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By Andrea Swayne
Gene Burrus’ presence at Dana Point Youth Baseball opening day ceremonies on March 10 was requested under false pretenses; but that’s just fine with him.
Burrus, the league’s play-by-play announcer, was asked to do the honor of throwing out the first pitch of the season.
“He really wanted to get to the field early,” said his wife Gladys Burrus who had a hand in keeping other parts of the morning ceremonies a secret. “I had to insist that we get there at 8:30 a.m., when Kevin Evans the Recreation Department director asked us to be there.”
The secret that city and league officials were about to surprise Burrus with was the renaming of Mustang Field (the front baseball field at the Dana Point Community Center on Del Obispo) to the Gene Burrus Ballfield. The morning would also include the unveiling of a new monument to commemorate the occasion.
John Donello, the league president, began with a speech welcoming the crowd to the opening day of the spring 2012 season and thanking the city and its officials for their support of the volunteer run league that caters to more than 450 youths representing over 300 Dana Point families.
Dew was still glistening on the right field grass as dozens of young players in brand new, brightly colored uniforms gathered with the rest of the audience as Donello began.
“I give many talks and many speeches and I never use notes, but I find the experience of speaking in front of such a great speaker as Gene Burrus to be especially intimidating; so I’m going to have to use some notes,” he said as the crowd chuckled with approval.
“Our goals are, first, to create a community environment in which all of our youths can form lifelong friendships and learn lifelong lessons. Second, to show by example, the importance of community service. And third, and most obviously, to teach top notch competitive baseball skills. But no matter how hard any of us try, no one here is able to create a more memorable and meaningful experience for our youths than Gene Burrus,” said Donello. “Gene has become an icon within our league and his classy, silky smooth announcing makes each of his games a World Series-class experience for our youths.”
Donello continued saying that with regard to lifelong lessons, Burrus, in his time spent on the microphone, always manages to frame things in a way that teaches the players grace and class.
“He teaches the kids how to accept a disappointing strike out, a great hit, a horrible error or a game-winning catch,” said Donello. “Gene is an important force within our league and the best evidence is the simple fact that all of our players treat him with respect that none of us parents ever see.”
Again the crowd chuckled.
Burrus was previously recognized by the league with the creation of a special fund named in his honor that enables Dana Point youths in financial need to participate, Donello said. “But we still feel indebted and would like to present him with this special gift.
Rene Cortez, the leagues director of communications for 30 years, lifted a brown paper cover to reveal a painting on an easel of Burrus in action announcing a game.
The microphone was then handed over to Mayor Lara Anderson who alluded to there being more to the surprise.
“What would be a great enough honor and tribute to this man who has enriched all of our lives and made such a big difference in Dana Point? Well, we thought of something, and we’re making a little change,” said Anderson as she directed the crowd’s attention to the scoreboard high above center field where volunteers pulled on ropes attached to a tarp covering it. As the tarp fell, cheers and applause rang out and Anderson announced the renaming of Mustang Field and officially dedicated it the Gene Burrus Ballfield.
“I didn’t expect all this today. What an honor,” said Burrus. “The city of Dana Point has been so kind to me, and I’d like to salute our players and their parents. I love the moms and the dads and the grandparents who are behind our players and attend as many games as they can. This is beautiful and an example to parents all over the world and I thank you.”
Anderson then directed the crowd outside of the field fencing for the unveiling of a monument erected in Burrus’ honor.
The Dana Point Parks and Recreation Department commissioned Michael Comi owner of Pacific Rockscape in San Juan Capistrano-the company responsible for creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Sea Terrace Park along with many other rockscape signs in the city-to design and build a monument to commemorate the renaming of the field.
Given a tight schedule of just 22 days to complete the project, Comi assembled a talented team of artisans for the job including Jerry Lansky, owner of JL Welding in Capo Beach, Eddie Hygh who helped with the design, Pete Corba who assisted with fabrication and airbrush artist Kristie Crisler.
The design includes a metal plaque with Burrus’ picture and information mounted to a cement base. The base is framed on either side by two large baseball bats between which sits a very realistic looking baseball adorned with Burrus’ autograph.
“It was important that the baseball look real,” said Comi explaining that the accurate look of the ball came largely thanks to Lansky’s welding of each of the steel threads individually and further enhanced by the realistic painting of Crisler.
Hundreds of hours of work, approximately 350 pounds of steel in the ball and a total of five yards of cement went into the project, said Comi.
For Lansky, the unveiling of the project at DPYB opening day brought back fond memories of his days playing baseball as a kid. “I am very proud to have been a part of this. Go team!” Lansky said.
Burrus, 84, had a broadcasting career that spanned more than five decades and included being known as “the voice of Armed Forces Radio” and serving as the public address announcer at the Tournament of Roses Parade in the 10 years leading up to his retirement.
He started in radio in 1952 at station KRUX in Glendale, Ariz. In 1958, he moved to television there and then in 1964 returned to California where, after World War II he studied broadcasting at the Radio Engineering School in Burbank and worked at several stations in cities like Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Newport Beach until retiring in 1986.
Upon retiring, he and his wife moved to Dana Point where he quickly became an integral part of the community by volunteering for many city programs and events.
Burrus is known locally, not only for announcing youth baseball, but also as the master of ceremonies for events at the Senior Center and the Festival of Whales Parade announcer. He was also Ambassador of the Year and officially named “the Voice of Dana Point” in 2006.
The morning festivities were set to end with Burrus throwing out the first pitch of the season, but the crowd had other plans.
Even as the first game of the season got underway on the Gene Burrus Ballfield diamond, young players-some sneaking out of the dugout for a moment-their parents, friends, city leaders and staff continued to approach Burrus for more than an hour offering congratulations, taking photos and asking for his autograph.
“I am absolutely surprised and overwhelmed,” said Burrus in his trademark announcing voice that needs no assistance from a microphone. “I never expected anything like this. It is quite an honor. Thank you.”
Rene Cortez contributed to this article.