Real Life Relief : Tim Burke Passes Up Major League Salary to Spend More Time With His Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tim Burke knows what they are thinking.

He remembers how Tony Perez, his manager with the Cincinnati Reds, slammed down a cup of hot coffee in shock when Burke gave him the news.

He remembers how many of his teammates silently looked at him when he later cleaned out his locker, staring at him as if he were from Mars.

Tim Burke knows what they are thinking, because he has thought it himself.

As he drove away from the Reds' Plant City, Fla., complex on that Saturday morning, he began to cry.

And he cried for the next 25 miles.

"You bet I'm scared, I'm real scared," said Burke, a former All-Star relief pitcher. "Sure, I've thought, 'What am I doing, walking away from a good job and all that money?' "

But then Burke looks around his house and sees Stephanie and Ryan with their tears of insecurity. And Nicole with her serious heart problems. And baby Wayne, with his club foot, would be arriving soon.

"And you know something?" Burke said. "When it comes down to it, it wasn't even close. My place is no longer on the baseball field. It's at home."

So with a firm will and shaky knees, Burke surprised the baseball world Feb. 27 by retiring at 34 so he could spend more time with his wife and four adopted, physically handicapped children.

Burke did not hold a tearful news conference, announcing that he was being forced from the game because of some horrible bit of bad luck.

He simply, quietly, walked away from baseball because his family needed him more.

"You don't just say, 'I'm retiring because of my family,' when you have a couple of good years left,' " said Tom Foley, a Pittsburgh Pirate infielder and close friend of Burke. "Nobody does that. But Tim did it."

Burke, who averaged more than $2 million in salary during the last three seasons, laughed softly.

"Baseball is going to do just fine without me," he said. "It's not going to miss a beat. But I'm the only father my children have."

He and his wife, Christine, have been more than parents to those children, all orphans from other countries.

Stephanie, 5, came from South Korea as a premature baby.

Ryan, also 5, came from Guatemala with a thyroid condition and possible mental retardation. Burke left the 1989 All-Star game in Anaheim moments after the final pitch to fly to Central America to pick him up.

Nicole, 2, also Korean, was born without a right hand and has a serious heart condition. She suffers up to 40 seizures a day.

And soon, Wayne, a 2-year-old from Vietnam, will be joining the family. His club foot will require corrective surgery.

And those are only their first four children.

The Burkes, hoping to compensate for their own difficult childhoods but unable to have children naturally, recently built a home in rural northern Indiana with room for as many as nine children.

"To the world, our children were considered undesirable," Christine said. "But somebody has to take the children like that. And we felt our hearts could handle it."

Now they are wondering if their checkbook can. By retiring, Burke turned down a chance to make $650,000 this season, and three times that much before his career would normally have ended.

"One of my friends told me, 'Are you nuts? Are you serious?' " Christine said. "And sometimes, walking away from this kind of money does feel a little bit nuts."

Burke said, however, that many of his friends in the game are taking his departure seriously enough to look at their own family situations.

"I see a lot of families in this game that are a mess," Burke said. "It's an epidemic. I am not going to become another statistic."

John Werhas, longtime chaplain for the Dodgers and Angels, said many baseball players are becoming aware of the unusual stresses put on their marriages and children.

In fact, the theme of Werhas' off-season Bible study for local ballplayers was based on the family after several wives expressed concern for their situations.

"It doesn't happen just in baseball, but in any job where you devote a lot of time to your work," Werhas said. "People are starting to become cognizant of the order in our lives, that your faith and your family must come before your job."

Werhas said he doesn't expect Burke's startling announcement to cause anyone else to give up baseball, but . . .

"If this makes more people stop and think, then it's served its purpose," he said.

Burke said he began realizing his true purpose when he had to walk away from his daughter an hour after she had undergone open heart surgery.

That marked the beginning of the end of his career, which spanned eight years and during which he went 49-33 with a 2.72 earned-run average and 102 saves, mostly with the Montreal Expos.

The date was July 15, 1991. Burke was standing in a Montreal hospital corridor after tucking Nicole into bed on the night before her operation when a nurse summoned him to the phone.

"I thought, 'Who would be calling us here?' " Christine said. "Then I saw Tim's shoulders slump as he talked on the phone, and then I knew it was bad news."

Burke walked slowly back to his wife.

"I've just been traded to the New York Mets," he said.

Instead of remaining with his family while Nicole struggled to recuperate, nearly dying at one point, Burke had to fly to New York.

He saw his family only once during the next month. He was so worried about his daughter, he wore a telephone pager on his uniform.

"Nicole was in a room with three other little girls, and all three of them died," Christine said. "I didn't know how I was going to handle everything without Tim. I finally just dropped to my knees and prayed for strength."

His family struggle weighed heavily on Burke last season, when he split time between the Mets and the New York Yankees. For the first time in his major league career, he did not earn a save. His sinker and his concentration abandoned him.

He began thinking about how, despite the publicity surrounding the adoption of Ryan from Guatemala several years earlier, he had not bonded with the child until after that season.

He began thinking about how daughter Stephanie cried when he left on trips, how she became nearly inconsolable at the start of each season.

He began thinking about Christine's exhaustion when he returned from trips.

"We're talking about a real inspiration commitment here," said Chuck Yeager, Burke's business manager and friend. "Those kids would not have a life if it wasn't for Tim and Christine. Their sacrifices have been tremendous."

Burke briefly considered retiring after last season. But then the Reds contacted him after he became a free agent and gave him a non-guaranteed contract.

"He worked as hard as he has ever worked in an off-season," said Wayne Watson, another friend. "It was the best shape I have seen him in."

When Burke arrived at the Reds' camp in mid-February, the sinker was working and he felt young again.

He was so eager to please the Reds, he had his long graying hair cut three times in one week to meet club standards.

"It was too early to tell, but we felt he could make this team," said Jim Bowden, Cincinnati's general manager.

But throughout it all, Burke was nagged by the thought that something was missing. He had the arm, but he didn't have the heart.

"On the first day of practice, I'm sitting there looking around the clubhouse wondering, 'Why am I here?' " Burke said. "Every year around this time, the excitement in me builds. But this year it was gone.

"I realized my heart and passion wasn't with baseball anymore. It was with my family."

After spending a week talking with friends and worrying about it while tossing and turning in bed--"At times, I couldn't even believe I was thinking about walking away from all that money," he said--Burke finally decided he had no choice.

He slept a coule of hours on a Friday night, took a few deep breaths early Saturday morning, then arrived at the Reds' clubhouse and waited for Perez.

"To tell you what kind of person Tim is, we had just driven in from Houston to see him, and he volunteered to wait until the next week to retire so we could see him pitch," Watson said. "I told him to do what he had to do."

For today, at least, Burke has no second thoughts.

He takes each of his children out on nightly "dates," reads them long stories, gives them their medicine.

And on a recent morning, he surprised his wife.

"He woke up, kissed the back of my ear and whispered, 'Honey, guess what, I'm still here,' " Christine said. "Those were the nicest words."

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