SABR

Rick Burleson

This article was written by Ray Birch.

When looking back at the career of Rick "The Rooster" Burleson, the fiery, intense shortstop of the Boston Red Sox, California Angels and Baltimore Orioles from 1974 to 1987, a quotation from former teammate Bill Lee perhaps sums it up best: "Some guys didn't like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied. He was very intense and had the greatest arm of any infielder I had ever seen." Burleson excelled as a Red Sox player for seven seasons, both at bat and in the field. His participation in both the 1975 World Series and the 1978 playoff against the New York Yankees has secured his place in Boston Red Sox baseball lore. He was especially liked by Boston fans because of his burning desire to win and his constant hustle on the field.

Richard Paul Burleson was born on April 29, 1951 in Lynwood, California. He was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the 1970 amateur draft, with the fifth overall pick, during the January secondary phase. He played for the Winter Haven Red Sox in the Florida State League (Single-A) in 1970, and split 1971 between two other Class A teams - the Greenville Red Sox (Western Carolinas League) and the Winston-Salem Red Sox (Carolina League). Rick moved up to the Pawtucket Red Sox in the Eastern League (Double-A) for the 1972 season. [1] Burleson made the Eastern League All-Star team while at Pawtucket; the all-star game was scheduled to be played on July 13, 1972 at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but was rained out. [2]

In 1973 Burleson went to spring training with the Red Sox, but was optioned prior to the season to Pawtucket, the Red Sox Class AAA farm club. [3] Burleson's manager at Pawtucket was Darrell Johnson, who became manager of the parent Red Sox in 1974, and one of his teammates was Cecil Cooper, a stalwart on the 1975 Red Sox World Series team. Burleson's fielding prowess, as a second baseman, was a vital part of teammate Dick Pole's seven inning no-hitter pitched on June 24 against the Peninsula Whips. [4] Burleson led the league in games played.

The Pawtucket club finished second to the Rochester Red Wings during the regular season, but in the playoffs they dispatched the Tidewater Tides and Charleston Charlies to win the International League championship Governors' Cup. This victory qualified them to meet the winner of the American Association championship, the Tulsa Oilers, for the Junior World Series title. In a best-of-seven series, the Pawtucket team defeated the Oilers to win the championship. In Game 2, Burleson drove in four runs with two singles and a two-run homer. In the third game, he had the game-winning hit, and in Games 4 and 5, he played a key role offensively. [5]

By spring training of 1974, it was apparent that Burleson was ready to make his move up to the parent club. Darrell Johnson, now the manager of the Red Sox, termed him "one winnin' sonavagun." [6] During the winter, Rick played in Venezuela for the veteran Luis Aparicio, who, along with Mario Guerrero, represented his main competition to win the starting shortstop job. In a prophetic moment before spring training, Burleson said "if they let me get the work in spring training, I'll be the shortstop." On March 26, Aparicio was released, reducing the competition to Burleson and Guerrero. It was announced that the two would alternate at shortstop and "get into 110 games apiece". [7] Guerrero won the job outright, though, while Burleson was sent to Pawtucket so that he would able to play every day. [8]

While at Pawtucket, Burleson played well enough to earn a call up to Boston. In his first game, May 4, the Rooster committed three errors in a 1-0 loss to Texas, tying an American League record for errors for a player in his major league debut. [9] Unfazed by his inauspicious debut, Rick followed up by hitting a three-run homer in the second game of a doubleheader against the Rangers the following night. After an injury to second baseman Doug Griffin, Burleson got more playing time, platooning with Dick McAuliffe at second, and, by mid-July, when Griffin returned, Johnson felt confident enough in the Rooster's .306 batting average to play Burleson full-time at shortstop. [10] By August, in the middle of a pennant race, Burleson had earned the admiration of teammates and coaches. Coach Don Zimmer remarked, "He hits pretty well because he hits like he plays. He's a little bulldog up there." [11]

