Brothers Morgan and Lance Burkhart have dedicated their lives to the game of baseball, but it took until last year for them to suit up for the same team at the same time.
That team was -- and remains -- the El Paso Chihuahuas, Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. Morgan, 47, is the team's hitting coach; Lance, 44, is the fielding coach. Morgan, who as a player reached the Major Leagues with the Red Sox (2000-01) and Royals (2003), has coached in the Padres system since 2013. Lance, who played professionally for 13 seasons, joined the organization in 2015. That season, he replaced his brother as hitting coach for the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps.
Morgan and Lance, veterans of the peripatetic and unpredictable professional baseball lifestyle, aren't particularly sentimental about the confluence of circumstances that led to their mutual employment on the Chihuahuas coaching staff.
"I don't think we take it for granted," said Lance, speaking in the dugout before the June 18 game at Southwest University Field. "But then again, I don't think we think about it. We're both professionals. We've been around this game a long time. We just go about our business."
"I'll be honest with you. I never really thought about it," Morgan echoed. "I never thought about playing [together]. You just go year to year. Then you end up getting into coaching. You go year to year. It never really comes to my mind, where we're going to end up or are we going to end up together. It's just the path that's going on and we're lucky to end up where we are."
The three-year age difference was just enough that, growing up, Morgan and Lance didn't play on the same youth or school teams. Nor did either of overlap with the third Burkhart brother, Damon, who is four years Lance's junior. Damon went on to spend four seasons in the Frontier League, the same independent circuit on which Morgan had once excelled (when Morgan made it to the Majors in 2000, he was the first former Frontier League player to do so).
"We all played sports. We all played three sports in high school and we played a lot of Wiffle ball," Lance said. "We even had an area in our basement where we could play Wiffle ball games. So we were non-stop, handling a bat, throwing a ball. That's how we grew up."
"That's all we did. I credit [Wiffle ball] to where we really learned how to hit. Hand-eye and all that," Morgan added. "We played everything, but Wiffle ball and baseball was always a big one. Dad [Frank] was a baseball coach and definitely very involved. And you've got to give a lot of credit to the parents because as little kids we were probably playing 50 or 60 games a year between all three of us. And they were getting us there and working, trying to make a living. That's where the appreciation goes, I think."
(Photo: Jorge Salgado/El Paso Chihuahuas)
In the Minor Leagues, change is the only constant. As Lance remembers it, he and Morgan's paths crossed only twice during their playing days: in the Florida State League in 1999 and in the Pacific Coast League in 2003. In the former instance, Lance was in the Expos organization and Morgan was with Boston; in the latter scenario, Lance was with Texas and Morgan, Kansas City. Being in the same organization, let alone the same team, was not a situation that ever seemed realistic. Eventually, however, it happened.
"[Coaching together] just kinda came about last year. Both of us were very excited about it," Morgan said. "It's been a treat. ... But on top of that, [Lance is] a big help with the hitting. We almost split it. And I think that's a big factor because we know we're on the same page. We've been doing the same thing since we were little kids. We think the same about it and I know he's gonna put everything that he has into it. And I know the players are in good hands. You never have to worry about that. That's a big relief and it makes my job a lot easier."
According to Lance, the competitive dynamic inherent in a sibling relationship does not manifest itself in their day-to-day work with the Chihuahuas.
"That's just not how this business works," he said. "At all."
As the older brother, Morgan offered a somewhat different perspective.
"I can't stand when the fans here like to get on [Lance when he's coaching] third base," Morgan said. "He's right, but sometimes [the fans] understand and sometimes they don't. That [ticks] me off more than anything. They can yell at me all day, but that bothers me at times. It shouldn't, but it does."
Morgan and Lance live in the same El Paso apartment complex during the season, one "near the airport." During the offseason, they reside in the St. Louis area, in close proximity to one another, their parents along with Damon and his family.
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"We've got nephews that are 6, 5 and 4," Morgan said. "That makes it very fun. I'm sure they miss us when we're gone. We miss them."
El Paso is one rung below the Major Leagues. Isn't it conceivable that the Burkhart brothers could one day work together as members of the Padres coaching staff?
"I'll be honest with you, that doesn't pop into my mind," Morgan said. "That'd be great. But, hey man, we have a job, a task here, and I love this level."
Lance is equally unflappable, united with his brother in a steadfast refusal to look beyond the moment.
"I'm here for this year. I'll worry about next year next year," he said. "I enjoy coming to the ballpark every day and working with guys. I don't have any agenda aside from that."