The Manchester Babe Ruth League has always maintained a proud reputation of being one of the best youth baseball programs in the country. Lewis Basquil, Peter Poirier, Butch Joseph, Mickey Hanagan, Min Valavane, Dick Taylor, Don Beleski, Tommy Ameen, Pat O'Neil, Phil Sapienza and Gary Ulbin are just some of the people over the years who have contributed to the league's success.
Then there's Colin Burke, who this week announced he's stepping down as coach after a remarkable 32-year career, the second-longest coaching tenure in league history behind Hanagan.
"It was a pleasure to coach the kids over the years," said Burke. "I hope they got as much out of it as I did. I felt this was a good time to leave as coach. I'm not completely going away. I told Gary (Ulbin, league president) I'll stick around to help out in other league matters."
A very likeable, mild-mannered person, Burke knows the game and more importantly, how to teach it. Delivering any message to his players was hardly a problem. Burke always did it efficiently, in a direct non-intimidating face-to-face way that was positively received by his players.
"Colin always knew how to handle kids in a respectful way," said Butch Joseph, former Babe Ruth League director. "The kids respected him and played hard for him."
Joseph said he and Elmer Simpson coached Burke in 1971 when Manchester East Little League won its first state title with a 1-0, 10-inning win over Laconia at Southwest Little League in Manchester.
"Colin scored the winning run after he stole second base and scored on a hit by Tommy Pappageorge," said Joseph. "He was a good player who turned into a great coach."
Burke broke into coaching in the late '70s, one season with the Manchester Girls' Softball League and another campaign in the Manchester Pony League. It was Beleski, a Babe Ruth head coach who also coached boys' basketball at Trinity High, who summoned Burke to the Babe Ruth League as his assistant coach in the 14-15-year-old Tom Woodlock League for East Side Club in 1981. Burke had played for Beleski and won a Tom Woodlock playoff title with him in 1974. For many seasons early in his career with the Babe Ruth League, Burke was an assistant with Beleski and a head coach in the Ray Lebel 13-year-old circuit.
The rest is history.
In his 32 seasons, Burke coached 25 all-star teams, many of them with the Lebels along with head coaches O'Neil and Sapienza.
"Coaching with 'Sap' and 'Onei' was fun, a lot of good memories with some funny stories we still share today," said Burke. "Butch was the glue that held everything in the league together. He was the perfect person for the league director post."
In one stretch coaching together, Burke, O'Neil and Sapienza captured 11 state 13-year-old titles in 12 seasons.
"Colin's devotion and dedication to the Babe Ruth League is second to none," said O'Neil. "I thought I knew baseball until I started coaching with Colin. He's a great coach, a great teacher and more importantly, a special person."
Burke left the 13-year-old level in 1993, jumping back into the 15-year-old Tom Woodlock circuit as head coach. Overall he coached 16 all-star teams to the New England Regional tournament and twice reached the World Series in 2000 and 2004.
"Reaching and winning the World Series is always the goal, so getting there twice was definitely one of the biggest highlights for me," said Burke. "I guess the most disappointing playoff loss was one year (1991) in Cranston (R.I.) against Warwick (R.I.). We had the bases loaded in a 6-6 game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Corey Ficek (who later played hockey for the University of New Hampshire) was at the plate with a 3-2 count when the Warwick pitcher uncorked a wild pitch.
"Like any 13-year-old kid would do, Ficek panicked when he saw the pitch coming towards him and tried to avoid the ball. He ducked and the pitch hit him in the helmet causing him to fall. He got popped pretty good because he lay motionless for a few seconds. Just when we all started to celebrate, thinking we won the game and were heading to the World Series, the home plate umpire ruled Corey's head was in the strike zone and called him out on a strikeout. To this day, I still can't believe the call." Warwick went on to beat Manchester to earn the World Series berth.
Overall, Burke coached five teams that lost in the regional finals, one game away from qualifying for the World Series.
While Burke has touched the lives of hundreds of kids in the Babe Ruth League, perhaps no one touched him more than the late Luke Capistran, who died at age 16 in 2011 after a courageous battle with cancer.
"The reason I got into coaching was to affect the lives of kids," said Burke. "Luke was such a great kid who ended up affecting my life and others. I still think of him to this day. He was a special kid."
Colin is only 55 years old and still active in coaching. He currently serves as an assistant baseball coach at Goffstown High, under head coach Adam Lawrence, who played under Burke as a 13-year-old infielder.
Burke, who coached 19 basketball seasons including his last seven as head coach at Manchester West (as an assistant to the late Dan Duval when West won the Class L state title in 1993), just completed his sixth season as an assistant to head basketball coach Mike Fitzpatrick. The first four seasons with Fitzpatrick were at Memorial, the last two at Bedford.
"Leaving coaching in Babe Ruth reminds me of the time I left West after 19 seasons," said Burke. "As was the case at West, coaching Babe Ruth allowed me to meet so many great people along the way, people who remain close friends today. The friendships and relationships I made along the way is what made it fun for me."
"City Sports" is published Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at email@example.com.