|The Ultimate Baseball Trip|
Broadcaster takes dream journey, sees 1940s baseball first-hand... and learns about himself
Be careful what you wish for.
I’d heard that phrase before. As I sat, awe-struck, and looked out at the field—a place I had only seen in pictures—I finally understood what he meant.
I suppose my odyssey began in late August, 2010, near the end of the Pacific Coast League baseball season, and at the tail-end of my 16-year run as radio & TV play-by-play announcer for baseball in Portland, Oregon.
Having a fan approach me at my broadcast booth was nothing new—at PGE Park in Portland, the “booth” was right out in the middle of the crowd. And with Portland losing its baseball team, many well-wishers had been stopping by prior to (and during) games to ask what was next in my career.
I didn’t have an answer for them. Yes, I had been in the running for a few major-league play-by-play jobs over the years, but I had never gotten that big-time gig. Yet, I always consoled myself with this fact: if I had to be in Triple-A, there was no better place to be than Portland, Oregon. But after this season, the national pastime was leaving the Rose City.
Baseball was deserting me.
As I prepared for that night’s radio broadcast, I could see him standing next to the railing alongside the broadcast booth, waiting to catch my attention. I stopped what I was doing, looked at the old guy, and was ready with my standard, upbeat response: Thank you. Yes, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the broadcasts over the years. No, I’m not really sure what’s next for me, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
This time, though, I didn’t have to say those things. I could tell right away that he was… well, he was different.
“Mr. Burk, my name is Jimmy.”
He had a thick accent from somewhere back east. He looked old. And yet, his twinkling, bright eyes were so clear, they seemed youthful. His slight frame stood only about 5’7”, but his handshake was like a vise.
“Jimmy, nice to meet you,” I said, trying not to acknowledge the pain I felt from his grip. “And please, call me Rich.”
“Certainly,” he said. “Rich, I think big things are coming up for you.” He paused and nodded. “Big things.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope so. And thanks for listening all these years.”
He still wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“Hm? Listening? Oh, you mean on the radio.” He stopped and considered, then chuckled. “No, I haven’t listened much.”
“Oh. Um, well… thanks for stopping by to wish me well.”
“But I didn’t stop by to wish you well.” He said this matter-of-factly, without malice.
"But I didn't stop by to wish you well."
He must be nutso, or have memory loss, I thought. My broadcast booth sometimes had those kinds of visitors, too.
“Okay,” I said. “I gotta get back to my prep --- I’m on the air in half an hour. It was nice to meet you.”
“You too. And, Rich ---” at this, he leaned closer and looked me in the eyes “--- be careful what you wish for.”
Without releasing our handshake, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small item, and dropped it into my free hand. It was an old matchbox with Ted Williams on the cover.
He patted our handshake with his left hand, smiled and nodded. Finally, he let go, and turned to shuffle away.
I stood for a moment, blinking and dumbfounded, staring after him.
“Who was that?” asked my broadcast partner, Tim Hagerty. He had just come down press row and sat down at our location.
“Hmph,” I said, as I slipped the matchbox into my pocket. “I dunno. But he was odd.”
Within a couple of weeks, the Portland Beavers season ended, as did PGE Park’s 55-year run of hosting baseball. I couldn’t spend much time thinking about having my passion ripped out of me --- instead, I busied myself with getting reacquainted with my family and preparing for my other passion, calling college football and basketball play-by-play for FSN.
But as the Christmas holidays passed and 2011 began, I could avoid my feelings no longer. With each passing day, the hole in my heart grew. My frustration mounted --- how baseball had abandoned me, how I had never landed a full-time major league gig. Whenever I was alone, a stream of consciousness ran through my head, growing louder by the day.
Spring training is coming. Why did baseball have to leave Portland? And why was I stuck in Triple-A, anyway, when so many people told me I was one of the best they’d ever heard? Maybe they were wrong. Yeah, they must’ve been wrong. No baseball… what next… spring training is coming…what next…
In early January, I just had to talk baseball with someone. Maybe, if I talked about it, approached it head-on, the tapes playing in my head would stop.
So I summoned three friends to the Kingston, the hole-in-the-wall sports bar across the street from PGE Park.
