The Boy of Summer
Jun 29, 2019 01:51PM
Every team needs a clubhouse guy. This is often a vocal, positive player. Sometimes a bench player. At times a star player. Clubhouse guys can spend more time in the dugout than on the field. They are not daunted by a lack of playing time. In fact, being on the bench is a form of playing time. Clubhouse guys are happy to be there. “The clubhouse is a place like no other,” says Kevin Wilson, the hitting consultant behind KW Baseball. “The clubhouse guy keeps it loose but also keeps everyone focused. Without him, the sheep wander and get lost. He prods and reels them in. He seems to be in the middle of everything (in a good way) without even trying. It’s natural and not forced.”
Sometimes a clubhouse guy is a backup catcher. Maybe he’s a relief pitcher. Maybe he’s a starting pitcher playing every fifth day giving him four games to be a voice and a fifth game to be the hammer.
Victoria Edel, a writer for GoodFundies.com, offers another definition: “He’s the guy in the clubhouse—or the dugout, or the bullpen, or the batting cage—who brings leadership, experience, and fun, to everything he does. ‘Clubhouse guy’-ness is intangible, unmeasurable by a batting average, ERA, WAR, or whatever new measurement presented to us this season.”
The clubhouse guy is an emotional leader, a “facilitator of energy.”
“I haven’t heard that terminology in a while since I haven’t played in a while,” says Jeremy Dodson, a former minor league baseball player with the Kansas City Royals. “When you walk in it’s, ‘Hey, man, how was your night?’ He’s one of those guys you want to have a locker next to. To sit back and shoot the breeze. If you’re having a bad week or month as a player, he’d be the one to try and lift you up. He’s one of those guys.”
“A clubhouse guy—there are right moments for everything,” says Jake Anthony, who played for Virginia Commonwealth University from 1996-1999 and Single A ball for a time. “There’s streaks, slumps, a little of everything that happens. There’s right moments where you can make a difference either in team chemistry or in performance and maybe even the individual. He was one of those guys.”
“He” is Matt Burch.
Matt Burch is a clubhouse guy.
Matt Burch, forty-two, of Corning, ;teaches English at Corning-Painted Post High School where he also coaches modified football, JV girls basketball, and is the assistant varsity baseball coach. In 2018, he returned as manager (for the second time) for the Elmira Pioneers of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
It’s a time where he can pass down some experience and knowledge to the next generation. Maybe impart some hard-won sagacity from the bus leagues in Spokane, Washington, to Wilmington, North Carolina.
It’s what a clubhouse guy does.
Matt has, in essence, been in a baseball uniform since he was four years old. He admitted that his frenetic energy as a kid forced his parents to enroll him in tee ball a year early.
As he progressed through the various balls, it became evident that he had one talent above others. “I played with a lot of talented kids in the neighborhood, older kids,” Matt says. “I didn’t hit well. I didn’t field well, but I could throw the ball out of the park, from home plate over the fence. I always had arm strength.”
Paul Avery, an attorney based out of Buffalo, New York, and a lifelong friend of Matt’s, played baseball with him from the time they were little kids. They’d play catch in the yard. At times, Paul had a hard time catching Matt’s ball. By the time they were playing Babe Ruth, Matt had learned how to cup and throw a curveball. That was the ticket. This curveball was a knee-buckler, a shoulder-blade pincher, a tightly spinning missile that dropped faster than a yo-yo.
Paul says he and his fellow in elders always had a laugh out there on the diamond when they saw a batter brace for impact, only to see the baseball whip into the mitt for a called strike.
During Matt’s sophomore year at Thomas A. Edison High School in Elmira Heights, his team had a third baseman who was generating buzz among scouts. Matt got the ball that day. He toed the rubber. He then struck out nineteen of twenty-one batters on the backbone of that deuce. (Paul: “This is a joke! This can’t be happening! Nobody strikes out the side this many times. I may have gotten a ground ball or a pop out hit to second base, might be the longest ball hit all day.”)
“You never know who’s watching,” Matt recalls. “All of a sudden the conversation shifted from the good player [on third base], but now: who the heck is that kid?”
