Former Diamond Vol doesn’t betray his alma mater
by Tony Basilio
Turn on Monday Night Football these days, watch the player introductions and you’ll see a disturbing trend. More and more players are eschewing their alma maters. Many former Vols have chosen to get into this disconcerting act. Dontè Stallworth proclaims some obscure high school in Sacramento as his ‘school.’ Then there is former UT defensive back Gibril Wilson, who proclaims ‘City College of San Fransisco’ as his school of origin. Former Tennessee wideout Eric Parker is doing it too. Even UT’s captain of all captains, Al Wilson (who deserves to have his number retired right alongside Peyton Manning’s) is getting into the act. During a recent Monday Night Game, Wilson introduced himself as ‘Al Wilson of Jackson Central-Merry High School.’
Juxtapose this with the zeal felt by one former Vol great who’s making good in another American fall pastime. October ’05 has been a coming-of-age, watershed time for former UT diamond Vol Chris Burke. When Burke left UT’s campus, he had practically rewritten every offensive record at Tennessee.
Before we go any further here, in the spirit of full disclosure, an admission must be stated. I love Chris Burke, in the human, heartfelt sense of the word. As the old saying goes, what’s not to love? Burke is everything professional athletes should be. He’s classy, talented, humble and most of all appreciative. He’s thankful for where he is and where he’s come from.
Full disclosure #2: Chris Burke is a friend. Our relationship transcends that of media/subject. So, my support for ‘Burkey’ as his friends call him is unabashed. This is stated to further illustrate Burkey’s degree of love for his alma mater. While Chris is serious about his craft, he is a steadfast Vol fan.
During the fall, periodic calls will appear on my cell phone from Burke, wanting to talk about one of his favorite subjects: ‘Hey Basilio, how’s everything going in Rocky Top?’ Another question that is sure to come up during our conversations is, ‘How ‘bout the Vols this year?’
Ironically, two days before Burke hit the shot heard around the baseball world, ending a titanic 18-inning struggle between the Braves and Astros, Burke spent 45 minutes on the phone quizzing me about Tennessee’s offensive struggles. He also went on to talk about how Rick Clausen’s fortunes at UT mirrored what transpired with him this year in Houston.
This was supposed to be Burke’s year to shine in the Lone Star. Going into spring training, Burke was told it was his time to be an everyday player. However, with Craig Biggio moving back to second base, Burke didn’t get the chance to be that everyday player. He did get substantial playing time at other positions, but the regular season did not unfold as he had hoped and expected. Burke expressed to me that Clausen showed great character in sitting and keeping quiet. Burke shared how when his time came, he hoped to take advantage in the manner Clausen did at LSU. Burkey has done more than take advantage. He has emerged in full bloom. “The one thing they say is that if you want to see God’s sense of humor, share your plans with him,” Burke says.
Subsequent to his late inning heroics ending the Braves series, Burke stuck a dagger in the Cardinals in game two with a two hit, two run scored, one RBI performance in a 4-1 Astros win. That it was Burke’s first start of the series should be noted.
Oh, and Burke’s 18th inning home run ball from the Atlanta series is on its way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “That is a really crazy thing to try and comprehend. I posed for a couple of pictures with the guy who caught it who also caught Lance Berkman’s home run ball (that was hit in the 8th inning of the same game). What I did is cool and all, but this guy caught two home run balls in the same playoff game,” Burke said.
Whatever becomes of the ’05 Astros, a couple things remain certain: Houston has found another of their vaunted Killer B’s. Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell have some company in a youngster (Burke) who will carry on a longstanding Astro tradition. While Burke has some newfound notoriety with his postseason success, don’t look for him to forsake his alma mater anytime soon. “I owe so much to the people in Knoxville, Coach D (Rod Delmonico) and that baseball program. I will always love UT. Rocky Top remains a very special place for to me,” he says. Burke, who will be in town later in the fall for an alumni baseball game, couldn’t help but get in a word about UT’s struggling football team: “It’s time to score some points with our offense. I hope we can get it together. These Texas people are wearing me out about Tennessee! They try and tell me who the real UT is, but we all know the answer to that one.”
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.