Here in Birmingham, the ears have it. Opening Day is at hand, and Curt Bloom is ready to slide behind the microphone on WJOX-AM for his nineteenth year of calling Birmingham Barons baseball games.
It’s a short list of sports franchises that have succeeded in the Magic City, but where pro football and basketball have failed to capture the public imagination, baseball has been around here almost as long as the city has. (Fielded first in 1885, the Barons actually predate the American League.)
2010 is an especially propitious season for the home team, marking the 100th anniversary of their landmark diamond in West End, Rickwood Field; the 25th year of their association with the major league Chicago White Sox; and, in June, the 15th presentation of the Rickwood Classic, one of the best “throwback” games anywhere in America.
Bloom works out of Regions Park in Hoover, a ballyard that captivated him the first time he saw it. “My first year in the [Southern] league, I was the Huntsville broadcaster,” he says. “I’ll never forget that first drive down Trace Crossings Parkway, where all of a sudden this sprawling facility opens up on your left hand side, and you’re like, ‘Wow, what would that place be like to work for?’”
Bloom’s journey to Birmingham was not an especially circuitous one. “At nine, I knew what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “Growing up in New York, we had two sports teams for every sport—baseball, football, basketball, hockey—and we idolized Marv Albert. We wanted to be Marv. So on weekend nights, when my friends might be out doing something, I was there in front of the TV watching a game or an event. There’s no doubt that sports was my escape.”
The path of escape took Bloom to markets as grandiose as Bakersfield, Calif., where he voiced for the Blaze in 1988, and Woodbridge, Va., home of the Prince William Cannons. He put in a year for the Stars in Huntsville, after which he came down I-65 to succeed Rob Evans in the booth, where his tenure of almost two decades makes him the grand old man of Barons baseball.
The otherwise transitory nature of minor-league ball creates special challenges for those who call the games. For example, Bloom acquired the official roster for the 2010 season only a week before opening day, which meant he had seven days to familiarize himself thoroughly with the curriculum vitae of 24 players. Luckily, he has a system: “You do your homework during the season. So what I’m looking for, for ’10, is what I saw at the end of ’09. If you’re paying attention to the system, you’ll have a good idea of who’s coming up, who should be back and who’s going to get promoted.”
This year’s model includes 13 players from last season’s powerhouse first-half division champs, who compiled a 92-47 record. Bloom says he expects good things from pitchers Matt Long and Charlie Shirek, as well as blue-chip prospect Brent Morel, tagged as Chicago’s third baseman of the future by Baseball America magazine.
A broadcaster is afforded a unique perspective on his sport, being of a team but not on it. Asked if the quality of ballplayers has changed during his tenure, Bloom quotes Cyndi Lauper. “Money changes everything,” he says. “I can try to deny it till I turn blue, but at the end of the day, you’re giving young adults millions of dollars. How can it not change them?”
Bloom is quick to note that the character of ball players hasn’t changed appreciably: “This is different from college ball, so it’s a lot quieter in the dugout than you’d think, because it becomes a one-on-one battle, no matter how you want someone to succeed. I say this in the right way, that you certainly want your teammate to get ahead and do well, but you, as an individual—it’s going to make your night a lot easier if you had three hits and one of them a home run than if you went oh-for-four and your team won, believe me.”
A special few will be promoted from the Barons and fewer still will make it all the way to The Show. Of those he’s seen make it to the majors from Regions Park, Bloom singles out Mike Cameron, lately of the Red Sox (“He put on an incredible display on the field and he was a good guy off the field”), Joe Crede of the Twins, Magglio Ordonez of the Tigers and, from the White Sox, Bobby Jenks (“He went straight from Birmingham to the World Series”) and extraordinary southpaw Mark Buehrle (“He’s pitched perfection”).
Interestingly, Bloom’s favorite game call didn’t come in one of the Barons championship series: “We were in a pennant race in the second half, I believe it was 1996, and the pitcher was Luis Andujar. He’d gotten to the big leagues for a little cup of coffee, but this was in Memphis and it was absolutely hotter than you can imagine. He’d struck out seven and he had a no-hitter going into the bottom of the ninth and he would strike out the side for the tenth strikeout and the no-hitter. That was the most incredible game to this day that I’ve been a part of.”
Curt Bloom will have a lot more incredible games to broadcast, 130 this year alone, starting Thursday night on WJOX-AM, and if you can’t get to Regions Park, you ought to take a listen. “I try to have fun with it,” Bloom says. “I’m filled with passion for what I do and I’m lucky and blessed to be able to do it. Otherwise, you’re just stealing a paycheck you don’t deserve.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.