The 1974 season ended in disappointment for the Red Sox, as they collapsed during the September pennant race. However, Burleson hit .284 for the season, playing in 114 games, earning the club's rookie of the year award. He finished second to Bucky Dent for the shortstop nod on the Topps major league rookie all-star team. Yet, despite his rookie success, it was felt by some people in the Boston organization that, because of Burleson's average range at shortstop, the Red Sox should deal for a veteran, established shortstop, such as Freddie Patek of the Kansas City Royals or Eddie Brinkman of the Detroit Tigers, so that Burleson could be moved to second. [12]

As spring training of 1975 approached, Burleson expressed a desire to play shortstop, although he felt that as long as he played, he would be happy at short or second and batting anywhere in the lineup. By the end of May, though, Burleson was firmly in place as the Red Sox starting shortstop. [13] His fielding was consistently good, and he was learning how to play hitters better. As the 1975 season progressed, Burleson, at shortstop, along with Denny Doyle, acquired from California, at second base, formed a slick-fielding double play combination. In addition, his hitting earned him the second spot in the batting order.

The Red Sox clinched the American League East title by 4 ½ games over the Baltimore Orioles. In the ALCS, their opponents were the Oakland Athletics, the three-time defending world champions. The Athletics were the favorites and featured an All-Star batting order including Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi and a pitching staff led by Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman, with Rollie Fingers in the bullpen. The Red Sox swept the Athletics in three games.

If the series against the Athletics had loomed as difficult for the Red Sox, then the World Series looked to present insurmountable odds. The Cincinnati Reds, also known as The Big Red Machine, came into the 1975 World Series as the overwhelming favorite, based upon their powerful lineup, with 108 wins and only 54 losses. After an extremely competitive World Series, the Red Sox lost to the Reds in seven games. The final batting line for Burleson in the 1975 World Series was 7-for-24, a .292 average, with a double and two runs batted in.

Good things seemed to be on the horizon for both Burleson and the Red Sox in 1976, as outfielders Fred Lynn and Jim Rice had established themselves as young sluggers. Yastrzemski, Evans and Petrocelli were returning veterans, and Burleson, Fisk, and Doyle gave the Red Sox a hustling, aggressive presence up the middle. Lynn, Fisk and Burleson all had contract disputes, however, heading into the season, which ended up as a disappointing one for the Red Sox, with manager Darrell Johnson being replaced at mid-season by Don Zimmer, and the Yankees replacing them as A.L. East champions.

In 1977, the Red Sox presented a lineup that emphasized hitting the long ball. During a 10-game homestand in mid-June, the Sox hit 26 home runs. [14] Burleson had a 13-game hitting streak in April and May and, by the beginning of June, was hitting .341, as well as providing steady infield defense complimented by his rocket arm. This performance earned the Rooster a starting berth on the 1977 American League All-Star team, along with teammates Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski. [15]

The potent batting order returned for the 1978 season, but Burleson started slowly, and was hitting only .194 after 35 games. However, after getting untracked, Burleson finished third in the shortstop voting for the American League All-Star team, and he was chosen as an alternate. An injury forced Burleson out of the Red Sox lineup until mid-August and a once seemingly insurmountable Red Sox lead of nine games in the American League East had been reduced to 5.5 games by the beginning of August. Burleson's worth to the team became apparent when he immediately went on a 17-game hitting streak upon his return. [16]

Still, the Red Sox led the Yankees by four games entering a September series at Fenway Park. [17] In the four-game set, the Bronx Bombers destroyed the Red Sox in all phases of the game, sweeping a series that became known as The Boston Massacre. In typical Burleson fashion after the debacle, he made no excuses saying that the Yankees were just better than the Red Sox and that it was now a 20-game race to the finish. The Red Sox and the Yankees finished in a tie for the American League East title to force a one-game playoff on October 2. Burleson was involved in a strange sequence in the ninth inning when, with the score 5-4 with one out, he walked. The next batter, Remy, then hit a line drive into right field. The Yankee right fielder, Lou Piniella, stabbed at the ball and guessed correctly which froze Burleson for a split second and kept him at second base. The next batter, Jim Rice, advanced Burleson to third with a fly ball, but he was stranded there when Carl Yastrzemski popped out to end the game. [18] Burleson batted .248 for the season in 145 games, and it was clear that his absence during July and August was the difference that swung the balance towards the Yankees in the tight battle for the division title.

