Jan. 17, 2014
By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Chris Burke didn't think himself old enough to be named a Hall of Famer. In his mind, honors like that were for people much older. Thanks to the weather last January, he got an extra year to get used to the idea.
After seeing his induction into the Tennessee Baseball Hall of Fame put off last year thanks to a snow storm, Burke finally received his honor Thursday night at the annual Tennessee Baseball Leadoff Barbeque at Thompson-Boling Arena.
In his speech honoring Burke, Tennessee Head Coach Dave Serrano cited the work ethic of the Vol great, something Serrano witnessed first-hand as an opposing coach in 2001. Burke said his hard work was a byproduct of the great support system that set him up for a career of success.
"It's an honor to be on the wall with those other great players and it's gratifying, knowing the work that I put into my career," Burke said before the ceremony. "I feel blessed to have so many good people around me and such a great support system. I'm really thankful to be able to show my appreciation here publicly, in front of this crowd, to all these people that I love that have helped me along the way."
Serrano told the crowd that Burke was the model for how he wanted his team to represent themselves and Tennessee on the field.
"If we can get our players to play with the passion, the pride, the confidence, and the grit that he did, then we're going to be pretty good," Serrano said. "I hope that at the end of this successful season, I can look out there and say 'that was our Chris Burke.' He made his teams better; he made his teammates better by what he stood for. That's what we want in this program, that's what we want to be about."
Many of the familiar faces from his stellar career as a shortstop at UT were in the crowd on Thursday night, including Vol Baseball trainer Jeff Wood, who Burke credited with his health and former UT assistant coach Larry Simcox, father of current Vol shortstop A.J. Simcox. The junior Simcox joined Serrano on stage in presenting Burke with his Hall of Fame plaque.
"The Tennessee community is amazing," Burke said after connecting with several fans that he still remembered by name. "But it's not just here in Knoxville. My entire career people would come up and say "Go Vols!" That was probably the best way to get my attention. I get that still to this day. It's one of the things that makes this place so unique, the passion that this fan base has. Looking back, I'm so thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity to be a part of this University because it's such a big part of my life now."
Burke was well known for his heroics at Tennessee, particularly for his performance in the 2001 season as he led the Volunteers to the College World Series as the SEC Player of the Year, hitting .435 with 20 home runs and 60 RBI. As a professional, Burke played six seasons in Major League Baseball, with perhaps his greatest individual moment coming on a walk-off home run in the 18th inning of a Division Series-clinching win over the Atlanta Braves in 2005. But Burke's finest memory in each of those special seasons came not at the plate, but while standing at first base.
"Two of my most fond memories of jogging around the bases were Stevie Daniel hitting a grand slam that sealed up our trip to Omaha," he said of watching from first. "Then, when Lance Berkman hit the three-run homer that I thought was going to send us to the World Series until (Albert) Pujols broke our hearts, I was on first for that one as well."
After retiring as a player in 2010, Burke turned to teaching the game. He operates a baseball school and is involved with ESPN's coverage of college baseball and the NCAA Tournament. He sees the roles as going hand-in-hand in developing the next generation of baseball players.
"I love being around the game," he said of his motivation behind both careers. "I get to do that with my instructional facilities back home, broadcasting is another outlet for that. I love the college game, I love to stay in the college game and get on campuses. The energy with a college campus is something I very much miss and hope I can be around for a very long time."