In Clearwater, this woman is crafting a unique baseball career

Kirsten Karbach, 27, of Clearwater, is distracted by Phinley, the Clearwater Threshers mascot, who laments a strikeout call in the Threshers' Radio Room during Wednesday's play-by-play broadcast of their game with the Bradenton Marauders at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. Karbach, who recently celebrated her 500th broadcast, is one of three women broadcasting with a minor league affiliate this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
Kirsten Karbach, 27, of Clearwater, is distracted by Phinley, the Clearwater Threshers mascot, who laments a strikeout call in the Threshers' Radio Room during Wednesday's play-by-play broadcast of their game with the Bradenton Marauders at Spectrum Field in Clearwater. Karbach, who recently celebrated her 500th broadcast, is one of three women broadcasting with a minor league affiliate this season. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published August 17
Updated August 18

CLEARWATER — The voice of the Clearwater Threshers grew up a couple hours down the coast, listening to Dewayne Staats and making annual family trips to the Trop.

The giveaway to what Kirsten Karbach would become, however, should have been her baseball almanacs.

"They were works of art," her sister, Kellie, said. "They were styled like the world almanacs they have in the stores. Stats, standings, and results from games and a few scouting reports. They were incredible, and that’s the point. Whether conscious or not, in the back of her head, baseball was what she wanted to form her life and career around."

Karbach, 27, is one of the three women broadcasting for a minor-league affiliate this season. Her play-by-play calls of the Phillies’ Florida State League team can be heard through the Gameday Audio link on MiLB.com or on TuneIn radio.

She dreams of a career in baseball. Only four women have followed that path to a big-league booth.

Gayle Gardner became the first female play-by-play announcer for a MLB team in 1993. Suzyn Waldman has been a part of the Yankees radio crew since 2005. Jessica Mendoza joined the ESPN team for color commentary on Sunday Night Baseball in 2014. And in April, Rockies radio announcer Jenny Cavnar became the first woman to call television play-by-play since Gardner.

Karbach grew up in Englewood, about 30 minutes from the Rays’ spring training home in Port Charlotte. Her path to the Threshers booth was part design, part detour. An interest in sports management took her to the University of Tampa. Then she switched, first to psychology, then to USF.

There she came across a student newsletter invitation to a meeting for those interested in joining an expanded Bulls radio sports department. She decided to attend, and started with production before moving to color commentary and play-by-play for men and women’s basketball, volleyball, softball and baseball.

"My sister was a quiet and very reserved person," Kellie said. "She never had any problems with public speaking, but she was never super passionate about it or said, ‘I want to be a broadcaster.’

"I don’t think even she really knew where it was going to take off. But when it comes down to it revolving around baseball, it all makes sense, and that’s the outlet that called and spoke to her."

Said Karbach: "It didn’t feel like work, and it was not something I was paid for, but it was so much fun."

She climbed from volunteer to assistant sports director. A class assignment allowed her to shadow Dunedin Blue Jays broadcaster Craig Durham. She worked a couple of games writing recaps. In 2012 she got her first internship with the Rays’ Class A affiliate in Port Charlotte.

The following year she worked as an assistant to Threshers broadcaster Ben Gellman before taking on the full-time duties. She is in her sixth season with the Threshers — five as their play-by-play broadcaster — and calls about 110 to 115 of their 140 games.

Karbach said the "Phillies are a tremendous organization to work with." But she acknowledges women have difficulties in covering sports in general. One area where she has to put in more effort than male counterparts is in the clubhouse.

"Logistically, not a lot of things are set up for a woman," Karbach said. "For clubhouse access, a man might be able to just walk right in during a certain situation if you need someone. I can’t and might need someone else to do it and navigate around it."

Robert Stretch joined the Threshers a year after Karbach. Stretch said she has a good handle on the "informational buffet," a collection of news, notes, statistics, social media material and announcements Karbach shares during broadcasts.

"She’s outstanding, on so many levels," said Stretch, the team’s media and community relations manager. "Listening to her on the radio, she’s interesting and engaging, prepared, professional everyday, and committed to it. It’s a craft. She’s committed to working and being better."

During games at Spectrum Field, she’s frequently alone in the home radio room. As the Threshers prepared for a recent game against the Tampa Tarpons, she slid her black headset over her ears and ponytail, her voice filling the room and projecting out of her window on the baseball world.

Karbach said she has not heard any negative comments about her gender. Instead, the feedback she receives relates to the listener’s unfamiliarity with hearing a female’s voice.

"The more time Kirsten gets behind a microphone with an audience, the more they will embrace the idea that she is the announcer. It doesn’t matter she is a woman," said Scott Franzke, radio play-by-play voice of the Philadelphia Phillies. "She’s the announcer, and they know the voice and they are comfortable with the voice.

"For most women working in this industry, which is mostly produced and dominated by male voices, it can be a tough audience to crack. If she is given enough time, people will be used to her, and they’ll come to know her as the announcer, not the female announcer."

Working in the minor leagues comes with financial challenges, countless hours devoted to her craft and an unpredictable career trajectory.

In the offseason she has worked at Radio St. Petersburg, helped with video production and graphics at Manatee High School. She’s announced at the American Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament at Spectrum Field. Since last July she has been a communications intern at the minor league baseball corporate office in St. Petersburg.

She’s gotten a taste of the big-leagues by assisting Franzke with fill-in play-by-play and game notes during spring training.

"For a young announcer, I think her descriptions are really good," Franzke said. "She has a good feel for what it takes to be a radio announcer in terms of the added description that it requires. A lot of announcers today grow up watching the game today and that’s a different way of broadcasting the game versus radio. She stands out in that regard, someone who has an understanding of what radio is all about."

Enough to someday reach the majors? Franzke said as much as young announcers don’t want to hear it, there is no "perfect formula" to end up in his seat.

"I’ve always said, if you’re in a place that you are getting the opportunity to do games on a daily basis and get better at it on a daily basis, and if you can make it work financially — that’s a big tip cause those don’t pay a lot — then stay with it," Franzke said. "Don’t feel an overt amount of pressure to get to Triple-A or Double-A and move up the ranks, because it is difficult. If you have a good spot in a good scenario, you can ride it. Make it work financially, then ride it out and see what happens."

Even when Karbach is not in the booth, her passion for sports is evident. She enjoys attending Lightning games a couple times a year. On her typical day off, which she said she never gets a full one during the summer, she will spend time with her family since her mom lives in Clearwater and her sister in Tampa. Besides the typical errands, she said she watches Netflix and the MLB Network.

"I really want to stick with baseball cause that is where my passion lies," Karbach said. "There might be different media outlets that cover baseball that I’ll pursue to work with, but baseball is what I want to pursue. One way or another, I’ll remain in the baseball industry."

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