As Catholic chaplain for the Chicago Cubs, Masters performs Mass for players and staff at Wrigley Field before Sunday games.
MASTERS MAKES MAJOR LEAGUE CONTRIBUTIONS
A smattering of cheers greets Burke Masters when he steps up in his crisp baseball jersey—a natural reaction from this hometown crowd to someone in Chicago Cubs colors. This time, the blue and red just happen to be accented by the black and white of a clerical collar.
“The odds of me being here as a priest and in a Cubs shirt are astronomical,” he says, “so all things are possible with God.”
Masters is addressing close to 100 parishioners at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, Illinois, after delivering the homily for Friday morning Mass. The unusually large weekday-morning crowd has turned out to hear the story of how the son of non-practicing Protestants not only became a Catholic priest, but one who helps others answer the call to priesthood and ministers to World Series champions.
Known as Father Burke in the parishes he visits, Masters was cast into the national spotlight last November when he delivered a blessing live on ESPN before Game 6 of the World Series.
“They asked me 10 seconds before going on air if I would do a blessing to kind of counter the curse,” Masters says of how the show’s producer approached him to break the “Billy Goat Curse” blamed for keeping the Cubs from World Series glory since 1908.
"I really thought when I became a priest that my baseball days were over. And I was fine with that because I knew I was meant to be a priest. Then I get this call to be the Catholic chaplain for the Cubs. If God would have said, ‘Tell me your biggest, wildest dream,’ I wouldn’t have imagined this."
~ Burke Masters
“I’ve always been uncomfortable praying for wins,” Masters continues. “So, I just prayed that they would play to the best of their abilities and that no one would get hurt. Then, since the Cubs won that game, ESPN asked me to come back and do it again before Game 7.”
Many fans who watched the blessings broadcast live from The Cubby Bear say the rain delay that preceded Chicago’s rally in Game 7 was heaven sent. But while Masters certainly doesn’t take any credit for that, he does say the sentiment applies to his affiliation with the Cubs organization.
“I really thought when I became a priest that my baseball days were over. And I was fine with that because I knew I was meant to be a priest. Then I get this call to be the Catholic chaplain for the Cubs,” Masters explains. “If God would have said, ‘Tell me your biggest, wildest dream,’ I wouldn’t have imagined this.”
Most Mississippi State faithful understand Masters’ connection to baseball. As No. 23 for the Bulldogs, the third baseman secured his place in Maroon and White history with a grand slam against Florida State in a Super Regional game that helped send the Diamond Dawgs to the 1990 College World Series. However, even that MVP-earning performance and four years as a starter weren’t enough to help him realize his lifelong dream of playing in the major leagues.
As a high-school senior, Masters toured MSU, largely, as a chance for his father, a former Bulldog basketball player, to see old friends. He quickly fell in love with the atmosphere of Dudy Noble and canceled his remaining college visits. With a grand slam in a 1990 super regional game, Masters secured his spot in Maroon and White history.
“The draft occurred during the College World Series,” Masters recalls for the crowd. “One by one, I watched each of my teammates get a call saying, ‘Congratulations you’ve been drafted,’ but my phone was silent. I had planned my whole life for that day and it didn’t happen, so I returned home to Joliet (Illinois) very disappointed.”
Masters did end up signing with a Chicago White Sox minor league team, but his contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the season. Once again, he says he was faced with disappointment and a sense of loss as he tried to determine what to do with the rest of his life.
A math major who earned a perfect GPA from Mississippi State, Masters landed on a low-stress, high-paying job as an actuary, assessing risk for an insurance company.
“I was bored to tears,” Masters admits. “I remember telling my parents, ‘If this is what the next 40 years of my life is going to be, it’s going to be miserable.’ My mom said, ‘You’re going to be working the rest of your life. Do something you enjoy.’ I listened.”
Masters quit his job and starting making a list of things that interested him, and though he’d converted to Catholicism in 1985 as a senior at Providence Catholic High School, the priesthood didn’t make the cut. Instead, he found himself, once again, working toward a career in baseball, this time on the administrative side.
After earning a master’s in sports management from Ohio University, he got a job with the Kane County Cougars, then a minor league affiliate of the Florida Marlins based in Illinois.
As vocations director for the Diocese of Joliet, Masters helps men understand their calling and take the first steps on the road to the priesthood. He regularly visits other parishes and dioceses to share his unique story.
“I couldn’t wait to go to work every day and I thought, ‘This is what I’m meant to do,’” Masters recalls. “At the same time, I started attending Holy Cross Parish and met Stephanie—the woman I thought I was going to marry.”
Described by Masters as a devout Catholic woman, she encouraged him to grow in his faith.
“I told her that was her downfall,” Masters jokes. “If she hadn’t invited me to that first Eucharistic adoration, I might not have realized I was being called to the priesthood.”
Masters says the weekly hour of silent meditation, known as Eucharistic adoration, helped him hear and eventually accept his calling.
“Have you ever seen that bumper sticker ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,’” Masters asks rhetorically. “I said, ‘God, I don’t want to do this, but you have to make it clear,’ and so different people started coming up to me at random saying I’d make a really good priest. I would say to God, ‘I’m dating Stephanie, work with me,’ but finally I had to surrender.”