That’s when the phone started ringing. Matt learned to be organized from his father. The Burches kept a notepad beside the phone. Every time a college or professional scout called the Burches, he wrote it down. “It was the binder of my future,” he says.
At 6-foot-2-inches, and all of 150 pounds, the future was anything he wanted it to be: a fastball clocking in the low 90s and that curveball.
“I had a different understanding of paths,” Matt says. “I separated myself from nonsense. I wasn’t a partygoer. I had a goal. I wanted to be a Major League baseball player.”
Jake Anthony, a Richmond native and former teammate and roommate of Matt’s at Virginia Commonwealth University, was among a robust freshman class in the mid-90s. This group included himself, Matt, and future big leaguer Brandon Inge. Inge would go on to play thirteen seasons, primarily for the Tigers, as a catcher and third baseman.
There were six baseball players in this suite, three bedrooms, two to each room. They were all squirreled away. They were not antisocial, but didn’t know any better since nobody knew each other yet. It’s that time of newness, of being away from home for the first time, the first period of uncertainty of their lives.
That’s when Jake heard the Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from another room. He thought someone was half crazy out there, but there he was, the lanky pitcher from upstate New York bringing out the other five freshmen into the common room. They had yet to share the dugout together, but here it was, in plain sight, a clubhouse guy.
“We had just moved in, we don’t meet and interact,” Jake says. “It’s about 9 p.m. [Burch] comes out and you have no choice but to walk out and see what’s going on. That’s a small indicator. Here’s a moment of a group that’s not together. On Day 1, he’s thinking ‘Let me find a way to break the ice and move forward.’ I think that’s one of the things. We still joke about that night.”
One time at VCU, Matt had pitched and there was no need for him to join the team on the road. “He jumped on a road trip he wasn’t supposed to,” Jake remembers. “He couldn’t pitch, but he snuck on the bus to join us on that trip. He couldn’t throw. He was done for five days. I think from a clubhouse perspective, the team that grows together and has strong friendships off the field, carries over onto the field.” And as freshmen expected to contribute right away, they knew they had to set the tone, even as new players to the program. Matt, who had that wicked curveball and a fastball that began ticking into the mid-90s, knew he had to find another level of skill.
That moment arrived late one night. Matt, even Jake, heard a heavy, metronomic thwap coming from the common room. It must have been 2 a.m. It was Brandon Inge. He had propped his mattress up against the cinderblock walls of the room and was hitting baseballs off an orange parking cone into his mattress. Ball after ball after ball.
“He would hit, or he’d take his catchers mitt, and you’d hear the ball pop all night, pop, or the thud of the mattress,” Jake says. “The dude had insomnia, I’m sure of it,” Matt says. “We would all go to bed. We’d be woken up hearing thud, thud, thud. He would hit off that cone into that mattress all night long. I remember thinking, ‘I gotta get him out Thursday in our inner squad.’ He was the barometer. What am I going to do? I have to study what he’s doing. I have to run my poles. I gotta make sure I’m locked into my bullpen. I’m gonna watch the Orioles on TV tonight against the Yankees to see how these guys are getting out similar hitters. My peer group allowed me to do that.”
A ball player’s talents and work ethic get him to a certain point. What was once considered hard work in high school to get the player to a Division I college is no longer enough. The player must now find another ratchet or risk plateauing. So, Matt progressed through his freshman and sophomore years. Then, in 1998, his junior year, he dominated. VCU marched through the Eastern Regional in Clemson, South Carolina.
In the opening round on May 21, Matt was the losing pitcher in a 2-1, ninety-minute pitchers’ duel. VCU then beat USC, 14-4, (subsequently USC’s only loss of the playoffs as it marched through the College World Series for the title). VCU then beat the Citadel, 3-2, on May 23. Suddenly VCU found itself one game away from the Eastern Region final. On three days’ rest, Matt, the ace of the staff, and expected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming amateur draft, marched into his head coach’s office, the late Paul Keyes, after the 3-2 win. Not wanting to let his teammates down, being the leader he was, being the clubhouse guy, Matt thought, “Shit, I’m pitching tomorrow, I don’t care if the draft is next week and I just threw two days ago. I knock on Paul Keyes’ door.”
