Voice of Summer


Thursday, October 3, 2013

“It’s 89 sticky degrees here in Hillsboro,” Rich Burk ’88 tells baseball fans on a late June evening.

It’s even hotter in the broadcast booth, where Burk — “the voice” of the new Hillsboro Hops minor league team — is bringing the fourth home game of the season to life in the minds of radio listeners.

The room still smells of fresh paint, and Burk and his team spend the pre-game and first inning tweaking the sound of their broadcast. The stadium announcements blare in the booth. The open windows overlooking the diamond offer no breeze.

Burk, in slacks and a long-sleeve button-down, appears unfazed, either by the heat or the distractions. On his left, a laptop gives him instant access to Major League gamecasts, weather statistics and broadcast sound levels. Propped on the table in front of him is a spiral-bound book, a complete history of the Hops’ young season, for anyone who can read the markings of a scorecard.

He’s got a yellow highlighter and a pen at the ready, but Burk holds a mechanical pencil in his hand. Years of experience in the booth have taught him to keep his scorecard in pencil, so he can add in notes and reminders, like a player who wants to give a birthday shout out to Mom or Dad.

“The worst part is when you tease something you’re going to talk about in the next inning and then forget,” he says.

After all, Burk says, longtime Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Rory Rowswell is known for saying, “It’s not just the play-by-play that matters. It’s what you say between the pitches.”

Burk takes the advice of such big-timers to heart: Like the wisdom of Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione, who said it takes four or five hours to prepare to call a basketball game, four or five days for a football game, and a lifetime for a baseball game.

“There’s so much time to fill, so much opportunity for conversation,” Burk says. “I’ve been preparing for this since I was growing up and loving baseball.”

Many of Burk’s peers dreamed of careers as sports commentators, he says. He wasn’t one of them.

“I grew up watching (Hall of Fame broadcaster) Vin Scully because I loved the Dodgers,” he says. “But I never pictured myself in his seat.”

It was John Seeley, Burk’s baseball coach at MiraCosta College in Southern California, who first tipped Burk to the idea.

“He suggested I come to Pacific, play baseball, and broadcast football and basketball games,” Burk says. “He thought it would be a good career for me.”

Burk did, indeed, come to Pacific, and in his first year, he hit a .432 average. Then, he says, he spent the off-season “resting on his laurels” and paid with a lower average the next season. The importance of working hard is just one of the life lessons he attributes to Pacific.

More, though, he says he learned about finding opportunities.

“There are chances to do more at a small liberal arts college than you get at a major university,” he says. “At Pacific, when you get there, you can create your own opportunities.”

Burk spent his college career studying broadcast telecommunications (a topic that likely would fall into the Media Arts Department today), playing ball for Pacific coach Chuck Bafaro, announcing other sports and getting to know his future wife, Heather Hansen ’89.

When he graduated, he spent a season as a No. 2 announcer — and all around assistant — for the Class A Bend (Ore.) Bucks. He’d do a couple of innings of play-by-play mid-game while also stocking concessions and otherwise supporting the club.

“I’d have to go to the Safeway behind the ballpark to get more hot dogs,” Burk recalls. “I’d be wearing my Walkman and carrying my score pad, because when I went on in the fourth I had to know what happened.

“It was the worst play-by-play you’ve heard in your life.”

After that first season, he got married and decided he didn’t want the market-to-market jumps that are so frequent in a broadcast career. So he spent almost five years working for pro-golfer Peter Jacobsen and helping with the Fred Meyer Challenge golf tournament.

When he did decide to get back in the game, the new Bend baseball team, the Rockies, were looking for a No. 1 announcer.

“By the time I got to Bend, six years after I’d left, I was much better,” Burk says.

He spent a season in Bend, then the team moved to Portland, where Burk continued announcing four of its next five years.

In 2001, AAA baseball came to Portland, and Burk spent the next decade as the voice of the Portland Beavers.

The past three years without a Portland team have been rough, but Burk’s had the chance to fill in announcing for a variety of sports, including Oregon State baseball. He called a few games at Madison Square Garden and broadcast the 2009 AAA All-Star Game. Plus, he says, he got to coach his son’s youth baseball team, which he calls “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” (The Burks have two children: Madeline, 13, and Dalton, 10.)

But baseball made its way back to Oregon in the form of the Hillsboro Hops, formerly the Yakima Bears, a single-A short-season part of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system. The club sought out Burk for their radio show.

For Burk, it’s pretty much the perfect setting.

“This level is great. There are two levels where players are happy to be where they are: in the majors and at this level, especially the guys who were just drafted,” Burk says. “It’s the first time they’re playing pro ball. There’s still a sense of innocence.”

Plus, he still gets to coach his son’s baseball team and stay in the community he’s come to call home. The Burks live in Hillsboro but still have close ties to their alma mater, too, with him participating in Boxer Club and the family attending church at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ.

“This is the best possible situation,” he says.

And it just goes to show that what Burk loves most about baseball is just as true as his baseball announcing career: “You’re never out of the game.”