From Construction to Curveballs: Morgan Burkhart Handles It All
In Richmond, Indiana, a town of about 35,000 people, you’ll find people who remember Morgan Burkhart. From 1995-1998, he took the Richmond Roosters, and the Frontier League by storm. In four seasons of independent baseball, he was a four-time All-Star selection, a triple-crown winner, and a three-time most valuable player. Today, the league’s MVP award is named after him.
“That’s nice that they would do that,” he says. He’s really not enthused when talking about the honor. That’s not because he doesn’t care, though. That’s just Morgan Burkhart for you—relaxed and ready for anything.
In 1994, Burkhart, now the hitting coach for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, was wrapping up his time in college. He’d bounced around a few times, starting at Crowder Junior College in Neosho, Missouri, spending a year at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, Texas, and finishing at the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Despite a professional career that awaited him, although he didn’t know it at the time, immediately after graduation there was no more baseball to be played.
“I didn’t have any offers. I was average,” says Burkhart, who makes his home in O’Fallon, Missouri.
To many, that was likely the shared opinion. During his playing days, Burkhart measured 5’11” and weighed 225 pounds. The ideal size for a construction worker, but not for a corner outfielder who says, without hesitation, “I wasn’t bad. I just couldn’t run.”
So it was construction that Morgan Burkhart, the future Red Sox and Royals player, took up as his first job out of college. “I remember working that construction job and thinking that was it,” Burkhart says, recalling the summer of 1994 when he worked 40-hour weeks in sweltering heat. Fortunately for him, that didn’t last long.
The first job in baseball for Burkhart, who prefers fishing on a quiet lake when he has the chance, came through a connection.
“I came back to coach at Central Missouri,” he says, “and the other assistant coach they had brought in was from Indiana, and he knew a guy starting up an independent team. Back then no one hardly knew about independent ball. They were kind of explaining it to me.”
And that’s how he ended up in Richmond, the star of a team that has since relocated to Traverse City, Michigan, with many of his records intact.
When trying to remember how old he was in the spring of 1999, his first year in the minor leagues playing for the Red Sox farm team in the Class-A Florida State League, Burkhart says, “Too old to be in that league.” He was 27.
He finished the ’99 season with Double-A Trenton of the Eastern League, and got the call to the big leagues in 2000 while playing with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, where his manager was current San Diego Padres roving minor league infield instructor Gary Jones. When Boston’s Trot Nixon went on the disabled list, Morgan Burkhart made his major league debut.
On June 27, 2000, six years after thinking he had no future as a pro ballplayer, Burkhart singled in his first-ever Major League at-bat, hitting the Mike Mussina-pitched ball to right field.
“I wasn’t too bad,” Burkhart said of his MLB debut. “It just happened so fast. That’s why it was cool (Red Sox Manager) Jimy Williams put me in the lineup that night. I didn’t have much time to think about it.” Had he been provided much time to think, he would’ve had to process that he was hitting fifth, one spot behind Boston baseball legend Nomar Garciaparra
“The first game up in Boston I’m DH’ing and and we ran out of players on the bench. So (in the 10th inning) I was on the bases and I come in and Jimy goes, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go to left field.’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’ This is in a tie ballgame in the big leagues. I went out there and they hit a bunch of rockets. They were all either in the gap, down the line or off the wall.”
Burkhart says he wasn’t often recognized in Boston, unless he went out to eat near the park, which seems to be the way he likes it. Low-key. He also played for the Red Sox in 2001, while splitting time with the Triple-A team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Below, courtesy of the website Diamond Mines, is what scout Leo Labossiere, wrote about Burkhart after watching him play in Triple-A in 2001.
Burkhart also had a short stint with the Royals in 2003, capping his MLB service time at 42 games.
For a guy who seems most comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts throwing front-toss to hitters at Parkview Field, Burkhart spent a lot of time in uniform, racking up more than 900 games between independent baseball and the minor leagues. He also played in Mexico and Japan.
“If you go to a convenience store, and this sounds crazy,” Burkhart says of the difficulties of living in Japan, “when you go pick up toothpaste, it could be sour cream or toothpaste and you wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the difference is. It sounds like you’ll be able to figure it out, but how? There are no words or letters, it’s all symbols.”
