BY MATT LaWELL
HOOVER, Alabama | “If you do come tonight,” Curt Bloom says, “bring a jacket.” He is up in his radio booth, the second inning of a weekend game in April between his Birmingham Barons and a league rival from over the state border. The Barons aren’t winning. The other team is up to bat. “Please do. I don’t want you running around in a T-shirt. Long sleeves and a jacket should be enough.” His windows are open and he’s wearing long sleeves and a jacket. “Kennelly hits one into center. This one is going to drop. Three singles in the inning.”
Bloom is just like so many other minor league radio broadcasters. He has a perfect voice, trained over time, bold and clean and memorable enough to make you listen again. He hates to miss an inning, much less a game. He wants to be in the big leagues. That’s a given, of course, the dream of pretty much every kid with a headset and a microphone.
He’s not that kid anymore, though. He’s nothing like that at all.
For starters, he gave up candy, gave up coffee, last sipped on a soda somewhere around a year ago. And he stands during the early innings and late rallies to keep himself awake and involved, his chair pushed out into the hallway behind him, his hands moving about as much as his mouth. And he designs his own scorecards.
In a transient industry filled with young men in small booths — and younger men down on large fields — Bloom is an anomaly. He’s married to a wonderful woman named Laura and they have two daughters, one of them bound for college in the fall. He has been calling games and selling advertising for almost half his life, nearly a quarter of a century now, the last 21 years with a single team, the Barons. His career is older than some of the other Southern League radio broadcasters. Next year, he will turn 50.
This was not his plan. This was not the life he wanted.
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“I used to think it was my clock,” Bloom says. “Meaning, early- to mid-30s, I was in the big leagues. I would work 20 years, then at the age of 50-something, I would go hang out with the grandchildren, I would golf every day, I would sit by the pool, I would be Mr. Whatever You Want Me To Do, Mr. Whatever You Want Me To Be.
“But that didn’t happen.”
What happened is that Bloom grew up in New York, in the pleasant White Plains of the 1960s, a transistor radio pressed against his ear or a television feet from his face every night, tuned always to the New York Yankees. His parents separated before his fourth birthday and he latched on to sports as his outlet, his crutch. “My father sold cookies, pies and cakes,” he says. “My mom was an office manager. Nobody in my immediate family had any idea about sports. I was on my island.”
“My father sold cookies, pies and cakes. My mom was an office manager. Nobody in my immediate family had any idea about sports. I was on my island.” — Birmingham radio broadcaster Curt Bloom
He played baseball, often poorly enough to wind up keeping the book in the dugout, relegated from shortstop to scorekeeping. He fell hard for the voices of Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer, Marv Albert. He listened and learned, studied at North Carolina-Greensboro, developed his own voice. He graduated and moved across the country to call games for the Bakersfield Dodgers — California League, good start. He moved back across to call games for the Prince William Cannons — Carolina League, moving up. He moved South to call games for the Huntsville Stars, then again to call games for the Barons —Southern League, another rung.
He worked for four teams during his first five seasons, including three in a single calendar year. He was always looking ahead, always looking forward, always looking up. “Everything was about the big leagues,” Bloom says. “The Yankees, the Dodgers, the White Sox, the Mariners.”
Too bad he never enjoyed the experience.
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“My whole life, since I was 9, I wanted to get to the big leagues,” Bloom says. “I was doing what I wanted to be doing in life, which is radio broadcasting, and I was stressing. People looked at me and asked, ‘How can you, of all people, have stress?’”
Because he had moved up so far so quickly, another level every couple of seasons, not far off the pace set by the top prospects on the diamond. Because, at that rate, he would have been in the bigs before he had children. Because he interviewed a handful of times, came so close ... and always came back to Birmingham. Because he wanted little else.
If the minors are a long road for players, perilous and exacting in the process of weeding out those who don’t belong, they are endless for broadcasters. There are 750 active roster spots at any time in the Majors, after all, and only 30 gigs for lead play-by-play broadcasters, the storytellers who cities either love or kick to curb. The players hang around for three or four seasons, on average. The broadcasters hang around for decades. One or two jobs open up a season, if that many open up at all.
So Bloom honed his schedule, honed his calls. He kept a library better than some in the Majors, complete with a scorecard of every game he ever called, player logs from every season, every Baseball America prospect handbook, every media guide. Have a question about the Barons? If it happened in the last two decades, ask Bloom and he will be able to tell the answer you in minutes, if not faster. He designs his own scorecards, taking what he likes from others, and packs them with information. Black pen, blue pen, red pen, yellow highlighter, pink highlighter, Wite-Out tape, rosters, radio spot board. Digital clock and thermometer up there on his desk. Everything he needed, right there. He got better a little better every year. He found his groove in Double-A, even if he wasn’t a Double-A broadcaster.
He started to fall in love with where he was. He started to fall in love with what he had.
“That’s what makes the minor leagues so wonderful, in a sense,” he says. “You have these things like broken-down buses, for God’s sake, like ballparks that are built backwards. Where else? Why not?”
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“This is Crystal Light,” Bloom says, holding up an aluminum bottle he keeps in the booth. “I just cut soda about six, seven, eight months ago. I changed my diet. Three years ago, four years ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes, which I have beaten, which I am thrilled I don’t have anymore. When I started, I was the king of chocolates — Double Stufs, Swedish Fish, everything — but it took its toll, and one day I got my blood test for my insurance, and the lady said, ‘You’re borderline diabetes.’ Sure enough, I had it. Went through two years of medicine, exercise, reorganized everything.
“I haven’t had a soda in close to a year.”
Bloom has mellowed. The birth of his first daughter, Chloe, helped some. That was back in 1994, the year Michael Jordan played in Birmingham. There are stories that, late during both the season and Laura’s pregnancy, Jordan and Bloom were two of 10 players in a pickup basketball game and Laura was watching from the sidelines. Jordan ran past her, smiled, perhaps right after Bloom had set a pick for him, and patted her stomach. There are pictures, too, of Chloe cradled in Jordan’s sculpted arms. The birth of his second daughter, Alexis, helped. So did Laura’s latest degree, a necessity in her academic world of college education. Bloom loves to call her “Dr. Laura A. Bloom.”
The games carried on — somewhere around 3,430 of them, including 10 trips to the postseason and three league championships in three different decades — and so did Bloom.
The alarm finally rang after those blood tests, though. Bloom was never a big man, but diabetes, even level 2 diabetes, was enough to make him get rid of all the fun food he poured down his throat for decades. Around the same time, he learned he suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, a sign of all the stress he put on himself professionally to keep climbing, to keep talking. He used to brew what he calls the “best coffee in Alabama,” but he threw out his Cuisinart.
The games carried on — somewhere around 3,430 of them, including 10 trips to the postseason and three league championships in three different decades — and so did Bloom. Considering he talks and talks and talks, at least 140 nights every year, that was a necessity. He tested his discipline.
He figured out how to beat diabetes. He figured out how to handle irritable bowel syndrome. He can figure out how to make the big leagues.
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After games, after he turns off his microphone and his soundboard, after he can come down from the high that stems from being The Voice of Your Birmingham Barons, Bloom sits in his booth, alone with his pens and his highlighters and his books and his endless numbers. He fills in the holes left in his scorecard, fills out game logs for every player. He reads box scores, always the Yankees first, then the White Sox, then the rest of the big leagues. He wants to be up there, to be calling games in big cities, but he’s happy here, finally, after too many years filled with stress.
When it happens, if it happens, it happens.
“The difference is accepting, understanding and appreciating what I have right outside there, which is more than a lot,” he says. “More than most.”
The quiet surrounds him.
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