“I’m pitching tomorrow,” he told Paul Keyes, who looked at Matt and said, “Hoss, you’re not pitching tomorrow. The draft is a week away.”
“Listen, I’m pitching.”
VCU lost, 6-0, to Southern Alabama against the same pitcher from the 2-1 loss.
Nevertheless, what a run.
Matt knew he was a first-round pick. It was that curveball.
Jake Anthony, Matt’s roommate, describes the curveball in reverential terms. “I remember facing him and it was one of the chances—you had to take the opportunity when you had it. If he gave you a pitch to hit and you took it, you knew that when that curveball was coming, it’s over. Any guy that can throw that pitch that many times in a game—it didn’t matter if you knew it was coming or not.”
It was rated as the best curveball in the country by Baseball America, which, of course, made him a slam-dunk first-round pick. “Phone rings, it’s the Rockies,” Matt recalls. “‘Hey, if you’re available at 28 we’re taking you at 28.’” Matt felt good. He watched the draft with a few friends.
The Rockies select...Matt Roney, right-handed pitcher from Edmond, Oklahoma...
“Now I’m pissed!” Matt says.
With the twenty-ninth pick, the San Francisco Giants took Arturo McDowell, an outfielder from Jackson, Mississippi. The final pick of the first round was coming up. Matt sure as hell thought he’d be gone by now. Only one more team remained.
And with the 30th pick, the Kansas City Royals...call a draft time out...
“I didn’t even know that was a thing!” Matt says.
Finally, with the final pick of the first round, Matt Burch became a Kansas City Royal draft pick. His teammate and roommate, Brandon Inge, the baseball hitting, mitt poppin’ insomniac, went in the second round to the Detroit Tigers. It was a good day for VCU.
Jake Anthony didn’t get drafted that year with his two friends.
He stayed on for his senior year and had the best season of his career and would later play a season in the minors. As a gift to either Matt or Brandon (he can’t remember who), he framed a large photograph of the three of them with their autographed baseball cards beneath the photo. Inge, No. 7. Burch, No. 31. Anthony, No. 19. He ended up keeping it and hung it in his office. He looks at it all the time.
“Baseball, and things you go through in life—what that takes you through,” Jake muses. “That builds strong bonds. My friends are all guys I played with at some point in my career.”
Shortly after Matt signed, he caught a flight to Portland, Oregon. The Spokane affiliate of the Royals had a series in the Rose City. It was cold and dreary. Here was the stud, the first-round pick, reporting to save the franchise. The cab that was supposed to be at the airport for Matt never showed. When he finally arrived at the ballpark, the manager cared little for him. The clubhouse attendant handed him a uniform that wouldn’t have fit him in middle school. No belt. One stirrup.
“You could’ve painted this uniform on me,” Matt says. Later that night a teammate rolled a Dumpster into the road and smashed a vehicle, one he might have been able to use.
“That summer was disorganized for me personally,” says Matt. “I had no vehicle, no transportation. That was my first experience in professional baseball.” That was when he met outfielder Jeremy Dodson, from Sherman, Texas, a seventh-round pick in that 1998 draft.
“He was nasty,” Jeremy says. “There’s a reason he was a first round pick. He threw hard. He was what we baseball players call pitchers we don’t like to face: we call them nasty. He was nasty. He had a nasty changeup, that curve, and the fastball came out free and quick.”
After Matt’s first full season in the minors, he was invited to spring training. It was the one time he got a taste of what it might be like to be a Big Leaguer. Eighteen beautiful days.
“I remember walking into the clubhouse,” Matt says. “I’m like, ‘Is this for real?’ It’s so surreal. You spend your life collecting baseball cards, being a fan of the game before you ever are a player of a game, walking through the clubhouse and finding your jersey. I was No. 70. It didn’t matter. To see your name printed, every letter, no name plate. It’s yours. Pristine white Kansas City Royals jersey. B-U-R-C-H. Holy smokes, I was baseball royalty for eighteen days.”