He still longs for the fresh-cooked seafood of the western coast of Mexico, where he spent his winters while the team in Richmond was out of season. He doesn’t miss the soup he once tried in Japan, which featured a live, baby octopus.
“That’s like a really good dish over there. They’ll stick to your mouth and you’re supposed to chew them up and swallow them. I tried it, but didn’t eat much of it.”
Burkhart thought he would have to call it quits as a player after the 2005 season, knowing that with a broken hand that hadn’t fully healed, and his body only getting older, it was time to head back to Missouri.
“I went home and I was deer hunting every day. I was up in the woods, no phone service or anything,” Burkhart says. “I went into town to get something to eat, and I was pumping gas, and my phone rings it was a team from Mexico for winter ball. It was about a month into the season, and they were like, ‘Hey do you wanna play?’ I really didn’t have anything else to do but I wasn’t ready to play, but I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I went down there for the winter and played one more winter. I wasn’t very good, but I was lucky I did.”
The hitting coach for that team in Mexico was Mike Bush who was, at the time, the manager of the independent Calgary Vipers of the Northern League. Bush invited Burkhart to be his hitting coach, a position he accepted and held for the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Burkhart became the manager in 2009, and held that through 2011, when the team folded. Last year, Burkhart managed the independent Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League.
One of the quirks of baseball, unlike any other sport, is that the coaching staffs don’t wear formal clothes. They wear what the players wear. But this was an interview, after all.
“I did throw on some slacks and a dress shirt,” Burkhart says with a grin, “But it didn’t matter because I walked in and I changed and they gave me all Padres stuff.”
About a month after his late-fall interview, the Padres offered Burkhart, the veteran of octopus soup, of construction in the summer heat, and of navigating left field at Fenway, a chance to get back into affiliated baseball, nearly ten years after his last game in the major leagues.
Morgan Burkhart’s day revolves around The Board. He bought it, hammered it to the wall, and writes in dry-erase marker the schedule for the day on the white rectangle. It’s visible to anyone who comes into the TinCaps’ clubhouse, hanging at eye level on the right-hand side in the entryway.
“Early Work, Hitters 2:00,” The Board reads some days. After all, this is developmental baseball. And who better to understand that and teach 18 and 19 year-olds than someone who didn’t think he’d make it, but beat his own prediction, reaching the apex of the game of baseball?
More often than not after a win during the 2013 season, if asked about his success at the plate, a TinCaps hitter will tell you it’s because of the work he’s been doing with Morgan Burkhart. One time, though, a player who was hitting well above .300, in a post-game interview, called him Morgan Burkman. Kangaroo Court does need its fodder, and after all, this is developmental baseball.
Burkhart likes to listen to hard rock, but prefers taking a quiet approach as a hitting coach.
“Ino Guerrero was my first hitting coach in the (Red Sox) organization. I learned a lot from him because he didn’t say a whole lot. You know you’re looking for these guys to get on you all the time, but he’d watch you over and over and then he’d be able to find out when something went a little different.”
When Burkhart was back home in the winter of 2006, hunting in the suburbs of St. Louis, he didn’t know what his next move would be. It was time to relax after having played baseball for a living the last 13 years. But there’s always got to be something that’s next.
“Every day I think about that” Burkhart says. “There were times when I was playing where I was like, ‘What else am I gonna do?’ You know, you get down on yourself. When I was coming up all those years in the minor leagues before I played winter ball, I was substitute teaching. I was getting a job every day like a regular teacher. You can go in there and do P.E. one day, math the next. You’re not making anything in the minor leagues. You come home for a month at a time, three weeks of those you’re subbing, trying to make a living.”
Little did he know at the time, as he tried to scrape together day-to-day teaching gigs, that his time as Mr. Burkhart would serve him well. He’s still a teacher, he just doesn’t have to wear slacks and a button-down shirt. It’s a good thing he was an attentive student, too, with his old hitting coaches.
“You remember what things they said and how they went about dealing with the hitters every day. That’s the biggest thing to me is getting the kids to be enthusiastic about hitting.”
Now in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Saltillo, Mexico, and Fukuoka, Japan, and Boston and Kansas City, you’ll find people who remember Morgan Burkhart –the guy who got his chance because he never stopped hitting.
“I was trying to help the team win and hoping to survive,” Burkhart says of his time with the Red Sox and Royals.
Now he’s trying to give that survival instinct—hunt or be hunted—to players in Fort Wayne.