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M's backup catcher basks in major feat

PEORIA, Ariz. – Warning: This is going to be a little sappy. It's going to involve a dream that actually came true and the lesson that determination pays off and a whole mess of other clichés.

Jamie Burke doesn't find it terribly compelling. He lived it, of course, so the triumphs that make his story so great are counterbalanced, at least in his mind, by the struggles along the journey. As in, no one talks about the nights he and Todd Greene inflated plastic loungers – the kind you'd use in a pool – and dropped them in the aisle on hours-long bus rides. Voila! Instant bed, though not exactly Tempur-Pedic comfort.

Today, Burke is sleeping in the finest beds, ones with quadruple-digit-thread-count sheets, and he's eating at the restaurants with Zagat signs out front, and he's doing all of the things major league baseball players do because he is, quite improbably, one of them.

"Fourteen years," Burke said. "Fourteen years, and finally."

For that many seasons, Burke went to spring training, and for that many seasons, he was told before April 1 that he hadn't made the team. He got a few tastes of the major leagues along the way, sure, and even got a World Series ring for his one at-bat with the Chicago White Sox in 2005. Never did a team appreciate Burke enough to keep him around for opening day, though, and the market for aging catchers isn't exactly charting the course of crude oil.

Last spring, Burke came to Seattle Mariners camp as an afterthought, someone who could catch a few games and head to the minors afterward. He was 35. An organizational guy, ones like him are called – good enough to plug a hole, not good enough to survive in the major leagues. Crash Davis, only real.

Then something happened. Burke, who had good spring trainings before, hit .346. Rene Rivera, the incumbent to Seattle's backup catching job, struggled. And, wouldn't you know, after all those rejections, all those long flights from major league camps to minor league cities, Jamie Burke would get to witness the excitement and beauty and optimism of an opening day.

And if it ended there, that would have been enough. Really. Burke had toiled for 1,187 games in the minors. His wife was pregnant with their second child. He could move back to Roseburg, Ore., and become a coach.

Only again, something happened. Burke, who had hit .333 in his previous stints, proved he could actually keep the pace over a full season. Spelling Kenji Johjima, he stroked three doubles in April. Burke batted .476 in June. It got better. The Mariners won 20 of 34 games he started. Burke was a legitimate major league player, even if he didn't feel like one.

"I don't show it around here," he said. "But every day, when I get in my car to leave, I'm so excited. Like, look at this."

He glanced around the room. The morning practice had ended. Some Mariners hustled to the showers to head home. Others, on their way to a road game, packed their bags. There was Ichiro Suzuki, his teammate. And Felix Hernandez, his batterymate. And J.J. Putz, his closer. Burke, the nomad, has found his tribe.

"It's just a feeling of comfort," he said. "Things look good for me. But I try not to change my philosophy about how I go about my business. You never know what can happen.

"We'll know at the end of spring what they want to do."

The Mariners do have a choice. Sitting next to Burke was another catcher, Jeff Clement, a 24-year-old with a powerful left-handed stroke. He could be the Mariners' designated hitter by June if they tire of Jose Vidro. Or Clement could be their backup catcher to begin the season if they feel like he's done his Triple-A penance.

Clement hit 20 home runs there last season. In a 16-at-bat audition in September, he added two more. His last was Sept. 29, a two-out, ninth-inning game winner. And as impressive as that was, the Mariners still can't shake what they saw a day later, the final one of the season.

Seattle faced Texas. The year before, the Rangers kept Burke at Triple-A Oklahoma all season and didn't bring him up in September. He was mad. He considered quitting. This was about vengeance, yes, and so much more. He had lasted an entire major league season. He wanted to look like a major leaguer.

In his first at-bat, on a 1-1 count, A.J. Murray left a fastball over the plate. Burke belted it over the left-field fence. He ran around the bases as fast as a 30-something catcher could. He smiled. No one told him to stop. You hit your first major league home run only once.

"It's quite a success story," Mariners manager John McLaren said. "To persevere and keep after it and keep the dream alive. I know it was a special feeling for him. All of us felt it too."

Burke got the ball back, aware, too, that it boosted his batting average over .300 for the season. A few of his buddies from Oklahoma were in the Rangers' bullpen where it landed, so they kept it safe. It went with him back to Roseburg and into the baseball room above his garage, where he keeps his memorabilia.

There are pictures and jerseys and bats and balls up there. It's considerably fuller than it was at this time last year, and Burke plans on collecting more over the next few seasons. He switched from third base at 31, so his knees and back are 10 years younger than most catchers his age.

"I've got some good years left in me," Burke said, and he peered around the room one more time, craning his neck like a curious owl.

Those 14 years seemed so long ago. He's here again, finally, and he doesn't plan on ever letting go.

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