After a vigorous off-season training program with teammate Lynn, Burleson and the Red Sox began 1979 with high hopes. The fiery side of Burleson's personality was shown on May 16th when he was ejected and suspended for three games after he bumped an umpire while disputing a strike call. On June 4, Burleson hit the first grand slam home run of his major league career in a Red Sox win over the Rangers. [19] Despite a season which was disappointing for the Red Sox because of injuries and lack of key run production, Burleson again made the All-Star team for the American League. After the season, Burleson was awarded a Gold Glove for his fielding prowess and received the Thomas A. Yawkey Award as the team's most valuable player. [20]

Burleson arrived early to spring training in 1980, but soon began to suffer from a sore shoulder. Additionally, the contract he signed in 1976 after so much rancor was coming to an end. In May, his frustrations with the team in his contract negotiations became apparent; as he told the club to trade him and that he would not play without a contract in 1981. At the end of May, Burleson had a torrid batting streak, raising his average from .203 to .277 in a six-week period, batting in both the leadoff and second spots in the lineup. He had also played in every one of Boston's games through August 26th and led the team in putouts, assists, chances and double plays. He was quoted as saying that he would test the free agent market if the club did not sign him by the winter meetings. [21] Haywood Sullivan said that if he did not know that he could sign Burleson by World Series time, then he would trade him to avoid any more disruption to the team. The Sox were offering about $2.1 million over six years, while Burleson was asking for about twice that amount. Adding to the confusion in Boston was the fact that Lynn and Fisk were in similar contractual situations with management. Finally, on December 10, the Red Sox traded Burleson and Hobson to the California Angels for infielder Carney Lansford, pitcher Mark Clear, and outfielder Rick Miller. Prior to a grievance hearing regarding some contractual issues, Burleson agreed to a lucrative six-year, $4.65 million deal which made him the highest paid shortstop in baseball history.

Burleson got off to a great start in 1981, but in May manager Jim Fregosi was fired and replaced by Gene Mauch. After a mid-season strike by the players' union, the Angels, in the so-called second season, failed miserably, at one point, losing 14 of 15 games. As usual, Burleson led by example, batting in the .300s, but, despite the trades before the season, the Angels did not qualify for the playoffs. For his efforts, Burleson was named to The Sporting News American League All-Star team, batting .293 in 109 games, and also was named the Angels' Most Valuable Player for the season.

At the start of the 1982 season, Burleson suffered a rotator cuff injury to his right shoulder, effectively ending his season and putting his career in jeopardy. Ironically, the week before his injury, the Rooster had set a record for the most assists by a shortstop in a game. After undergoing surgery, Burleson vowed that he would do all that he could to return. But, as of November, seven months after his surgery, he had yet to pick up a ball. Part of the problem was that some of his shoulder muscles had atrophied and needed to be strengthened.

Even the usually optimistic Burleson questioned whether or not he would be able to be in the 1983 Opening Day lineup. At the beginning of spring training, Burleson felt that he was throwing at "about 45 percent.", and had every intention of being an integral part of the team, whether he was a starter or a utility player. New manager John McNamara expressed confidence in Burleson's return, noting that "if he's OK, he's our shortstop". Peter Gammons wrote, "One thing to remember. Never bet against Rick Burleson." Burleson went to Edmonton, the Angels' Triple-A affiliate to get back into playing shape. . The determination and perseverance of Burleson paid off handsomely, as he returned to the Angels' active roster and had two or more hits in each of his first seven games, while making only one error. Despite Burleson's heroics, the Angels floundered due to a combination of poor play and injuries. Although Burleson went back on the 15-day disabled list due to stiffness in his right shoulder, he batted .286 in 33 games.

