Van Burkleo — when he's not fly-fishing, building a log cabin, farming or surfing — will try to help manager Don Wakamatsu turn around the Mariners.
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s the house that Ty Van Burkleo built.
He’s no Babe Ruth. He’s no Ken Griffey Jr., even. But he’s much, much handier.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Gonzaga legend and Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton draws ire for anti-vaccine comments
- Michigan defensive line twins Armon, Jayvon Parker announce dual commitments to UW Huskies
- Seahawks position review: Russell Wilson is still the Seahawks quarterback for now. But who will be behind him?
- Zion Tupuola-Fetui announces he'll return to UW for fifth season in 2022: 'Let's go to work'
- Here's how the overtime NFL playoff game between the Chiefs and Bills could have been even better
Five years ago, the new Mariners bench coach decided to build a cabin out in the country. He didn’t know how. He just thought it would be some good, challenging fun. So he did it.
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in the old gold-mining town of Grass Valley, Calif., rests his accomplishment: a 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom log cabin with a den upstairs and a game room in the basement.
It sits on 41 acres of rolling hills, oak trees and pastoral charm. Over the course of two offseasons, Van Burkleo did most all of it by himself — the framing, the electrical wiring, the well, the septic system, you name it — all while learning these crafts for the first time.
“I kind of yearn to do it again,” Van Burkleo said. “I’m a perfectionist. But when I mention it to my wife, she’s like, ‘No.’ “
He’s the kind of person most of us wish to be if only we had more time, or energy, or desire. He can cook and aspires to be a short-order cook. He loves fly-fishing and insists on tying his own flies. He wants to make furniture, buy cattle and own an avocado ranch. He once owned a pizza restaurant. He’s a farmer, a surfer and in case we’ve left anything out, simply consider him the most adventuristic spirit to grace our sullen sports scene in quite a while.
He’s a Type AAAAA personality.
“The older he gets, the more he wants to do,” said Chris Van Burkleo, his wife of 25 years. “There will never be enough time on this planet for him.
“I cannot think of a thing he doesn’t do well. It kind of drives me crazy.”
Oh, but can he help make a 101-loss team sparkle?
It’s a fitting challenge for a risk taker.
As manager Don Wakamatsu’s right-hand man and the person organizing these spring-training workouts, Ty Van Burkleo has been an integral part of instilling the principles of the new regime. He’s leading a fresher, more multifaceted approach, with an emphasis on better teaching and synergy.
Without dominant talent, the Mariners hope to manufacture a competitive team by improving their defense and using offensive versatility to offset their obvious power deficiencies.
It helps that Van Burkleo and Wakamatsu are close friends. They’ve worked together in the same organization five times now. At their last stop, in Oakland, Wakamatsu was the bench coach and Van Burkleo the hitting coach. They like to go fly-fishing during the offseason, but on the field, they challenge each other.
“He thinks a little bit differently,” Wakamatsu said. “As a former catcher, I’m more defensive-minded. As a former power hitter, he’s more offensive-minded. He gives me a different perspective. He’s not afraid to be brutally honest with you.”
Van Burkleo isn’t afraid of anything. Ask him why, and he will tell you about Walker, the youngest of his five children.
Walker is 6 years old. He suffers from Down syndrome and autism. But the Van Burkleo family looks at him and only sees fearlessness and joy.
“I wouldn’t change him for a minute,” the father said. “He’s 6 and still in diapers, but I wouldn’t change anything about him.”
Van Burkleo says his son has Up syndrome. It’s a good adjective for his spirit.
Walker can’t speak, has trouble hearing, doesn’t chew food well, but he smiles. In the house that Ty Van Burkleo built, Walker often leaps onto the couch to cuddle with his family.
As much as Ty tries to cram all his ambitions into a lifetime, he has no problem pausing to appreciate his son.
“Truly, he’s been a gift,” Chris said. “We had him when we were 40. We were all nervous about what would happen to him when we died. Who would take care of him? After the birth, in the hospital before we left, our other kids told us, ‘Don’t worry about a thing. He’s always got a home with us.’ That told us a lot about our children.
“We’re going to love Walker and teach him all we can. His constant smile, it just puts life in a better perspective. He’s happy, no matter what.”
For a 45-year-old man, Ty has experienced almost everything imaginable. His major-league career lasted only 14 games and 32 at-bats. He played in Japan, where he became fascinated with model airplanes and puzzles.
Since then, he has coached all over the major leagues, managing to mix his baseball obsession with a thirst for diverse living. He’s a Renaissance man and a baseball lifer, with hair flowing from the back of his cap and a constant grin that only Walker could understand.
“During the baseball season, I don’t fulfill those other parts of my life,” Van Burkleo said. “But when the season is over, I try to do everything I can. I don’t just want to sit down and relax all the time.
“In a lifetime, you want to try to do as many things as you can.”
Which brings him to his next ambition. He wants to go to Siberia.
“Great fishing there, I hear,” he said.
When Van Burkleo told his wife about that dream, she rolled her eyes.
“Did he tell you that I’m not going to join him?” Chris asked. “That’s not for me.”
Well, maybe he’ll build his own plane and fly there himself. You never know with Ty Van Burkleo.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com