About Rich Burk
Class A (Northwest League)
Triple-A (Pacific Coast League)
Class A (Northwest League)
Major League Fill-In Work:
San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays
College Athletics (Pac-12 Networks)
College Basketball & Football (FSN)
2009 Triple-A All-Star Game (ESPN2)
"His knowledge and love of the
game, and dedication to his profession,
Bob Costas, NBC Sports
"He has the capacity to make
the game come alive."
Curt Smith, author,
Voices of the Game
"His descriptions are colorful
The late Ernie Harwell,
"I'm always amazed at his knowledge
and passion for the game. And he definitely
has the voice that will capture the interest
of any baseball fan."
Kevin Towers, general manager
Website & E-mail:
“Good luck --- you’re gonna have a blast,” I said to Hagerty soon after we sat down. He had been hired by the Tucson Padres (the former Beavers) as their lead broadcaster, and I was elated for him, though I was going to miss him when he left Portland in a couple of days.
“Thanks,” he said. “I just wish I could take Schacker with me.” Our longtime studio producer, Mike Schacker, was also at the table. He is the best in the business --- he knows radio, loves baseball, and is still reveling in his Giants winning the World Series.
“Hey, I wish I was in a position to go with you,” Schacker said. “Tucson would be fun.”
“Yeah, that’s a great town,” said the final person at our table, baseball writer Rob Neyer. He was in his final month at ESPN.com before moving to sbnation.com. Although Rob and I have been friends for nearly a decade, it was still an honor to have him at the table. (I’ve read that no one has written more words for ESPN.com than Rob Neyer.)
We discussed Tucson a bit, and then I changed the subject.
“Hey, check this out,” I said, and I flipped the Ted Williams matchbox onto the table. I had found it on my dresser just that morning. “A fan gave it to me toward the end of last season. Some old guy named Jimmy.”
Often, I couldn’t remember the names of visitors to my booth, but for some reason, his had stuck with me.
“Hmmm,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of baseball memorabilia, but I’ve never seen one of these.” He handed it to Hagerty.
Neyer picked up the matchbox and examined it.
“Yeah, that’s pretty unique,” said Hagerty. “And look at that stroke. Ted Williams. I would have loved to have seen him hit.”
“Me too,” I said. “When I was a kid, I devoured his Science of Hitting book.”
“Hey, that brings up a question,” said Hagerty, “if you could travel back in time and see any one game, what would it be?” This was a fairly common question baseball people throw at each other.
“You mean, in person?” Neyer said. “You know, I think I’d go see a game from one of the Negro League World Series. Or maybe one of their East-West all-star games.”
“Cy Young’s perfect game,” said Hagerty. “I’ve never seen a no-hitter.”
“Nolan Ryan,” said Schacker, who often has a different perspective on things. “His no-hitter in Oakland in the early 1990s.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You have a chance to go see any game in baseball history, and you choose one within your lifetime?”
“Yeah,” Schacker said. “I was in sixth grade. My friends invited me to go, but I couldn’t. They got to see a no-hitter, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
“Wow,” I said. I picked up the matchbox from the table and turned it over in my fingers. “I’m gonna have to go back a lot further than that. I’ve thought about this before. For the longest time, I thought I’d choose Ruth’s Called Shot, as long as I could sit in the front row so I can see how everything played out. But I think, even more than that, I really wish I could go back and see Jackie Robinson in his first year. That would be something.”
Crossing the White Line
We sat there for hours, discussing the upcoming major league season, bringing up our favorite memories from seasons past, just talking and laughing. It seemed to be just the tonic I needed. But once we left the Kingston and I said goodbye to the others, the ache returned. I looked at my watch: almost midnight. I zipped my coat to rebuff the cold, glanced up at PGE Park, the Beavers’ former home, and walked to my truck.
Baseball is gone… No big-league job, and now, not even a Triple-A job. Spring training starts in a month… what next…
I got in my truck, feeling strangely tired. Normally, I love driving at night. More than once I had made a 20-hour trip to see my family in Southern California while stopping only for gas. So it was odd when I began yawning as I headed up the Sylvan Hill.
“Whoa,” I said to myself, jolted awake for the moment. “I gotta stay awake.”
I noticed an odd, warm sensation on the outside of my right hip. The matchbox, in my pocket --- it was hot.
And it was as if a black fog were descending upon me. I felt powerless against it. I could see my truck drifting across the white line on my right and onto the shoulder, and hear the reflectors hitting my tires. Still, I drifted off...
… and the next thing I knew, I was looking at honeycombs. At least, they looked like honeycombs through my partially shut eyes. It was bright. As I blinked, I could tell they weren’t actually honeycombs, but mesh of some sort.
