On June 27, after a rainout in Johnson City, Tennessee, I struck up a conversation in the press box with Johnson City Cardinals broadcaster Joey Liberatore. The story he told, regarding his current career path, was more or less a typical one: Athlete gets injured, wants to stay close to the game, transitions into a broadcasting role.
"I was a baseball player growing up, so I was always learning baseball, studying baseball," said Liberatore. "But I got hurt several times…. I ended up tearing my UCL. They told me I needed Tommy John surgery, but I opted out of that and decided to do a rehab with PRP [platelet-rich plasma]. I tried it on my ligament and they said it healed with scar tissue and then it happened again where I tore my UCL. And I said, 'Baseball's not for me.' Well, playing the game, at least."
A typical story, maybe, but with a highly atypical element: When Liberatore "hung up the cleats," as he put it, he was 15 years old. He's now 18, employed by a St. Louis affiliate and calling Appalachian League games in the immediate aftermath of his high school graduation. Liberatore is, quite likely, the youngest broadcaster in all of professional baseball.
"Any idea, I kind of go overboard and take as much advantage as I can with it," he said.
Liberatore grew up in Arizona, which he still calls home. His dad, John, was a long-distance truck driver and often away from the family for long periods of time. This situation, however difficult, gave Liberatore the motivation to talk knowledgably about baseball on a regular basis.
"My family's originally from Chicago, Cubs fans, so my dad decided to rebel and like the White Sox," said Liberatore. "So I became a White Sox fan with him. The only way we really connected on the road was through phone calls, and that would be talking about baseball, the White Sox. And I didn't want to have a dud conversation with him so I would go into depth on starting lineups, stats and stuff like that. And that's really where my passion for baseball began…. I liked baseball so much and I loved talking. So I may as well put the two together."
This passion took on a renewed significance once Liberatore "hung up his cleats." Once again, parental inspiration was key.
"My mom, she's a great motivational person," he said. "She always told me growing up, 'Although you're a good athlete, chances are you won't make it to the big leagues.' She was never cutting me down -- she was always encouraging me to have other things in mind. Her being that way made me think about a back-up plan, and fortunately that backup plan became my primary goal. And that was to be a broadcaster."
And thus began Liberatore's accelerated career path. In 2014 he enrolled in a summer school program at the Phoenix area's East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT).
"My junior year and senior year, I went to my high school for half of the day and then the broadcasting school for the other half of the day," he said. "In my first month at [EVIT] I got my first internship."
Liberatore landed a role as a sideline reporter at high school football games, providing in-game updates for a local ESPN radio affiliate. At the age of 17, he served as the lead broadcaster on an NBC radio broadcast of a Division III high school championship game in Phoenix. (Liberatore said he's "thankful for that game, because I'll never do another one where I'm more nervous.") He also began co-hosting a sports talk show, "The Sports Mafia," which continues to air on Phoenix radio station 88.7 "The Pulse."
The Chicago Cubs have a Spring Training complex in Mesa, Arizona, close to where Liberatore lives. His big break into baseball came via Cubs director of communications Kevin Saghy, who introduced him to play-by-play broadcaster Len Kasper and his Spring Training partner, Mick Gillispie (who spends his regular season with Double-A Cubs affiliate the Tennessee Smokies).
"[Kasper and Gillispie] were having trouble securing an engineer for all their games," said Liberatore. "I said, 'I don't have too much experience but I'm not gonna let an opportunity like this pass me up.' So, I took the opportunity and worked for the Cubs, working every single game last year and this year during Spring Training."
Liberatore parlayed this into an assignment producing the Smokies' pregame show; the Johnson City Cardinals are managed by Smokies ownership group Boyd Sports, and this connection led to Liberatore's current job as Johnson City's media relations director and broadcaster.
All at the age of 18.
Johnson City's broadcasts, like most in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, are internet only. You wouldn't necessarily know it by listening to Liberatore, however, who is carrying on his penchant for "going overboard."
"With a lot of broadcasts here, there are no commercials or anything like that," he said. "I spent two months creating commercials, and when you tune in I try to make it sound as much like radio as possible even though it's the internet."
All the while he's trying to hone his craft, drawing inspiration from Kasper, Gillispie, the legendary Vin Scully and other veterans of the industry.
"I've really had a lot of fun. Each broadcast for me has gotten a lot better in the sense that I've learned something every single time," he said. "Things I should pinpoint, things that could've gone a little better on the air."
One thing he recently learned is that Appy League managers "will punk you."
"I went to interview [Elizabethton Twins manager Ray Smith] and he gave me two fake roster players: JC Penney and TJ Maxx," said Liberatore. "During the game they had a guy warming up in the bullpen, number 40. He wasn't listed on my roster and I said, 'Oh, it must be TJ Maxx.' And right when I said that, it was like, 'Wait a second, I think I got hazed by a 29-year veteran coach of the Elizabethton Twins."
And so it will go, as Liberatore balances his outsized ambition with the day-to-day realities of working in a Rookie-level environment.
"I'm so thankful for the opportunity, and I just want to take advantage of it," he said. "What keeps me motivated is that one day I want to say that I'm one of 30 people in the world who hold the title as lead play-by-play broadcaster for a Major League team. And that's the most exciting part for me."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.