His excitement about the game remains strong, and he talks about the game as vigorously as he ran the bases or slammed homers over the Green Monster or into the Coors Field bleachers. The Red Sox’s biggest acquisition this season has been Ellis Burks in the broadcast booth.
The biggest gripe about baseball commentators today is they are so consumed with analytics they have forgotten how to teach the game to young fans. Even though these fans may be holding their iPhones instead of their transistor radios as we did 40 years ago, they want to learn the game. They still want reasons to love baseball besides the fact their grandfather did.
Burks is a fresh voice in the NESN broadcast booth, an analyzing novice who loves his new role as a baseball teacher and counselor, at times, for Sox fans who hope this team has enough to grab a wild-card berth. His takes are refreshing, his stories insightful and funny, and it’s evident he began and ended his career in Boston. Burks still loves the Red Sox.
“I’m already ready for a challenge when it comes to something new,” he said. “Of course, this is something different that takes me totally out of my comfort zone. Being a player, you hit the ball, you catch the ball and everything else. But when it comes to this, I had to learn all kinds of things. I get nervous doing this. I never got nervous playing baseball.”
Burks played baseball well. He was a five-tool prospect for the Red Sox in the mid-1980s, called up at 22 to play center field between all-time Sox greats Jim Rice in left field and Dwight Evans in right. He hit 93 homers in five years in Boston before signing with the White Sox as a free agent.
Burks enjoyed his best years with the Colorado Rockies, hitting 72 homers in a two-year span (1996-97), and finishing third in the MVP voting in 1996. Burks also slammed 31 homers in ‘99 with the San Francisco Giants and 32 as a 37-year-old three years later with the Cleveland Indians. He finished his career with an 11-game stint with the ‘04 Sox.
NESN has called on Burks for more appearances in recent months and he has worked with Dave O’Brien and teamed with Dennis Eckersley on occasion. It’s must-see TV to hear their stories during games, and how each breaks down pitchers and batters to educate viewers.
That should be the primary focus of any commentator.
“There are times when I want to say a lot more or I don’t say enough and [the producers] encourage me to say as much as possible,” he said. “I have played the game. I have been in those situations. I have to get more adapted to expressing myself even more. It’s hard man, this is something that I thought would be so much easier. It’s definitely a challenge I want and accept.”
Because Major League Baseball has desperately tried to attract more young Black ballplayers isn’t lost on Burks. He played in an era when Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Gary Sheffield, Tony Gwynn, Kenny Lofton, Cecil Fielder, Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Rickey Henderson, and Mo Vaughn were all standout players.
Major League Baseball does a terrible job of marketing its players, regardless of race, and is losing out to the NFL and NBA, but it’s considered a monotonous sport by comparison. Baseball is like chess. It’s a thinking man’s game. It’s not to be devoured but savored but the younger generation, especially Black people, need a better reason besides tradition to watch and play.
“Any time you can encourage young kids, especially brown and Black kids, to take up a sport like baseball, because we’re interested in football and basketball because that’s all we see on television,” Burks said. “We don’t see a lot of African-American kids playing baseball. If we can touch on those areas and get these kids more interested in it, I think that would be the best thing to do. I always wanted to play baseball and any way I can help [promote] the game, I would be glad to.”
The 2021 Red Sox do not have Black player on their roster following the recent departures of Jackie Bradley Jr. last offseason and the trade of Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“My whole point is we definitely need to get more African-Americans kids familiarized with baseball,” Burks said. “Baseball is not boring and that’s the first thing people say. It’s like a chess game. It can be very exciting. It can be boring at times waiting on the long ball. But the Red Sox as of late have started implementing more aggressive play, the bunt, the hit-and-run, getting guys over. That’s how we used to play in the ‘90s.”
Baseball was more attractive 30 years ago because it was a more exciting game. There was something called a stolen base, where players actually challenged the catcher to throw to second or third. There were hit-and-runs, hitting the ball to the right side with a runner at second or using speed and not just power to score runs. That was Burks’s era.
“Every team in the league had three or four players who could steal bases,” he said. “When you have an athletic team like that, you’re going to be more successful. Once they get back to that, the home run is going to come. You can’t just wait for the home run. That’s what teams are lacking now.”
Burks talks gleefully about his time with the Sox, the meeting in Winter Haven, Fla., more than 30 years ago with other Black prospects such as DeMarlo Hale, Laverne Jackson, and Sam Horn to encourage each other to make the big club and have fun doing it.
“That is something I’ll always remember, and I had fun,” Burks said. “Playing baseball was fun and it still is fun and I want to pass that love for the game along.”