This is the fifth part in a series that looks back at the remarkable season of the 2010 Louisville Bats.
By Josh Cook
Chris Burke will forever have a place in the lore of Major League Baseball history. Hitting a game- and series-ending home run to end the longest playoff game in MLB history will do that for you.
But in late 2009 Burke was just looking for a place on a big league roster. So he signed a minor-league contract with the Cincinnati Reds in December. Having been born and raised in Louisville, Burke was very familiar with the team up Interstate-71.
“My dad was a Big Red Machine fan, so he kind of passed that along to me,” Burke said a couple of months later at University of Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium as he prepared to leave for Spring Training. “I actually went to the ‘90 NLCS, so I grew up watching Barry Larkin and those guys, so it’s going to be pretty cool to put on a Reds’ jersey in the spring.”
Burke was 10 years old when the Reds made their Cinderella run to the World Series title. A few years later he was a standout at St. Xavier High School (Class of ‘98) before heading to the University of Tennessee.
His first year in Knoxville, Tenn. He was a second-team freshman All-American at second base. His sophomore season he was a third-team All-American second baseman. His junior year he moved to shortstop and hit .435 with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases as he helped the Volunteers advance to the College World Series. He was the unanimous pick as Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and was a first-team All-American.
That year (2001) Burke was the 10th overall selection in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft by the Houston Astros. He was a star right away in the minors.
At Class A Michigan later summer he hit .300 with three home runs, 17 RBIs and 21 steals. The next year he led Double-A in games and at-bats while finishing second in stolen bases and triples. In 2003 he was named Double-A Round Rock’s team MVP after batting .301 with three homers and 41 RBIs. He also led the team in games, at-bats, runs scored, hits, triples, stolen bases and on-base percentage and was a starting second baseman in the MLB Futures All-Star Game.
The next year he starred for Triple-A New Orleans, hitting .315 with 16 home runs, 52 RBIs and 37 stolen bases while earning Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year honors as well as a spot in the Futures Game for the second straight year. He was rewarded for his marvelous minor league play when the Astros called him up in early July. He made his major league debut on the Fourth of July against the Texas Rangers in an interleague game. He recorded his first big league hit 10 days later against the St. Louis Cardinals. However it was Burke’s only base-knock in 17 plate appearances that season as he hit only .059.
Despite his early struggles Burke’s future was considered bright. He was rated as the Astros top minor league prospect by Baseball America heading into the 2005 season. He made Houston’s Opening Day roster, but was optioned back to Round Rock in early May. He hit .311 in a little less than a month there before being recalled. He remained in Houston the rest of the season. Burke was viewed as the team’s “second baseman of the future,” but with long-time Astro Craig Biggio currently entrenched at that position Burke spent much of his time that season in left field (74 of his 82 starts came there). The speedy, sure-handed Burke ably fielded the position - he only had one error the entire season. His hitting wasn’t what it had been in the minors, but he was coming along. He had a 11-game hitting streak in late June and early July - the third-longest among rookies that year - on his way to batting .248 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 108 regular-season games. His biggest hit, however, came in the postseason.
The Astros, who earned the National League wild card playoff berth, met the East champion Atlanta Braves in the 2005 NL Division Series. The two teams split the first two games in Atlanta before the series headed to Houston. The Astros won Game 3 and would have a chance to clinch the series in the next game. Houston fell behind 5-0 and trailed 6-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth before Lance Berkman’s grand slam made it 6-5. Then with the Astros down to their last out, Brad Ausmus hit a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. The two teams remained scoreless over the next eight innings. Roger Clemens made just the second relief appearance of his legendary career after pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 15th inning. Then in the bottom of the 18th Burke was sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter to face Atlanta rookie Joey Devine. Every boy, or girl, who has ever picked up a bat has dreamed of such an opportunity. One swing and the game could be over.
And that’s exactly what happened. Burke lined the first offering from Devine into the left field seats to end MLB's longest playoff game (18 innings and 5 hours, 50 minutes), send the Astros to the NL Championship Series and also set off a wild celebration. Although you couldn’t necessarily tell by Burke’s reaction as he rounded the bases. On his way to second base the cameras caught a glimpse of Burke’s business-like expression and he looked as if he had just hit a game-winning home run against Atherton High School rather than the Braves.