And behind that, blue sky.
I was slumped back in a chair. I sucked air in to get the drool off my right cheek, and then wiped it off.
I sat up and looked at the mesh. And then I focused my eyes beyond it, and downward.
There it was, as I had seen it only in pictures… except that the photographs had almost always been black-and-white. This… this was in vivid color. The stands, so close to fair territory. The second deck, so oddly shaped in center field. The scoreboard in right.
Abe Stark. Hit Sign, Win Suit.
And some of the greenest grass I had ever seen.
I was looking out at Ebbets Field. Yup. Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, New York. It had been torn down, I knew, in 1960, after two years of disuse following the Brooklyn Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles.
And yet, here it was. Or, rather, here I was. Or something.
I stood up, holding onto the table because I felt dizzy, and I looked around. No one was down below --- the stadium was completely empty. The temperature was mild --- not cold, by any means, but not warm, either. I could feel a slight breeze.
God, what a dream, I thought to myself. I’m gonna have to remember this one. This is amazing.
Yet it was so real that it scared me. I yelled and pinched myself --- my two tricks for waking up from a dream I no longer want to be a part of --- but there I stood.
What the *&%E$ is going on here. Where am I? The Twilight Zone?
I turned and noticed a door at the back of my little room.
I gotta get out of here. I was beginning to panic. I walked the two steps to the door and tried the knob.
Nothing. It was locked. I twisted and pulled. Still, nothing.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Someone! Let me out!”
“No one can hear you.” The voice sounded small, as if coming from a transistor radio.
I turned and looked. On the table, just in front of the wire mesh, was a microphone --- one of those old ones you see in pictures, with the logo displayed at the top. This one said “WWW.” Next to the microphone was a set of old headphones.
“Who said that?” I yelled. I had broken out in a cold, frantic sweat. “Who said that!!”
“Calm down, for Heaven’s sake,” said the voice. It was coming through the headset. I pulled it over my ears.
“Calm down?!” I yelled into the microphone. My breathing was shallow, and I could feel my heart beating. “What is this? What is going on here?”
“I told you,” said the voice. “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Huh?” I said. “This is crazy. I didn’t wish for this.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Whaddaya mean? And who is this, anyway?”
“It’s me, Jimmy. Don’t you remember? You said it at the table. You said your wish was to go back to 1947, and see a game from Jack Robinson’s first year. And here you are.”
“No. No. What? I didn’t mean, like, really go back. Where are you? How are you doing this?”
“I’m back in the studio --- I’m your producer, silly. Would you please calm down. You’re going to sully my reputation. This is very unusual, an experiment, you might say --- I sort of stuck my neck out to the Time Sequence department and told them you’d be able to pull this off.”
“Time what? What is this hocus pocus? Get me out of here!”
“Listen, Rich,” he said. “You’re gonna have to gather yourself, or we’re gonna call this whole thing off, and believe me, you really don’t want us to do that.”
“Call what off?”
“You. Today. The game. You’re going to get to broadcast the game. On the radio.”
I stopped for a moment and sat down. My head was spinning. Breathe, I thought to myself. Take a deep breath, before you have a heart attack.
“Are you there?” It was the voice in the headset.
“Yes. I’m here,” I said. My voice was trembling, but subdued. “What… what game?”
“The World Series,” said the voice. “Game three of the World Series.”
Again, I paused. What was I supposed to say?
“Are you telling me it’s 1947?” I asked. “And I’m broadcasting the World Series?”
“No, not the whole thing. Just today.”
“What? To who? I mean, who is my audience? Like, the entire country?”
“Well, not exactly. I mean yes, if they want. But not the entire country in 1947. Broadcast the game to people in your own time.”
“They can hear me?” I asked.
“Well, yes, those that want to. But don’t worry about that for now.”
I sat upright.
“Jimmy… my kids! My wife and kids! My truck. I think I fell asleep when I was driving. Do I get to go back? Am I dead? Will I get to see them again? Just tell me ---”
“Don’t worry about that for now.”
“Jimmy, I can’t. I can’t sit here and do this if I’m worried about that.”
“Ugh --- so unenlightened,” he said, almost under his breath. And then he said to me, “Rich, you fret too much. Listen, we’ll see how you do today.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, shocked. “We’ll see how I do? You mean I’ve got to do well today so… so that I get to go back?”
