Hops' Burk living his dream
Rich Burk has got a good thing going.
The Hillsboro Hops announcer and Pacific University alumnus is heading into his sixth season of broadcasting for the local minor league team, the Class A Short Season affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. And to hear him tell it, he is absolutely loving where life has taken him.
"I feel like someone's looking out for me," said Burk. "I get a chance to be at home and work for the Hops, spend time with my family and play golf with my son. I'm very lucky."
Burk and his wife, Heather, have been married for 28 years. They have two kids: 18-year-old Madeline, who just graduated from Century High School and is headed to Oregon State University in the fall, and Dalton, a high school sophomore-to-be who played varsity golf for the Jaguars last spring.
But while chasing his broadcasting dream — which now includes his job with the Hops and more than 50 annual events with ESPN, NBC and the Pac-12 Network, encompassing football, basketball, volleyball and last year's Olympics, among countless others — it's been a series of people and moments that have been pivotal to getting Burk to where he is today, he said. And none of those have been more important than Heather.
"If not for my wife, this couldn't have happened," Burk said frankly.
Love of baseball took
Burk on dual track
To fully understand, let's go to Burk's beginning.
Born in Pomona, Calif., in 1964, but raised in Southern California's Dana Point, Burk — the son of a restauranteur father and physician's assistant mother — always loved baseball.
He played well enough in high school to earn an opportunity to play at nearby Mira Costa Community College in Oceanside. While he was there, one of his assistant coaches, John Seeley — who was from Oregon and had played minor league baseball for the now-defunct Salem Senators — suggested Burk spend his final two years of baseball eligibility at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
Seeley, who was heavily involved with the local Rotary Club in Oceanside, would regularly take players to speak at Rotary engagements in town, and he recognized Burk as a natural public speaker. The coach was also close friends with Pacific head coach Chuck Bafaro, and after coaching Burk and talking to Bafaro, he thought Burk would be a natural fit in Forest Grove.
"He said I should go play baseball at Pacific, and in the offseason, I could be the voice of the Boxers," said Burk. "So that's what I did."
After two years playing Pacific baseball, Burk spent his final summer in Bend, where he was provided his first real play-by-play opportunity.
Bafaro had a friend by the name of Jack Cain, who owned and operated the Bend Rockies — another since-vanished minor league team. Cain hired Burk, gave him the title of administrative assistant, and offered him an opportunity to call two innings (the fourth and fifth, he remembers) per game. Prior to and after those innings, his job was to haul ice and hot dogs to the concession stands, get change and do anything else asked of him by management. But it was all worth it in the interest of getting that limited announcing experience.
"I had a spiral-bound notebook in my pocket and kept score listening to my Walkman radio," Burk said. "I'd keep score so I'd have some sense of what happened when it was my turn in the booth."
By his own admission, at that first job, he wasn't very good. And by the end of summer, it was time to head back to Portland and look for a more sustainable form of income. But before that, Burk — after a successful workout in front of a local scout in Bend — was allowed to attend spring training in Arizona in hopes of securing a spot on one of the California Angels' minor league franchises. For the Golden State kid who had given his life to playing, broadcasting and working concessions for baseball, it was his big break.
"That winter, I was eating 7,000 calories a day to try and put on weight," said Burk. "I'd eat seven cans of tuna a day and worked out with weights, and was able to put on 25 pounds of muscle."
Burk considered himself to be the best-fielding first baseman at the camp amongst the Class-A competition, he said. But the Angels weren't interested. Burk lasted just a week before heading back to Oregon.
Words of wisdom from
a broadcasting great
His dreams of playing professional baseball dashed, Burk knew his future in the sport — if he had one — was in play-by-play broadcasting. But with a wedding to Heather on the horizon and her working in the Portland metro area, he needed to seek employment nearby.
As he recalled, Burk essentially begged his way into a remedial position at Peter Jacobsen Productions — the company that, at the time, ran the popular Fred Meyer Challenge. Burk spent five years at PJP, even working his way into the advertising and graphics manager's position. But despite that professional success, his broadcasting dream remained. When he informed management of his impending departure, he said, Peter Jacobsen himself provided him an opportunity of a lifetime.
At the time, Jacobsen was doing spot broadcasting duties for NBC during the Skins Game on the PGA Tour. Vin Scully — almost inarguably the greatest play-by-play man of the era, probably best known for his more than 60 years with the Brooklyn and later the Los Angeles Dodgers — was the lead commentator for the Skins Game.
Jacobsen asked Burk if he'd like to meet and spend time with Scully — of course he did. Burk attended the competition at Big Horn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif., and spent two days in a broadcast trailer with the legendary announcer, soaking in any and all words of wisdom he heard from Scully.