“I’m just glad I could do my part,” Burke told the Associated Press. “It was draining, mentally draining.”
The Astros would go on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS before being swept by the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
Burke spent most of the next season in Houston. He hit a respectable .276 with nine homers and 40 RBIs while serving as the team’s utilityman. He started 36 games in center field, 32 at second base, 13 in left field, three in right field and three at shortstop. That was good enough to earn him a spot on the Astros’ Opening day roster in 2007 too. He struggled early in the season, however, and was optioned to Round Rock on May 11. He didn’t hit well there either, just .242 in 18 games, but was recalled in early June because outfielder Jason Lane was struggling (he took a .165 batting average into June) even worse. Burke started 70 games that season, 31 at second, 23 in center, 15 in right, one in left and one at shortstop as his hitting continued to nose-dive. In 111 games he batted .229 with six homers and 28 RBIs. After another season of struggling at the plate Burke was traded to the Arizonan Diamondbacks, along with Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez, for reliever Jose Valverde in December of 2007.
“I certainly look back on my time in Houston and think of it fondly,” Burke said told local media in February. “That whole playoff run was a magical time.”
Burke batted only .194 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 86 games (he started at every position but center field and catcher during the season) for the D-backs. After the ‘08 season Burke was non-tendered and became a free agent.
In January 2009 Burke signed a minor-league contract with the San Diego Padres. He didn’t make the team in Spring Training and was subsequently traded to the Seattle Mariners for cash considerations. However in late April he was traded back to the Padres and added to their roster. He played in 32 games - starting 21 at shortstop - but hit only .207 in 82 at-bats before being let go. On June 19 he was signed to a minor-league contract by the Braves. In 73 games with Gwinnett of International League, Burke batted .285 with three homers and 32 RBIs.
In late 2009, though, he was still without a contract for the next season until the Reds came calling.
“At this stage in my career I’m at a place I always dreamed about being so I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to go out there, put my best foot forward and see what happens,” said Burke, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound utilityman with the chiseled jaw. “Obviously I still dream about getting a chance to play one spot every day, but the reality for me right now is to help the team off the bench and be able to provide an option at a couple of different positions. So hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to show (Reds manager) Dusty (Baker) that, and hopefully impress him.
“Obviously my past couple years haven’t been very good, so you carry that baggage with you. So for me it’s just about going out there, playing well, hopefully showing them that I can be a productive member of their team. Just doing what I do, which is showing them versatility, playing infield-outfield, hopefully they realize I can help the team in a couple of different ways...Coming in there with a non-guaranteed spot I’m going to have to make a splash early. So I’m just going to go out there, I’m prepared, I’m ready to go, I’m just going to have to play well.”
Unfortunately for Burke his “splash” was more of a crack. Burke broke his finger the first week of Spring Training.
On the second day of workouts Burke suffered a fracture in his right ring finger when a ball tipped off his finger and dislocated it during routine fly ball drills.
The injury put Burke, a non-roster player trying to make the big league team, in an early hole. He played in 14 Spring Training games with Cincy, hitting .250 with seven hits in 28 at-bats. Still the versatile Burke was one of the last players from the Reds assigned to the Louisville Bats.
“I went to a lot of Redbirds games growing up and so it’s pretty surreal to be playing here for the Bats,” Burke said on the Bats’ media day. “I’d like to be playing about 90 miles away, but nevertheless here I am. It really is going to be fun for my family to be able to come out (to Louisville Slugger Field). My family just loves baseball, they wouldn’t care if I was playing in (Class) A ball. They just love baseball. It’s going to get friends and family out and just be able to play ball in front of them.
“It’s great to be home, it really is. I spent the last couple days with my kids and in this game to be able to sleep in your own bed and see your kids every day is very unique...you don’t have to move in (to a new city), don’t have to pack toys up, don’t have to rent furniture. It’s certainly a welcome season for my wife and I, and certainly a little stress relief on her end.”
And as his 10th Opening Day of pro baseball approached Burke wasn’t ready to give up his baseball career just yet. And he wasn’t satisfied to be in Louisville.
