aisle seat. Manny pointed at his teammate, turned to the flight attendant, and with mock disgust said “this… this… this… white boy is in my seat.” The perfect delivery busted up the entire section of the plane—players and civilians alike. Perhaps Manny is working as a stand-up comic in Santo Domingo these days.
The biggest quest for PCL players, coaches, and radio guys is finding sleep. The mix of travel days and scheduled day games (including the dreaded 10:30 AM kid’s day start times) often results in two-to-three games per week in which at least one of the teams on the field is so sleepy it’s playing zombie baseball. Then, you’ll have a run of three night games in a row where suddenly you get to sleep as much as you possibly can.
Location is a factor in the chase for sleep. We once had a 12-day road trip that went from Las Vegas to Tucson to Reno. As you can probably surmise, that meant four days of no sleep, then four days of unlimited sleep, followed by four days of no sleep. Thank the schedule makers for that Tucson stop in the middle, or none of us would have made it.
Speaking of the schedule makers, they are the enemy of the Triple-A traveler. The PCL plays more games than is permitted by MLB rules. Each major-league club’s farm director signs a schedule waiver to allow it to happen. (Rule 32B(1) here).
This is the PCL schedule for 2013:
April 4-23: 20 straight days with games
April 24: day off
April 25-May 14: 20 straight days with games
May 15: day off
May 16-June 4: 20 straight days with games
June 5: day off
June 6-25: 20 straight days with games
June 26: day off
June 27-July 14: 18 straight days with games
July 15-17: ALL-STAR BREAK WOO
July 18-August 6: 20 straight days with games
August 7: day off
August 8-September 2: 26 straight days with games
That’s 144 games in 152 days, including the three days for the all-star break.
You’ve got to really love baseball to do this.
That’s really the meat of it, right there. You have to love the game, commit to it, and make it your whole life during the season in order to do this job.
Everybody in Triple-A spent time in the lower minor leagues and worked hard to get to their current level. Everybody in Triple-A is working even harder now, trying to reach the majors. The goal is within sight.
Triple-A players are literally the proverbial phone call away from the majors. Coaches, trainers, radio guys—the rest of us, we’re not going to get called up mid-season. I have no idea what it takes for a coach, manager, or trainer to make the final jump to the majors. And after 14 years as a Triple-A broadcaster, I still have no clue what it takes for a radio guy to reach the big leagues.
The proper mental approach for all of us in the Triple-A ranks is to ignore the elephant in the room. Just don’t think about being in the big leagues. It’s extremely hard to do, but it will make you a lot happier.
Despite the life-encompassing aspects of it, it’s still a fun job. Ask any major-league player, and he will tell you that all of the funniest stuff happens in the minors.
While I certainly wouldn’t know for sure, I don’t think you’re going to see a major-league reliever do his running while wearing a gas mask. I don’t think you’re going to see a major-league player drag the scale from the training room out to the parking lot so he could weigh a woman (I saw this happen this season and I’m still laughing about it). I’m pretty sure big-league ballplayers don’t hike several miles through agricultural fields in Fresno, on a fruitless search for a mythical In-N-Out Burger (they would just take a cab).
In the major leagues you might run into several former World Series MVPs, but only in the minor leagues will you see a former World Series MVP sleeping under a row of seats at an airport gate, while two old ladies sit directly above him, doing their knitting and chattering away.
Now it is 10:30, and you are still in bed—and that is okay, because today you have a night game, and the last shuttle to the ballpark isn’t until 4:00.
You have time to read all of the day’s baseball news. You have time to research players on both teams, and really focus on the starting pitchers. You even have a halfway decent idea for a blog post on the team’s website, and you have time to write it.
It’s sunny outside, you are in one of the most underrated cities in the league, and there are countless lunch options within a one-mile walk. Caputo’s, Red Rock, Squatter’s, Bayleaf, that Neapolitan pizza joint you’ve walked past a hundred times but never been to… what’s it going to be? No hurry; you have a few hours to figure it out.
Tonight you will be refreshed and ready to broadcast a baseball game played at an extremely high level—the second-highest level in the country, and possibly the world. Both teams are properly rested and ready to go.
Your team is starting its top prospect tonight, and there are rumors that he might get called up soon. The major-league club has yet another off-day—careful, don’t get jealous of their cushy schedule!—and the big fan website already has a post suggesting fans follow the Triple-A game tonight. You’re going to have a lot of listeners.
This is why you are a Minor League Baseball announcer.