“Let’s just say we’d like you to improve on a few things.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, shocked. “We’ll see how I do?
You mean I’ve got to do well today so… so that I get to go back?”
“Let’s just say,” said Jimmy, “we’d like you to improve on a few things.”
“Whaddaya mean, I always do that --- 1700 games, I’m always trying to get better!”
“Don’t misunderstand,” he said. “Just see what you can learn today.”
“Jimmy. Just tell me this. Am I dead?”
“No, you’re not dead.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Um… uh, what do I… what am I supposed to do? I mean, what do I do next?”
“Do what you always do. Get ready for the game.”
For the first time, I looked at my surroundings in the booth. There wasn’t a lot of room. The table wasn’t very wide. The only other thing on the table, besides the microphone, was a stapled packet of paper. On the title page, it said, “New York Yankees at Brooklyn Dodgers. World Series, 1947.” I thumbed through it quickly, just enough to know it was information on the players and teams.
I scooted my chair back from the table. Underneath was a leather briefcase. I opened it, and inside was a scorebook --- one of my scorebooks, of all things --- a set of binoculars and a few sharpened pencils.
“Uh, Jimmy?” I said. “When do I start? I mean, when do I start talking?”
Silence. I heard nothing on the other end.
“Jimmy? You there? Jimmy?”
So with that, I did my game prep. At least, as much as I could do while debating internally whether or not this was real, and while being fascinated by my surroundings.
The packet of notes said game time was 2 p.m. The clock at the top of the scoreboard in right field said 10:30 a.m.
Over the next three and a half hours leading up to the game, I was mesmerized by what I saw, what I heard, and what I smelled. Players came out onto the field for batting practice --- people I had only read about and seen in pictures… but you can hear more about them later. Fans came into the ballpark. The shadow of the stadium roof crept toward home plate. The smell of hot dogs, roasted peanuts and cigar smoke wafted up into my broadcast booth. It all took my breath away as I sat in stunned silence, struggling to write down my lineups and a few notes.
And then, finally, Jimmy’s voice came down the line again. It was time to do the game…
Radio Broadcast: Download
Entire Game for only $1.99
Well, you're reading this, so you know that I did make it back. And I think you'll agree… I did improve on a few things, didn't I?
It was the most amazing experience of my life: DiMaggio and Robinson in the flesh. Glimpses of The Bambino and Bogey. And by the way, did I sound nervous during the first half-inning? I didn't think so as I was doing it, and even listening to it now, I think, all things considered, I held it together pretty well. But I guess everyone's entitled to their opinion.
As you heard if you listened to the broadcast, when the game was over, I was desperate to go out and see Brooklyn --- to see 1947, first-hand. But I couldn't.
And then Jimmy said it was time to say goodbye.
I leaned back in my chair, exhausted. I could feel the black fog descending upon me again. The matchbox --- I had forgotten completely about the matchbox --- was again warm in my pocket. But I was too sleepy to think much about it.
"You're welcome," he said. "Oh, and Rich --- listen."
"Hmmm?" I mumbled.
And with that, I heard the reflectors again, this time bumping against my left tires. I was jolted awake, my truck completely onto the shoulder. A hundred yards ahead, a car was stalled by the side of the road. If I had kept going, I would've slammed into the car, the cement barrier, or both. I pulled the steering wheel to the left --- but not too far --- heard the tires hit the reflectors again, and got back into the right lane. Only one other car was nearby, blaring its horn as it passed in the dark.
My heart was pumping a hundred miles an hour. I pulled off the freeway at the Brookwood exit and stopped at the top of the dark exit ramp, a safe distance from the road.
What had just happened? I was alive, thank God. But if that was a dream, I'd never had another one like it. Didn't really want another one like it.
I didn't tell anyone about my… uh, journey. Not Neyer. Not Hagerty or Schacker. Not even Heather. Who would believe me, anyway? I had even begun to doubt it myself, questioning whether it had happened at all.
And then, just last week --- eight weeks after my trip, I received this in the mail:
Addressed only from "J.B.," at a post-office box in New York City. Inside the envelope were three CDs --- my game broadcast --- along with a photo of Ebbets Field with me in the foreground and my scorebook from that day. I called USPS, but of course they can’t provide me with any information on the owner of the box.
Getting a big-league play-by-play job?
Sure, that'd be great.
But, really. What could top this?
-- Rich Burk
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