“If I was accepting playing in Triple-A I wouldn’t be playing anymore,” he said. “It’s hard to be in Triple-A, it is, it’s something you have to swallow your pride and re-focus, especially the way it went down for me. I was there (with the Reds) til the last day, I thought I had a decent chance to make the club, but it didn’t go my way. So here I am I have to get my mind right, get ready to compete because Triple-A is nothing to be taken lightly. You have to come and bring your best effort every day or you’ll get off to a bad start. For me it’s just about trying to get my mind right and trying to go out here play well.”
“When you’re in my spot it’s hard to say. Some of it’s performance, some of it’s just timing, whether it be an injury or a trade or something like that. For me, I’ve been around long enough to know that you can’t control any of that, so I’m going to just go out here and try to play hard and play well and hopefully help these guys win games. And whatever happens up there hopefully I’ll be able to make an impact up there at some point during the year, but you just don’t ever know.”
Burke batted second on Opening Day and went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in Louisville’s 5-3 win over Toledo. The next day, batting leadoff, he went 0-for-2 with three walks. He got his first hit of the season, a single, in the fourth inning of Louisville’s fourth game of the season. Burke, likely virtually every one of his teammates, struggled in April. He hit .211 with almost as many strikeouts (10) as hits (12).
During Louisville’s resurgent May, Burke experienced one of his own, albeit a minor one. He hit .252 with 28 hits and 23 runs scored in 27 games. He closed out the month with his best game of the season so far. He went 3-for-3 with four RBIs and four runs scored in Louisville’s 16-2 win at Columbus in the second game of a doubleheader.
June, however, didn’t start off so well for Burke, or the Bats. He went 0-for-4 in Louisville’s 4-3 loss to the Clippers in which aging reliever Jon Adkins gave up two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Burke didn’t play the next night when the Bats fell 10-7. He returned the next night - as Louisville returned home to take on Pawtucket - and homered to lead off the bottom of the first inning on his way to going 2-for-4. But his success was short-lived.
The next night the Red Sox beat the Bats 8-6 in 13 innings but Burke went 0-for-6. He went 0-for-4 in each of the next two games, then 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter in a 7-6 loss at Syracuse. The next game he was out of the leadoff spot and batting sixth, but it didn’t help he went 0-for-3 to lower his batting average to .216. Burke’s hitless streak reached 20 at-bats before he singled during Louisville’s seven-run sixth inning of a 9-1 win at Syracuse on June 10.
Four days later, back in the leadoff spot, he went 3-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs to lead Louisville to a 6-5 win over Pawtucket. It was back to reality the next game, though, as he went 0-for-4 in the Bats’ 2-0 loss to the Red Sox.
Burke bounced back late in the month. He went 2-for-4 in four out of five games from June 17-21. Burke wasn’t in the lineup the next day during Louisville’s 7-4 win over Toledo, a game that was significant because Edinson Volquez got the win in his first rehab start, while highly-touted pitching prospect Aroldis Chapman made his first appearance in relief. Burke was back batting leadoff the next night, he went 0-for-4 in a 6-1 loss to Toledo. Earlier in the day, though, the Reds signed free agent outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. Matthews’ career had been in decline since reports had linked him to human growth hormone (HGH). Matthews was the New York Mets’ starting center fielder on Opening Day 2010, but he was released on June 15 after batting a paltry .190 in 58 at-bats before being signed by the Reds.
The next day Burke went 2-for-5, leading off Louisville’s 7-0 win over Norfolk with his fifth home run of the season. One day later Burke was released.
“Unfortunately it didn’t work out with the Bats,” Burke told WLKY-TV a couple of weeks later. “For me it was a fun experience. I kind of knew coming into this year it was a make, or break, season for me. Just where I was mentally I don’t feel like I’m up to the grind anymore, trying to bang away and if I didn’t play well this year I knew it would maybe going to be my last. That’s where I’m at mentally. I’m at piece with what I’ve done in the game. I feel just completely blessed to be able to do some of the things I was able to do and meet some of the people I was able to meet. So if this is it for me, then I’m going to sleep well at night.”
Burke may not have had a place to play the game he loved any more. But he’d always have a place in MLB history.
Photo courtsey Louisville Bats