Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Card #44: Britt Burns

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Britt Burns was born on June 8, 1959, in Houston, Texas.  Don't let that birthplace fool you though -- Britt Burns is a Birmingham native.  He attended Huffman High School in Birmingham and graduated at the age of 19 in 1978.  

Why was he older than the rest of his classmates?  When he was 13 years old, he missed an entire year of school due to the fact that he needed pins inserted into his hips to stabilize the growth centers at the upper ends of his femurs.  As a 1982 Sports Illustrated article put it, Burns still "lurches from side to side as he walks, as if he were on stilts."  Despite this, Burns was an incredible high school pitcher at Huffman -- in 139 innings, he had a 20-1 record with 292 strikeouts, 30 walks, and just 30 hits allowed.

Even so, the only reason that the White Sox had even heard of Burns was happenstance. As a senior, Burns threw an 18-strikeout no-hitter in the rain in front of two dozen scouts.  Burns said that he had hoped that the game had impressed the scouts enough but, if it had not, he was prepared to take Auburn University up on its scholarship offer and play baseball there. 

Burns never got to Auburn, because the White Sox drafted him in the third round of the 1978 June Draft. Oddly enough, the White Sox were not one of the teams represented by a scout at Burns's no-hitter.  That organization heard about the game thanks only to former Chicago Tribune book editor Robert Cromie sending a newspaper article of the game to Bill Veeck.   In response, Veeck then sent a scout to Birmingham. The scout (later pitching coach Ken Silvestri) was sufficiently impressed and the Sox drafted Burns.

Bill Veeck was not one to let potential revenues stand in the way of player development. Burns spent all of 51 innings in the minor leagues in 1978 at Single-A Appleton and Double-A Knoxville before the White Sox called Burns up to start a game against the Detroit Tigers on August 5, 1978.  Even though he had been drafted just two months prior, Burns was not the first player from his draft class to debut in the majors -- the Braves pushed third-baseman Bob Horner directly from the campus of Arizona State University into the lineup at Fulton County Stadium.

Putting it lightly, Burns was overmatched entirely -- as you might expect that most high school pitchers would be.  He sported a 12.91 ERA in 7-2/3 innings, giving up 14 hits and striking out 3.  Those results convinced the White Sox to let Burns develop somewhat more in 1979 in the minor leagues.  He didn't enjoy great success in Double-A or Triple-A that year, though he did display fairly good command and a high strikeout rate for the time.  

The White Sox, though, were not a good baseball team in the late 1970s or into the early 1980s.  So, having very little to lose by blooding new talent, the White Sox decided to start 1980 with Britt Burns in their starting rotation.  Burns responded fairly well, throwing 238 innings and finishing 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA -- a finish which put him fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Joltin' Joe Charbonneau.  

Looking at more advanced metrics, though, shows how good of a year Burns really had -- he led American League Pitchers in Wins Above Replacement at 7.0 WAR.  That number put him fifth overall in the AL behind George Brett's 9.5, Rickey Henderson's 8.7, Willie Wilson's 8.5, and Robin Yount's 7.1.  The BBWAA was distracted by the loud noise and shiny stuff that was Steve Stone's 25-7 season (WAR: 2.4) and handed Stone the Cy Young Award.

When the calendar turned to 1981, the White Sox were pleased with their young starting pitching led by Burns, Rich Dotson, and Steve Trout.  Burns turned in another good season in that strike-shortened year.  He went to his one career All-Star game after the strike ended in August of 1981.  Burns finished seventh in the Cy Young race with two vote points and fifth in WAR with 4.0.

However, 1981 was a very bitter one for Burns.  On July 16, his father was struck by a car outside his family's summer home.  He never recovered and passed away at the age of 51 on September 9.  From the time that baseball began again in August, Burns was on airplanes regularly as he commuted back-and-forth between Chicago (or wherever the White Sox were playing) and Birmingham.  In retrospect, Burns found that his father's condition gave him "strength and determination [that he] never knew [he] had."

Many prognosticators saw the White Sox pitching staff in 1982 and thought that certainly they would be contenders in the American League West.  And, they did finish 87-75, 6 games behind the division winning California Angels.  Burns missed time due to injuries, and LaMarr Hoyt took over as the staff ace.  Certainly, 1983 was a happier season for the Sox, even if Burns again missed time with various ailments.  The White Sox won 99 games and the AL West, but they then lost out in the ALCS against the eventual World Series champion Baltimore Orioles.

Burns pitched two more years in Chicago, finishing 1985 with another seventh place Cy Young finish after an 18-11 record.  At age 26, Burns was a man in demand.  The White Sox recognized that another similar year like that from Burns would make him very expensive. So, the Sox traded him in December of 1985 to deep-pocketed Uncle George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees.

The Yankees viewed Burns as the missing cog to push them over the top to the AL East Division title.  Unfortunately for Burns, however, his hips became a problem again.  As a New York Times story from 1985 mentions, Burns was examined by Dr. Dan Kanell (who is the father of former NFL Quarterback Danny Kanell); the doctor told Burns and the club that Burns risked being left "a cripple" if he continued to pitch.  

Burns was afflicted with osteoarthritis, a disease which made even putting on his shoes an extremely painful process.  After 1985, Burns got divorced and spent a lot of time alone elk hunting.  The elk hunting made him realize that he might yet have a chance to pitch again because he was reasonably mobile out in the wilderness.  So, in 1990, he tried.  Despite his best efforts, though, Burns never did pitch for the Yankees in the regular season.  

Trivial Pursuit
While he apparently spent a lot of time hunting elk in the American West, Burns did not content himself to a life of leisure and hunting camps.  Indeed, he saved most of his salaries from the early 1980s and owned and operated "a dude ranch" in Colorado during that time. I can't help but see Billy Crystal in City Slickers whenever someone mentions the term "dude ranch."

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I was well aware of Britt Burns, Richard Dotson, Steve Trout, LaMarr Hoyt, and the rest of that White Sox rotation in 1982.  After all, the Sox were that team that was located just 90 miles south of Milwaukee County Stadium.  I'll let you in on a little secret: people in Wisconsin aren't particularly enamored with their more urban and urbane neighbors to the south.  If you doubt me on that, try attending an NFL game between the Bears and Packers and see how that goes.

After his aborted attempts to come back and pitch despite his hip condition in the early 1990s, Burns followed the path that Mike Cubbage took -- he became a "baseball man," a lifer.  When his old pal Dave Dombrowski was named the General Manager of the new Florida Marlins in 1993, Burns gave Dombrowski a call to see if the Marlins had any room in their organization for Burns to be a coach.  

The Marlins hired Burns and assigned him to the Gulf Coast League.  From there, Burns worked his way up the chain and became the Marlin's minor league pitching coordinator before Jeffrey Loria bought the team.  Burns went on to work in the Astros organization. Finally, in December of 2012 at the age of 53, Britt Burns was signed again by the Chicago White Sox.  Burns found himself back Birmingham after a long trek around the minor leagues of America.  As of this writing, Burns is still the pitching coach in Birmingham.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, most of that White Sox rotation ended up disappointing the Yankees one way or another. Those two teams did a LOT of trading in the mid-1980s.