Bus rides in the Eastern League can last double-digit hours. Netflix is popular among the Richmond Flying Squirrels on these trips, and radio play-by-play broadcaster Jay Burnham sometimes follows suit. But his travel bag might carry a J.D. Salinger book, a Hemingway classic and some other literature that seems out of place in the hands of a guy who’s been calling minor league baseball for 16 years.
Burnham has no problem discussing politics, proposing solutions to social issues, and recalling world history, all in a three-minute conversation while entering the lineups into his scorebook.
Reading exposes him to vocabulary that occasionally splashes its way into a Squirrels broadcast. One of his favorite books is John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” In it, Burnham came across the word “perfidious,” which means “treacherous.” Burnham this season on more than one occasion has referred to a strike three as a “perfidious curveball.”
He could have used “nasty,” or “sharp,” as most other broadcasters would have. Burnham figured “perfidious” might lighten up things a bit and catch listeners’ ears during another Double-A game in a schedule that involves 140 of them from early April to early September.
“I think the challenge is how do you say it, and not sound like you’re trying to be the smartest guy in the room? Because I’m certainly not,” said Burnham, 37 and in his sixth season in the Squirrels’ booth.
Sam Ravech nears the conclusion of his second season of sharing play-by-play duties with Burnham for Squirrels’ home games and hosting pregame and postgame shows. Ravech appreciates that Burnham’s experience, easy-going nature and high baseball IQ/overall smarts shape each broadcast.
“He uses very intricate words that I don’t understand at times,” Ravech said.
Burnham’s world-view sense periodically blends into the broadcast between pitches. He’ll raise current-events topics, with a touch of commentary. That approach illustrates that “he is not afraid to blur the lines at times,” Ravech said. “Although it’s never, ‘Oh boy, we shouldn’t be talking about that.’ It’s more, ‘Let’s make everyone aware of what’s going on here.’ ”
In that respect, Burnham reminds Ravech of Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN star who transitioned out of sports and into opinionated, often irreverent, news review.
A few other tidbits you may not know about Burnham:
- He was a left-handed pitcher whose Little League days were his last in uniform;
- Seeking a radical shift from his home in western Massachusetts, he attended Hawaii Pacific University and then transferred to Elon, where he earned a communications degree;
- The Squirrels’ postgame show often includes Burnham’s delivery of a baseball-themed haiku, a form of Japanese poetry with five syllables followed by seven syllables and closed by five syllables. He acquired the haiku habit while spending a college semester in Japan. Burnham lived for months with a Japanese family whose members spoke no English. He said he picked up “a little more than a little” Japanese. “And it’s all gone now.”
- Burnham does radio and TV work with VCU, Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Longwood athletics during the offseason;
- After calling about 120 games this season, his voice remains strong for the stretch run, “but recently my eyes have been going, man,” Burnham said. He doesn’t drink tea or pop lozenges to keep his pipes lubricated. “No performance-enhancers whatsoever for me,” Burnham said. “Just good genetics, I guess.”
- Burnham was named the 2011 minor league broadcaster of the year by Ballpark Digest, and Baseball America in 2016 named him the best broadcasting prospect in the minors. He worked with clubs in Trenton, Hagerstown, Pensacola and Asheville before landing in Richmond.
- He doesn’t keep track of the number of minor league games he has broadcast but believes he’s been behind the microphone for roughly 1,900.
- All Squirrels want to reach the big leagues. So does Burnham. The difference is that precious few broadcasting jobs annually open in the majors. “You have to be realistic,” Burnham said. “So the goal, and one of the reasons [he and his wife Cheyenne] moved here sight unseen from Trenton, is you want to find a place that you enjoy.”
On that count, Burnham says he homered.