The weather was oddly appropriate. There was a haze on the city skyline and a white, bleached-out quality to the sunlight; it had all the characteristics of a hot midsummer afternoon. Yet the temperature was actually a bit brisk, especially, of course, near the lake but even downtown away from the water, on the south side at Comiskey Park. In the sun, it was fine, but in the shade the wind cooled and forced the fans to keep their jackets on. If only it had been an autumn afternoon, Indian summer, rather than late spring, the metaphor would have been perfect.
Because when we arrived at the park last Saturday for batting practice, the players in the cage, on the mound, and in the field were not of the usual sort. It was old-timers' day at Comiskey, and Al Kaline was at the plate and Mark Fidrych was on the mound and Brooks Robinson was in uniform, being interviewed behind the cage. And the starting pitcher for the White Sox old-timers was scheduled to be Britt Burns.
Britt Burns was born in June 1959; he is a few months older than I am.
Now this could be a lesson of any number of things. Roger Simon wrote a column earlier this year in which he said he wouldn't vote for Albert Gore because he wouldn't vote for a presidential candidate who is younger than he is. Gore's youth reawakened Simon's awareness of age and mortality--all that predigested Kierkegaard that has become yuppie cliche. Britt Burns, meanwhile, is 28 years old; his presence in an old-timers' game offers no such easy morals. If it tells us anything, it reminds us how fleeting an athlete's career is--for those even at the top of their professions--and how absurdly short it can be.
Burns was pick of the litter in the last group of young White Sox pitchers, the set before Jack McDowell and Melido Perez. He stepped into the White Sox rotation in 1980 and won 15 games, with an ERA under 3.00, and in the strike-shortened following season he won 10 games with an ERA of 2.64, both of which placed among the league leaders. An essential portion of his playing character was defined, also, in 1981, when he commuted to and from what would become his father's deathbed while making his regular starts for the Sox. (His fattier had been hurt in an auto accident.) He was, at the time, 22 years old, but he was already establishing himself as a tough-luck pitcher.
The stats and the ages tell their own story eloquently, as usual, but what made Burns a great pitcher, to my mind, was the clear persona he projected on the field. He is a large man (larger now), and he stood on the mound in what we referred to in art class as the dehanchement pose, in which most of the subject's weight is rested on one leg, giving the body, supposedly, a graceful S-curve from bottom to top . With Burns, this slow shifting of weight from one leg to the other had no classical resonance; it was, instead, the human equivalent of the jutting hipbones of a cow standing in a field on a hot day, with the sun turning everything a dried-out yellow, the air itself arid and dusty, and with the chirping of crickets providing a strange, nocturnal counterpoint in the middle of the afternoon. There was a feel and weight to the games Britt Burns pitched; he could cast a spell over an afternoon and put us all down south, where he had come from, where people move at a slower pace and the sun seems to hover, utterly still, in the middle of the sky. No other pitcher brought with him such a sense of place and character and communicated it so well.
That was Britt Burns receiving the sign from the catcher. Yet once in motion, Burns became everything we treasure in the sport of baseball: he was the seemingly uncoordinated hulk transformed into a graceful, superhuman being, the statue come to life, the pitching equivalent of a short, dumpy second baseman turning a double play in the blink of an eye. Imagine that cow we compared him to suddenly breaking into a coltlike canter. In his motion, Burns brought his hands--hanging low at his sides--together and grasped the ball in his mitt. He lifted his hands to the top of his cap and turned his left foot perpendicular to the plate, nestling it against the rubber. The right leg rose as the hands came down, and as the leg faintly kicked the hands echoed it with a slight rise, then parted as he began the stride down the mound. The left arm came up easily behind him, the hand paused, infinitesimally, near his head as the elbow came forward to lead the beautiful, overhand path of the arm. His motion was slow, easy, and fine, completely disguising his fastball, which left the hand as if released, like a bird, to fly its own course on its own power. It shot past the batter at amazing speed--not Nolan Ryan speed, but fast and deceptive. Its speed increased in comparison, pitch by pitch, with his knee-locking curveball, which fluttered free from his hand out of the same, slow pitching motion, which arrived near the plate high and wide, and which dropped into the strike zone at the last moment like an exhausted man falling sideways into bed. Britt Burns was a beautiful pitcher.
Unfortunately, his career--including the 1981 season--always had more bad luck than good. He was 13-5 in 1982, an impressive record that is all the more remarkable when one recalls that his season ended early with an arm problem. In 1983, a fluke accident in which an air conditioner caused stiffness in his arm forced him to miss the first month of the season, and he never found his groove. He finished 10-11--his first losing record over a full season--but he also pitched in the single greatest and most awful game I've ever seen.