Entering spring training in 1984, the jury was still out on how much Burleson could contribute to the Angels' cause. In order to compensate for his shoulder, Burleson tried to change his manner of playing, by positioning himself differently in order to reduce the lengths of his throws. The discovery of another tear in his right shoulder, however, dealt a serious blow to his comeback as a shortstop, although returning as a second baseman was still a possibility. He returned to the Angels' roster in September, but only to be used as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner. Even in his limited role, Burleson proved to be feisty, criticizing management for failing to make moves that would keep the team in contention.

.In the off-season, Burleson slipped and dislocated his shoulder while lifting weights, causing nerve damage in his arm, and cost him the entire 1985 season. Undaunted, Burleson continued his rehabilitation, trying to return and reward the patience that the Angels had shown in him. Working with Dr. Arthur Pappas, he progressed to a point where, in 1986, he attempted in the final year of his six-year contract to come back as a second baseman. By March 9, he was able to play at second, attempting a relay throw from short center field in an exhibition game, with no ill effects. Burleson began the regular season hitting .318 for the first week, and played second, third and shortstop. Eventually, Dick Schofield, who had taken over as regular shortstop by 1984, returned to the lineup, taking Burleson out of the field and relegating him to designated hitter duties against lefthanders. Still, Burleson continued to make his presence known in the clubhouse and on the field when called upon, mostly as a late-inning substitute in the field. In the playoff series against his former team, the Red Sox, Burleson batted .273, hitting 3-for-11 while appearing in four games. Burleson's performance earned him the American League Comeback Player of the Year award for 1986.

Burleson became a free agent and signed with the Baltimore Orioles on January 7, 1987, but was released on July 11th after playing 55 games at second base and seven games as a designated hitter. He'd batted just .209. It was the end of his 13 seasons of major league ball.

By 1989, Burleson had embarked upon a managerial career, becoming a part-time instructor in the Oakland Athletics system, a scout for the A's in 1990, and then, in 1991, full-time batting instructor under manager Tony LaRussa. After the 1991 season, he left the A's and took the batting coach job with the Red Sox under former teammate Butch Hobson. Former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer was third base coach, though Burleson replaced Zimmer there at midseason, when Zimmer became Hobson's bench coach. Burleson continued as third-base coach for the 1993 season.

Burleson was the Angels' third-base coach and base running in 1995 and 1996. He made his managerial debut in 1997 with Seattle's Lancaster affiliate (California League), and the Jet Hawks went 75-66 in his inaugural season, improving to 78-62 in 1998, each year advancing to the league playoffs. Burleson joined the Dodgers' organization in 1999, leading San Bernardino to an 80-61 record and the California League Championship. He was promoted to Double-A San Antonio (Texas) in 2000 and led the club to a 64-76 mark - the only sub-.500 record of his career. Burleson guided the Billings (Montana) Mustangs in 2001, 2002, and the first half of the 2003 season, where he compiled a 108-80 (.574) record, and helped the Mustangs to a pair of Pioneer League Championships (2001, 2003). He was promoted to manager of the Louisville River Bats for the second half of the 2003 season and the 2004 season. While, at Louisville, Burleson gave an insight into his managerial philosophy in an interview with Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal: "When a guy needs a kick in the butt, he's going to get it. And when he needs a pat on the back, he's going to get that, too." Burleson does not believe in an exceptional number of rules for his players, "except requiring them to be prepared and on time, avoiding mental mistakes, and playing hard. He was reassigned to the Billings Mustangs for the 2005 season.