He’d play A ball that year and 2001. Then he won eleven games in AA Wichita. It’s that coveted level where you’re just a phone call away from the Major Leagues. So close. Then...
“Unfortunately I felt a little pain and masked it like all the great ones do with ice, Ibuprofen, and maybe a few cold beers,” Matt says. “So I pitched through it and got to Wichita. There was a time when I could barely close a dryer door. When I’d get out of the shower I’d have trouble wrapping a towel around my waist. I thought ‘I gotta get this thing looked at.’”
He did. He had a frayed labrum and a torn supraspinatus: a busted shoulder. He underwent a procedure called thermal capsular shrinkage (“Which is not something that happens in a swimming pool,” he clarifies.), where the doctor essentially shrinks the shoulder’s interior in order to stabilize it. It is a procedure that has since gone out of style.
“He eliminated the elasticity in my shoulder, so I basically had the shoulder of a twelve-year-old,” he says. “Prior to the surgery I was throwing 92-95. Coming out when I finally rehabbed, I was competitive, but I was 85-88, maybe touching 90-91.”
So that was the beginning of the end. By 2003, he was released from the Kansas City Royals organization, was picked up by a team out in Fargo, North Dakota, and helped that independent team win a championship. Then, in 2004, he pitched and coached in the Northeast League for a little team called the Elmira Pioneers.
Matt Burch had come home.
Matt’s pal from his days in the Royals organization, Jeremy Dodson, drove twenty-four hours with his wife to live with Burch and his wife, Shannon, so Dodson could play in Elmira.
“Toward the end of my career, he was also the [pitching] coach, and he invited me and my wife to live with him,” Jeremy recalls. “We lived in his house in 2004. He invited me and my wife, all the way from Texas. at should tell you what kind of guy he is to have two people living in a house for five months.”
Even toward the end of Matt’s pitching career, he could see the writing on the wall. His shoulder wasn’t what it used to be. He was in his late twenties. He knew the dream was over. His shoulder had too many miles on it. His arm would never be the same. He would never have that coveted cup of coffee in the Big Leagues. So he started sliding closer to the coaches. He started to learn the nuances of game management, of pitch count. He started applying that trade with his first stint with the Pioneers. When the Pioneers moved to the New York Collegiate Baseball League, Matt managed them to four straight playoff appearances, including the NYCBL title in 2007. He took a brief break from 2009 to 2012, then managed the club again from 2013-2016, all the while teaching English at Corning-Painted Post High School.
“His perspective on things is interesting,” says Mark Armstrong, chair of the school’s English department. “He’s excellent. He teaches senior year kids, teaches the honors program, Regents level kids, teaches Old Man and the Sea, loves hunting, loves Hemingway. He took a circuitous route to English teaching. Sometimes you go out into the work force, and then you figure out what you need.”
That workforce just happened to be professional baseball.
In 2018, Matt returned to the bench for the Pioneers after taking a couple years away to spend more time with his wife and two boys. Now the team enters its 130th season, a team that has changed affiliations and leagues several times, but has, by and large, remained in Elmira, the boys of over one hundred summers.
Matt’s life has, along the way, become more literary, or maybe it’s safer to assume the literary nature of his life has been given ample room to bloom. He sees himself in Hemingway’s work, particularly The Nick Adams Stories, where, Matt muses, “He’s trying to figure out what we’re all trying to figure out: What is my purpose? What is the meaning of what I’m doing? Why did I endure that tribulation? In the end he’s fishing the Big Two-Hearted River. He’s struggling with the trout. It’s a symbol. He’s the mirror image of the trout. I guess I’m always searching for that as a human, as a male, a father. What is my purpose? It’s constantly changing. Each piece of literature I pick up, I can see myself in the text.
“The closeness to reality helps.”
It comes in many forms—this notion of a “clubhouse guy,” that enduring symbol of what it means to be Matt Burch, then as it is now.