Class A Clearwater announcer is the only play-by-play woman in game
By Paul Hagen
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Like any good broadcaster, the Class A Clearwater Threshers' play-by-play announcer was working the clubhouse before Sunday's game against the Daytona Tortugas at Bright House Field. That entailed gathering updates, background and insights to better entertain and inform the listeners.
What sets apart Kirsten Karbach, who is in her fourth year calling Threshers games, is that she is the only female baseball play-by-play person working for a professional affiliated club.
"The way that I look at it, in this job, it really doesn't matter if I'm a man or a woman," the poised 25-year-old said. "There are some things that make it more difficult, in terms of access and being around the clubhouse. But it's not something that normally comes into play.
"I guess the only difference is that it's a little bit more unique. So people look at it as a little bit more of a novelty. But the job itself, I don't think what your gender is matters either way."
Fair enough. But it's also true that the relationship between baseball announcers and their audience is based in familiarity. Initially, hearing a woman's voice can take some getting used to.
"I think that's part of it," Karbach said. "Guys who have listened to baseball broadcasts for decades and decades aren't used to hearing a woman's voice. So it is going to come as something different the first time they hear it. It's not necessarily a bad thing. But some people are going to be more open to the difference, I guess. It's a process, hopefully, of people getting more used to it and it not being an oddity."
In that sense, ESPN's decision to hire Jessica Mendoza as a regular analyst for its national Sunday Night Baseball telecasts could be a game-changer.
"Her background is obviously different than mine, because she's got the credentials [four-time first team All-American softball player at Stanford] of having played," Karbach said. "But it's encouraging because I feel like in decades past, there wasn't as much of an opportunity for women. It wasn't really looked at like something that was possible. But now I think it is."
During Spring Training, Karbach worked three innings with the Phillies' radio crew of Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen. Franzke, who does the play-by-play, believes she has the right stuff to make it to the big leagues.
"I think she has a lot of potential," Franzke said. "The stuff I've heard, not just when she worked with us but some of her demo materials from her games with the Threshers, she has a bright future.
"I told her after we did the game that I thought her phrasings, the language she uses, the descriptions she has are every bit as good as veteran Minor League announcers, big league announcers. That's a hard skill for young broadcasters to master. Sort of varying the language and understanding that there are a hundred different ways to describe a ground ball to short. And I thought her descriptions were very, very good.
"I think if she sticks with it, she'll go far."
Jim Jackson, who hosts the Phillies' pregame show, occasionally has Karbach on as a guest for his Minor League Report segment.
"She knows her stuff. I'm very impressed," Jackson said. "It's obvious she does her homework."
It all starts with hard work. Along with broadcast partner Josh Appel, she does all the Threshers' home games, plus games that are fairly close: Dunedin, Tampa, Lakeland, Bradenton. She'll even get to Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, ending up working about 115 of the Threshers' 140 games. She puts together a packet of game notes. She and Appel are starting a web video show featuring behind-the-scenes stories.
Karbach interned at the California Winter League last January and February and she has supported herself by working at a variety of outside jobs, including Barnes & Noble, Total Wine, a movie theater and Manatee High School.
Karbach has the MLB.com Gameday app, and when she has a chance, she enjoys listening to Franzke and Andersen, Mariners announcers Rick Rizzs and Aaron Goldsmith, and Rays broadcasters Dewayne Staats on television and Andy Freed and Dave Wells on radio.
Karbach gets high marks for the way she handles herself in the testosterone-fueled world of professional baseball.
"Very professional, without a doubt," said Threshers manager Greg Legg. "She knows the game. Very talented, energetic and fundamentally sound, if you will. I know she does that well. If anything, I would think she's going to be watched more closely, and she handles herself well. She's been outstanding the two years I've been around here."
There is currently one woman working regularly in a Major League booth -- Yankees radio analyst Suzyn Waldman -- along with a handful of field reporters and studio hosts.
Waldman has held that position since 2005. Previously she did televised play-by-play for the Yankees, becoming the second female in that role; Gayle Gardner called one game for the Rockies in 1993. In 2012, Michele Smith worked a game for TBS.
Betty Caywood was a Kansas City A's color commentator for a few games in late 1964, and Mary Shane was a radio play-by-play voice for the White Sox in '77.
Karbach grew up a baseball fan in general and a Rays fan in particular. She enrolled at the University of South Florida planning to major in sports management with an eye toward getting a front-office job. But she started to work at the college radio station, loved everything about it and soon made becoming a baseball play-by-play announcer her focus.
In 2013, she volunteered on the second mic, and she became the lead play-by-play announcer the following year. Karbach and Appel can be heard on the internet through the Threshers' web site, as well as the MiLB First Pitch and Tune-In apps.
Karbach's goal, just like every player she covers, is to make it to the big leagues. In some ways, even though the odds are steep for the Florida State Leaguers, they have it easier. They can compile stats that can all but force organizations to keep moving them up as long as they keep producing.
Judging broadcasters is more subjective, and the turnover from year to year is small. Still, in addition to talent, Karbach has something else going for her: Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel, a Ford C. Frick Award winner, has taken an interest in her career and is doing what he can to see that she gets noticed.
Most young announcers, frankly, don't make it to the Major Leaguers. There's no reason to believe Karbach can't be the exception in that regard as well.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.