Masters entered seminary at the age of 30 and was ordained five years later. Now 50, he delivers Mass around the Chicago area through the Diocese of Joliet, which he serves as director of vocations, the arm of the church that helps guide men who feel they’re being called to the priesthood.
Thanks in part to his baseball background, Masters was asked by Catholic Athletes for Christ to serve as chaplain for the Cubs in 2013. In this role, he delivers Mass at Wrigley Field to players and stadium employees before all Sunday home games. While there was only one person in attendance for the first service at the Cubs’ home stadium, there were more than 75 participants before the last home game of the World Series in 2016.
“What is really beautiful about that Mass at Wrigley is there’s a starter for the Cubs and someone who sells popcorn at the game sitting side by side, and in God’s eyes, they’re the same,” Masters says. “God doesn’t care how much money he has or what her job title is. What God cares about is right here, in their hearts.”
After pre-game Mass, Masters makes himself available in the dugout or the locker room to hear confessions or just talk about life with the players and coaches. He says Cubs Manager Joe Maddon gave him insight into how a priest’s presence helps with attitudes.
"I actually learned a lot about being a priest from Coach Polk, though I didn’t realize it at the time. He taught me a lot about mercy and how to treat people with kindness and compassion. He has a rare combination of gifts."
~ Burke Masters
“I grew up around locker rooms, so I know the conversations that go on, but now I can come around the corner and conversations change,” Masters explains. “My mission is just to bring Christ’s presence there to remind them that there’s something beyond baseball.”
Mississippi State’s legendary skipper Ron Polk said even without the priest’s blacks, Masters has always had a steadying influence around the clubhouse.
“You never had to worry about Burke,” Polk recalled. “You couldn’t tell if he had a bad day or a good day. At the end of the game, he still looked the part—he smiled, shook hands and signed autographs. He was very mature and a great teammate.”
Masters admits that while a life as a priest didn’t seem like a possibility while in college, looking back, a lot of his lessons in Starkville helped prepare him for where he is now.
“I actually learned a lot about being a priest from Coach Polk, though I didn’t realize it at the time,” Masters explains. “He taught me a lot about mercy and how to treat people with kindness and compassion. He has a rare combination of gifts.
“He also didn’t let us get full of ourselves, like when we hit a home run or made a big play. He always taught us to act like we did it all the time by not getting too excited about it,” he continues. “That humility is something I hope the Cubs have as they respond to having won the World Series.”
Masters says even though it wasn’t in the way he dreamed of as a child, being even a small part of a World Series-winning ball club has been an incredible experience.
“Before becoming a priest, I kept counting the costs—all of the things I was giving up. But I didn’t think about what I was going to receive,” Masters explains. “I thought I would marry Stephanie. Well, I got to marry her anyway when I performed the ceremony for her and my best friend. I thought I was giving up baseball, but here I am involved in the major leagues in a big way. And I think my grand slam in the Super Regional was God’s way of letting me really enjoy that moment in baseball, knowing that I wasn’t going to realize my dream of the major leagues.
“God’s generosity has blown me away,” Masters says. “Sometimes I can’t believe it’s my own life as I’m telling it because it seems unreal. I can’t wait to see what God has in store next. It’s been quite a ride.”
Burke Masters admits he was not known as a home run hitter during his time in Maroon and White. It’s funny then that his legacy is forever linked to a grand slam in one of his last games at Dudy Noble Field and the now legendary radio call that announced it to Bulldog faithful across the country.
At the other end of that goose bump-inducing radio moment is MSU’s veteran radio personality Jim Ellis, providing the words that still echo in the minds of Mississippi State fans every time they hear Masters’ name.
“I kind of went berserk, which was out of character,” Ellis said. “I never want to be over the top, but I knew as soon as he hit the ball that he had crushed it. The left fielder never even turned around.”
Though Ellis has nearly 40 years and three sports-worth of Bulldog broadcasting behind him, he still vividly recalls that game and that moment from the 1990 post-season.
Mississippi State was down 7-8 to Florida State in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded.
“Burke was having an unbelievable tournament,” Ellis recalled. “He was really seeing the ball well and was a great guy to have at the plate. We would have been happy if he had hit a double into the gap and gotten those runs across the plate, but he got his pitch and did what he had to do with it.”
And as the call goes, “Masters at the plate is five for five in this ballgame…the 3-1 pitch is a drive…deep…it’s gone. It’s gone! A grand slam for Masters! A grand slam for Masters!”
Mississippi State had to beat Florida State twice more that weekend to secure a spot in Omaha, but it’s Masters’ grand slam that rates as most fans’ “I remember where I was…” moment. And as for Ellis, that entire team and the feats they achieved will always be a personal favorite.
“I love that ball club,” Ellis said. “It was a veteran team with quality guys who have done well after baseball. And 1990 was a special season.”
In early March, Ellis announced his retirement from football and basketball broadcast duties, but plans to maintain his role as “Voice of the Diamond Dawgs” for the foreseeable future.
Jim Ellis has broadcast Bulldog sports for nearly 40 years. Like his mentor, Jack Cristil, he is known for maintaining a calm demeanor even during tense moments of the game, which is part of what makes his excited announcement of Masters’ grand slam legendary.