Burleson's reputation as a hard-nosed, aggressive player can be supported statistically, especially in the years 1975-1980, when he averaged over 150 games and over 600 at-bats per season, despite an ailing shoulder. His clutch performances in 1975 against Oakland, batting .500, and Cincinnati, batting .292, provided the spark for the Red Sox that almost broke their long championship drought. But perhaps the greatest compliment that has been given to Rick Burleson came from teammate Jerry Remy, when Remy was asked to read the starting lineup that day for a network broadcast. When he got to Burleson's name, he said, "Batting second, the heart and soul of the Boston Red Sox, Rick Burleson." To Red Sox fans of the 1970s, no better words could describe his contributions to those teams.


Note

A version of this biography was originally published in '75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball, edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, and published by Rounder Books in 2005.


Notes

[1] "Class A Reports", The Sporting News, May 23, 1970, p. 48.

[2] "Klein, Demeter Skipper Eastern All-Star Squads", The Sporting News, July 22, 1972, p. 39. Regarding the rainout, see The Sporting News, July 29, 1972, p. 51.

[3] Deals of the Week, The Sporting News, April 7, 1973, p. 45.

[4] Trobennan, Bill, "Pawtucket's Pole Speeds Progress With No-Hitter", The Sporting News, July 7, 1973, p.36.

[5] Trobennan, Bill, "Pawtucket Defeats Tulsa for Series Crown", The Sporting News, October 6, 1973, p.29.

[6] Gammons, Peter, "Hustling Burleson... New Red Sox SS?", The Sporting News, March 2. 1974, p.18.

[7] Gammons, Peter, "Boston Massacre Throws Big Burden on Youth", The Sporting News, April 13, 1974, p. 17.

[8] Gammons, Peter, "Transplanted Beniquez: Bosox Surprise", The Sporting News, April 20, 1974, p. 4.

[9] A.L. Flashes, The Sporting News, May 25, 1974, p.28.

[10] Gammons, Peter, "Bosox Hitch Picnic Pants to Bernie's Belt", The Sporting News, June 24, 1974, p. 7.

[11] Gammons, Peter, "Rooster Giving Red Sox Plenty to Crow About", The Sporting News, August 10, 1974, p. 23.

[12] Gammons, Peter, "Burleson Sure of Playing, But Where?", The Sporting News, February 22, 1975, p.45. The Topps team designation appears in The Sporting News, November 16, 1974.

[13] Gammons, Peter, "Burleson Flicks On Stars in Bosox Eyes", The Sporting News, May 31, 1975, p.8.

[14] "Boston Bomb Squad Makes Shambles of Homer Marks", The Sporting News, July 2, 1977, p. 30.

[15] Kahan, Oscar, "Record Vote for Carew, Garvey as All Stars", The Sporting News, July 23, 1977, p. 47.

[16] Whiteside, Larry, "Busiest Bosox Starter Torrez Loves Work", The Sporting News, August 26, 1978, p. 12.

[17] Whiteside, Larry, "Remy is Mr. Consistency for Rollicking Red Sox", The Sporting News, September 2, 1978, p. 24.

[18] Pepe, Phil, "Little Bucky is Yanks' Mr. Big in Clutch", The Sporting News, October 14, 1978, p. 23.

[19] Whiteside, Larry, "Red Sox Refuse to Worry After Yanks' Blanks", The Sporting News, June 2, 1979, p. 19.

[20] Giuliotti, Joe, "Bosox Collapse Dims Rice's Swat Feats", The Sporting News, October 6, 1979, p.9.

[21] Giuliotti, Joe, "Burleson Dares Bosox:'Go Ahead, Trade Me'", The Sporting News, May 31, 1980, p. 32.


Sources

Adelman, Tom, The Long Ball, Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 2003.

Lee, Bill and Lally, Dick, The Wrong Stuff, Viking Press, 1984.

Zimmer, Don and Madden, Bill, Zim: A Baseball Life, Total Sports Publishing, 2001.

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