TACOMA — On Wednesday, Mike Curto was back in his customary seat in the Bob Robertson Broadcast Booth at Cheney Stadium, a fitting locale just days after Robertson’s death.
Curto wasn’t calling a Rainiers game, as he has done with distinction for the past 22 seasons. The Rainiers, like Curto, have been silenced in 2020, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in the cancellation of the minor-league season.
Instead he was broadcasting a three-inning intrasquad game of taxi-squad players at the Mariners’ alternate training site, which was shown later in the day on ROOT Sports.
Never mind the fact that innings sometimes ended after two (or four) outs, or that one of the second basemen, nursing a sore arm, didn’t make any throws to first. It was baseball, and Curto was thrilled to be back behind the mike — rusty though he was. It was just his second broadcast since the end of the Rainiers’ season last September, the other coming four days earlier in another intrasquad game. Listening back to that had made Curto cringe.
“I hadn’t done anything in a calendar year. It showed. I felt awful,’’ Curto said cheerfully after Wednesday’s game abruptly ended an inning earlier than planned. “And then when I watched it, at the beginning I was like, ‘Yeah, this is awful.’ But as it got going and we got to the middle and later innings, I said, ‘OK, this is fine. Now I sound like myself.’ “
The Voice of the Rainiers has been stuck in his own version of limbo as the baseball season ticks away.
The three-month absence of MLB caused much consternation, and the subsequent decision to shut down the minor leagues evoked its own backlash of sympathy.
But few have given much thought to the minor-league announcers — a small fraternity that has the same big-league ambitions as the players they talk about, all wrapped up in an abiding love of baseball. You have to have that to persevere in conditions that are far less opulent than that of their MLB counterparts.
Back in March, Curto was set for the 2020 season, having done all his research into the likely Rainiers players and taken copious notes. Per tradition, he was going to end his offseason with one final blowout, a trip to Las Vegas with friends to watch the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament. Then it was off to the Mariners spring training in Peoria, Arizona, to home in on the future Rainiers before starting the arduous minor-league grind — 140 games in 152 days.
“That’s always my final vacation before the start of the season — the Pac-12 tournament,” said the Cal grad. “Then I’m on the go for six months.”
One day into the Vegas trip, however, COVID-19 struck with a vengeance. The Pac-12 tournament was canceled after a day, the NBA shuttered when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive, and spring training was suspended shortly thereafter.
Thus began the long wait, during which Curto’s hope of salvaging some sort of minor-league season started high and slowly waned as reality struck. The last vestige — or last straw, perhaps — was an idea he had that a two-month minor-league season could be played in August and September, providing at least some player development — and cash flow — for ballclubs.
“And then eventually that became an impossibility,” he said. “That was the end.”
Curto says there have been “a sprinkle of positives” amid the general negativity of having your vocation wrested from you. One is getting to watch an expansive array of baseball, which incongruously is not possible when you’re at the ballpark every night.
“I haven’t really watched Major League Baseball in years, other than I have the Mariner game on in the booth. But I haven’t actually watched other teams play,” Curto said. “For a total baseball nut, that’s been a positive — being able to watch all the games and focus on the majors again.
“I’ve always been a fan — but it’s brought back major-league fandom for me. Just being able to see things like (Padres shortstop) Fernando Tatis Jr. and these guys I’d never really have a chance to watch play if the Rainiers season was being played.”
Curto says he also read a lot of books and watched a lot of television. To describe his situation, he borrowed a line he heard someone else utter: “It was like an early but really boring retirement.”
In June, Curto was furloughed, a common occurrence throughout the minor-league industry as revenue dried up.
“The Rainiers couldn’t have done it better,” Curto said. “They said, ‘You’re still our broadcaster. We’re hiring you back. We’ll pay your health insurance and all that. But we don’t have any money coming in.’ Which is true. What are you going to do? That’s just the situation. That’s the cards we have been dealt.”
Not surprisingly, it has been a financial hardship, only partly covered by unemployment benefits. Curto says he has had no choice but to dip into his savings.
At one point he considered taking a temporary job, but something happened recently that made him glad he didn’t: Curto’s older sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
That has meant frequent trips to her Portland home to help care for her. Curto notes that if the Rainiers had been playing, he would have had to leave the team in August, creating a dilemma for the organization. But under current circumstances he is freed up to travel to Portland as needed — one of those positives to which he alluded. His sister had surgery and begins chemotherapy next week, and Curto will help guide her through recovery.
The Rainiers season, had it been played, would have ended around Labor Day, unless they were involved in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, which would have been in full swing now. Curto admits he misses the frenetic stress of the minor-league campaign, as well as the camaraderie.
“I miss being around the guys, the day-to-day grind of it all, which is part of the fun,” he said. “You always complain about the travel when you’re actually doing the travel, but I miss being in the other cities. I miss seeing all the people I know around the league.”
Curto was particularly looking forward to the Memphis-Nashville swing, which happens only periodically and is one of his favorites. With the changes looming in minor-league baseball, he doesn’t know if or when it will come around again.
What keeps Curto going is the hope that next March, he’ll get to replicate the route to the Bob Robertson Broadcast Booth that got sidetracked this year — this time all the way through.
“I’m optimistically holding out hope there will be some significant movement for a vaccine in this final quarter of 2020, and we’ll have some positive outlook for next season, and we’ll actually be playing minor-league baseball next season with fans in the stands and a return to normalcy,” he said. “Or so-called normalcy. I’m holding out hope. I’m going to wait and see how it goes.”