June 1, 2009

From Indy Ball to the Padres

Here is an article I wrote for my newspaper today The Press of Atlantic City. Padres reliever Greg Burke played the Atlantic City Surf in 2005 when it was part of the Atlantic League.

I hope you enjoy it.

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Megan Burke was sleeping on her grandmother's couch when the house phone rang around 1 a.m. Her husband didn't normally call at that time, knowing she had to wake for work in three hours.

Greg Burke was in Oklahoma City. She was in Bellmawr, Camden County.

"I thought he was calling to tell me good news, but he acted normal," Megan said. "Finally, I was getting off the phone to go to bed when he told me."

So what was the good news? It was actually the best.

Greg, who pitched for the Atlantic City Surf in 2005, had been called up to the San Diego Padres.

"(Megan) was freaking out," the pitcher said.

She remembers him being "excited as a 5-year-old."

The two Gloucester Catholic High School graduates have been together since they were teenagers. They endured a long road to fulfill Greg's Major League dream.

They've had to make sacrifices because a big salary doesn't come until you're in the big leagues. The minimum for a triple-A player is $2,150 a month. The minimum salary in the majors is $400,000 for a whole season.

Burke, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander, made his debut in the majors against Cincinnati on May 16, one day after being called up from the minors. In eight appearances out of the bullpen, he has given up three hits, one run (1.35 ERA) and struck out four. In three of his appearances, Burke pitched the seventh inning with a one-run lead, helping pave the way for closer Heath Bell.

San Diego takes on the visiting Philadelphia Phillies starting tonight in a three-game series. Burke's boyhood team.

* * *

Burke, 26, graduated from Duke in 2005 and took a blow to his baseball ego. He wasn't drafted in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft, despite being having already been drafted once, out of high school in 2000 (by the New York Mets in the 42nd round).

He considered an office job but wasn't ready to give up on his dream. He worked his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery as a sophomore in college, so this wouldn't deter him either.

He signed in 2005 with the Surf, the now-defunct local team that was then playing in the independent Atlantic League, which is where San Diego noticed him. With the Surf, he was 1-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 25 games. He made one start.

"(The Surf) gave me a chance to keep pitching," Burke said.

Like it had with so many players before him, the Atlantic League gave Burke an opportunity to be scouted. However, he didn't take the Padres' first tryout offer.

According to his wife, one of his Atlantic City teammates told him it would be a mistake. But when the Padres offered him a second chance, Burke didn't wait. He signed, and the Padres sent him to Class-A Lake Elsinore in California.

However, signing as a free agent from an independent league only provided an opportunity. He was still far from making it to the majors. He also didn't get a signing bonus that many drafted players get.

"It was a struggle," Burke said. "I have a college education, but I wasn't making much money. Put that on top of being away from family and being on the road for so long. All you have is your teammates. I've been through some long phone calls to make up for it."

Megan and Greg have probably been apart more than they have been together. That's often the life of a couple in baseball's minor leagues.

Megan needed to be supportive, understanding and willing to make her own sacrifices.

There were cold nights she wore sweatpants and a sweatshirt to bed rather than turn on the heat.

She bought a Philly Pretzel Factory franchise in Wilmington, Del., to support herself. She lived in Maryland but recently moved in with her grandmother in Bellmawr.

"It's like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders," she said. "It's been so hard. I'm 27, own a business and working 70 hours a week. When we were 17 and thought what would life be like, this wasn't it."

* * *

Media outlets in the San Diego area called for Burke's promotion. They compared his statistics to those pitchers already with the club. One publication even called him the next Trevor Hoffman. In 13 appearances with triple-A Portland this spring, he was 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA and seven saves.

His numbers were good, and better than those others who were pitching in front of Bell.

San Diego was in the midst of losing 20 of 24 games and made a change. The front office shook up the clubhouse - ever so slightly - by calling up two minor-leaguers for the bullpen.

"I saw (pitcher) Joe Thatcher go into the office before me, so I thought there was no way they were sending two of us up," Burke said. "But when he told me I got called up, I was just at a loss for words. That feeling was indescribable."

Upon his arrival, San Diego became the hottest team in baseball. The Padres won 10 straight but have since lost three of five. They are tied for second in the National League West behind the Los Angeles Dodgers (nine games back). The Padres are four back in the wild-card standings.

"I haven't had the experience of losing any games here," said Burke, whose locker is next to those of pitchers Kevin Correia and Edgar Gonzalez. "When I got up here, everyone was in a good mood. I was in spring training with these guys, so I didn't come here not knowing anyone."

* * *

The Burkes, who married in January, met at Gloucester Catholic. They dated through college even though he was at Duke and she was at Saint Joseph's.

Being far away was nothing new.

"When we're together, there's no fighting or yelling," Megan said. "We make the most out of every moment together."

Even thought Megan visited him in Portland, Ore., she was going to San Diego anyway. They had never seen each other on back-to-back weekends during the season, but they had to be together for one of the greatest moments of his life.

Greg's agent and friend Jim Ulrich of Margate booked a flight for Megan.

When she woke up in a plush hotel room, it was hard to imagine it was real.

"I woke up and there was food everywhere," she said. "I wish I could write it all down and remember it forever."

This could become her life soon enough. They will consider where to make their permanent residence in six months, once Megan's business is settled.

* * *

July 23 will be a big day for the Burke clan. San Diego visits Philadelphia for a make-up game.

Megan has called the Phillies to reserve a section. Apparently, the guest list could reach more than 100.

While in San Diego, Megan asked her husband if he thought this day would finally come.

"I never thought it would go one way or the other," he told her. "I just kept going for it."

5 comments:

  1. Awesome story.....great job!

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  2. Great story. I'm always happy to find out a guy I saw play in the Atlantic League has made it to the big leagues.

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  3. Great story! I know them both and have been in the same situation through the years. It is very hard but worth every minute. Memories can never be taken away.

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  4. Great work! It has been a joy to watch Burke pitch here in San Diego. He has done an amazing job so far.

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  5. San Diego Padres should be always competitive enough to keep pace with the others. I really like them; they’ve always been my favourite teams in MLB. Just read about them here:
    http://www.padreshome.com

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