"We had lunch each day and it was incredible," said Burk. "I asked him, 'What do I have to do?' And he told me to read everything I could get my hands on, because words are your tools. And that you have to be yourself."
While at PJP, Burk also did play-by-play for the University of Portland Pilots baseball. He would frequently take in a Triple-A Portland Beavers game, sit in the stands and spin a yarn into a cassette tape recorder in an effort to get reps.
Five years into his marriage to Heather and another five years from their plan of having kids, Burk knew it was now or never. After discussing it with his wife, and armed with Scully's advice, he made 75 cassette tapes and headed to the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Atlanta to find himself a gig. Lo and behold, he found one — back in Bend, working for Cain's Rockies. This time around, he wasn't fetching ice and making change so he could call a couple of innings — he was calling all nine, serving as the Rockies' lead play-by-play announcer to start the 1994 season.
As it turned out, 1994 was also the year that the Triple-A Beavers left Portland, and Cain saw an opportunity to uproot his Single-A product and place it down gently within the confines of what was then PGE Park (now known as Providence Park). After a single season broadcasting in Bend, Burk found himself back where he started — and back with his wife, from whom he had been apart during his summer in Central Oregon. The relocation, Burk said, "worked out great" for him.
Career takes flight,
and takes its toll
Burk spent the next six years with the newly christened Portland Rockies, then the following 10 calling Portland Beavers games when the Triple-A team returned in 2001. But Burk's big break came in 2007 when new owner Merritt Paulson negotiated a deal with Fox Sports Net (now known as Root Sports) to broadcast 20 Portland Beavers games.
"No one had a package like that for minor league ball at that time," said Burk.
Paulson insisted that Burk call the broadcast games, even though he wasn't FSN's first choice. But it didn't take Burk long to impress the network; shortly thereafter, FSN asked him to do volleyball, then football. Later, the Pac-12 Network came calling, then ESPN, and then NBC, which brought him on to help call the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"I owe that all to Merritt," Burk said.
In the meantime, the Portland Beavers again left town, packing up after the 2010 season and moving to El Paso, Texas. But while he was saddened by the Triple-A team's departure, Burk — with his newfound workload — was also relieved, to an extent. His work was depriving him of time spent at home with his young family.
"Honestly, I've never said this publicly, but in a way it was a relief, because I was doing a lot of TV work and didn't need it so much anymore," the now-veteran play-by-play man said. "I loved it and loved going to work every day, but at the time, my son was 7 years old and in his first year of playing baseball, and I only got to see him play once. The reality is, if the Beavers hadn't left town, I would've had to negotiate home games only or had to step down."
For the next two years, Burk enjoyed his summers, "reacquainting" himself with his family and coaching his son Dalton on the diamond. It wasn't until he was approached by K.L. Wombacher in 2013 that he considered broadcasting again. Wombacher was the president and general manager of a new Portland-area minor league baseball team — the Hops, who had just relocated from Yakima, Wash. — and he was looking for someone to call its games.
"I told him no and explained why," said Burk. "Then he said, 'What if were flexible with your schedule?' Which is unheard of in minor league baseball, because there's too many people who want to do it. But I guess the McMurrays (the team's owners) saw value in me, and they let me do it."
Burgeoning baseball scene gives joy, opportunity
Since then, it's been a joyride for Burk. Now in his sixth season calling play-by-play for the Hops, he's appreciative of how good he's had it. Few in the baseball play-by-play game are fortunate enough to stay in or near their hometown for the bulk of their career, and even fewer get to do it for a franchise held in such high regard as the Hops.
"The people I work with are my favorite thing about working for the Hops," Burk said. "They're the best I've worked with in baseball and I've worked with some good ones."
Burk points to the same people who wanted him to take the job as the reason for that.
"Mike and Laura (McMurray) hire good people and let them do their jobs, and there are a lot of good people there," continued Burk. "K.L. is the same way. Everyone is so nice."
Now, with Portland being rumored as a possible destination for Major League Baseball in coming years, is Burk interested in getting back in the major league game?
"I tried for many years to get a major league job and was on three different finalist lists and didn't get them," said Burk. "But I'm glad, because had I gotten them, I wouldn't know either of my kids as well as I know them now.
"But yes, by the time MLB gets here, my kids will both be in college, and I'd love to do it."
So while he's living out his broadcasting dream, Burk has been lucky enough to simultaneously enjoy his family as well, and that's not lost on him. And while he feels fortunate to have someone "looking out for him," he feels equally fortunate that his wife gave him the opportunity to do both.
"I've been married for 28 years and wouldn't have been able to go down this path without Heather," Burk said. "She's worked for a long time, and it's only been the last 10 years or so that my career took off, and there were some lean years in there. She's truly been special."