Sox fans know, of course, I'm referring to the fourth game of the 1983 American League play-offs, when manager Tony LaRussa--facing elimination--started his fourth starter, Burns, instead of bringing back his ace, LaMarr Hoyt, opting to save Hoyt for game five with the knowledge that the Sox had to win both games anyway. Burns, who had suffered through a season of inconsistency, put his whole season in a nutshell in this game, wavering this way and that but holding the Baltimore Orioles scoreless for nine innings (I still have the scorecard). He stranded four runners, over the first and second innings, had one of two perfect innings in the third, then left one man on in the fourth, fifth, and seventh, leaving two men on in the sixth and the bases loaded (all action after two were out) in the eighth. In the ninth, he had his second perfect inning--he seemed to be getting stronger--and he got the first batter out in the tenth (the White Sox had failed to score on the Dybzinski Fuckhead Catastrophe in the seventh) before Tito Landrum put his 149th pitch of the afternoon in the left-field upper deck, after which Burns made the long, slow, dignified walk to the dugout, the picture of honorable defeat.
With the acquisition of Tom Seaver, Burns offered to go to the bull pen in 1984, with the result that he messed up his pitching motion and had his worst season by far. He came back in 1985 to win 18 games, but by that time Hoyt was gone, Richard Dotson was out with a career-threatening injury, and the Sox were again also-rans. He was traded to the New York Yankees in the off-season but never pitched for them. A spurt of growth as a child had left him with poor legs--where some basketball players develop knee problems as kids, Burns developed hip problems--and here they finally caught up with him. The poor hips that had forced him to forever shift his weight from one leg to another finally failed to support his pitching, and he retired.
So I hadn't seen Burns in almost three years when he appeared on the field, just before the old-timers' game, last Saturday. He hid his new girth by being the only player to wear a warm-up jacket, and his walk was slightly labored. It reminded me of no one so much as my grandfather, a sufferer of the "coaches' disease" and, like George Halas, an early hip-replacement patient. Gingerly, Burns went up and down the steep dugout steps, walking as if he were barefoot and the steps themselves unbearably hot.
So the youngest player in the game started for the White Sox. He began warming up from the foot of the mound as the fielders took their positions behind him, and he moved back, step-by-step, until he stood atop the rubber. The old, high, graceful leg kick was gone, but his arm still came up and directly overhand in that same old fashion, with the long, textbook finish in which his hand comes straight down in the manner of a person pulling down a window shade. (As a player, this motion often caused him to lose his hat in mid-delivery, until he took to attaching the cap to his hair with bobby pins.) His fastball still flew to the plate, seemingly with no exertion of effort.
He still proved to be a hard-luck pitcher, however. One of the main reasons, I suppose, that we go to these games is to catch a glimpse of the players as they once were, to be reminded of their characters and the images we had of them, and right away Burns proved true to form. Working with uncharacteristic haste, he nonetheless fell into trouble. The first batter popped to first, and then the second, Billy Williams, popped to third, but Pete Ward dropped the ball. Williams lined the next pitch into right for a hit. Burns then dropped that same old beautiful curveball over the plate on two strikes against Al Kaline, who watched it go by as if it were a delayed el train running express. Then Al Oliver dragged a grounder to the right side of the infield, and although Burns lumbered off the mound to cover first base, Oliver was safe. Brooks Robinson ripped a hit to center, but the slow old-timers were advancing one base at a time, so that no runs scored and the bags were now loaded with two outs--Burns in typical first-inning trouble. Then he got Jim Northrup to get out of the jam, and I remembered how I had suffered with Burns in his last seasons and how rare these happy endings had become at one point. That was his outing for the day; he gave way to Billy Pierce, age 61.
Yet, while Burns did an admirable job of approximating himself, others were less impressive: it was their mistakes that reminded us of their greatness. Brooksie went sprawling after a line drive in the hole into left center, and what we saw was not the ball bouncing along free in the grass but a mental picture of that famous photo from the 1970 World Series, in which, face down in the dirt, he holds his glove up, the ball enclosed, to show he has stabbed yet another hot liner to frustrate the Reds. Late in the game, Ken Berry-who is a minor-league instructor for the White Sox and remains in pretty good shape--just plain dropped one in center field. Berry was the original good-field, no-hit center fielder for the White Sox, a player who was worth his minuscule batting average simply because he filled the spacious center of Comiskey Park so well. To see him drop one was to remember his greatness for all the wrong reasons, to see a great player reduced to mere humanity. I'll go to future old-timers' games, because I love to see the players standing around the batting cage--normal guys like the rest of us, but with a history, dressed up like plain folks for a ball--but when I want to see those mental pictures flashing I think I'll go to the Baseball Encyclopedia or trace an old scorecard.
Back at the batting cage, before the game began, Mark Fidrych was throwing the forkballs, curves, and change-ups that were his arsenal in the years after his arm blew out at the age of 22 (he pitched only 58 major-league games in his career, over 100 fewer than Burns). Northrup watched a change-up go by outside and he turned to the players standing around and said, "See me lay off that puke?"
"Puke?!!" someone responded, wondering what had happened to this once-great player's baseball vocabulary.