This article was written by Alan Cohen
Announcer Dick Enberg once asked Stewart Cliburn when he knew he was a major leaguer. Cliburn replied that he knew he was a major leaguer when he saw his name and picture on a major-league baseball card for the first time. That first time came eight years after Cliburn had signed his first professional contract. He had traveled through eight cities at various levels of minor-league ball before becoming an “overnight success” with the California Angels in 1985.
The sound is that of a ball popping into a glove. Stu Cliburn first heard that sound as a youth growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, as his pitches often found their way into the glove of his twin brother, Stan. More than 35 years after signing his first professional contract, Cliburn could still hear the sound in faraway towns and small cities as a pitching coach in the Minnesota Twins organization, helping young players to fulfill their promise and realize their dreams much as he had a generation earlier.
Stewart Walker Cliburn was born on December 19, 1956, in Jackson, Mississippi. He and Stan were the second and third children born to Gene and Geneva Cliburn. A younger brother, Roger, came along 10 years later. His parents had migrated to the “big city” of Jackson from rural areas of Mississippi. His paternal grandparents were hunters and fishers and Stewart could recall his mother’s father farming with a mule-drawn plow, planting corn in rural Brookhaven. He said he very much considered himself a “country boy, so to speak.”
Cliburn’s father worked as a salesman in an auto-parts store in Jackson and ultimately bought his own auto-parts business in 1983. Younger brother Roger took over the business after their father died. Stewart and Stan’s parents were very supportive during their early years in baseball which began at the Boys Club, every Saturday, in Jackson under the tutelage of J.B. Rushing. He graduated from Forest Hill High School in Jackson in 1974. During his junior year he pitched a no-hitter against Jackson Provine. He had great success in high school, and in his senior year his team won the state championship, going 29-1. He was first noticed by the San Francisco Giants, who drafted him in the 16th round in 1974 shortly after he graduated from high school. His brother Stan was drafted in the fifth round and signed with the Angels. Stewart, on the other hand, did not figure he was ready for professional baseball.
Hopes of playing football at the University of Mississippi were dashed when the school did not offer him a scholarship. He was offered a football and baseball scholarship by Division II Delta State University and attended the school, in Cleveland, Mississippi. He played for coach Dave “Boo” Ferriss. Ferriss had played in the major leagues for six seasons and led the Boston Red Sox to the pennant in 1946 with a 25-6 record. Indeed, it was at Delta State under Ferriss that Cliburn got command of his breaking pitches. When Cliburn was drafted, Ferriss said, “When Cliburn came, he had to learn how to use the breaking stuff. A good fastball is not enough in college baseball.”1 Later he said, “Stewart always drew the tough assignment and 18 wins in three years is quite an accomplishment.”2 Overall, Cliburn was 18-13 in three years at Delta State, compiling a 9-5 record in his third year. His team went 41-17, and finished third in the Division II World Series. In his final game, he came in with his team behind 3-2 against California-Riverside and struck out 10 batters in seven innings to impress the scouts in attendance.3 He was selected in the fourth round of the 1977 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates and signed with Bucs scout Lenny Yochim. He was the 96th player picked.
Cliburn started with Salem in the Class A Carolina League, going 8-5 with an ERA of 3.25. He threw 97 innings in the summer, bringing his total count for 1977 (including college ball) to 198 innings. In 1978 he experienced arm problems while at Shreveport in the Texas League and pitched in only nine games. He came back strong in 1979 and midway through the season was promoted to Triple-A Portland. But he would go no higher than Triple-A with the Pirates. Over the course of five years in the Pirates organization, Cliburn compiled a record of 26-31.
The night of August 21, 1979, was unique. On that night Portland was playing Salt Lake City. Cliburn entered the game in the sixth inning. In the eighth, with Portland leading 6-1, Salt Lake’s catcher led off the inning and Cliburn, after jamming the batter with his first pitch, got him to pop up. What was unique was that the batter happened to be Stewart’s twin brother, Stan. It was the first time that they had ever faced each other in competition.4
Arm problems cropped up during spring training in 1980. Cliburn spent some time rehabbing with Class A Shelby (South Atlantic League), and then pitched for Double-A Buffalo (Eastern League) before rejoining the Portland Beavers in May.5 In August he began to earn the nickname “Marathon Man,” pitching 11? innings of relief in one game. He again shuffled back and forth between Buffalo and Portland in 1981 with a combined record of 5-9.
The Pirates released Cliburn after the 1981 season and he hooked on with the Angels. Cliburn, who relied on his fastball and had trouble changing speeds, continued to have troubles as a starter. He was used more and more in relief in 1982 and 1983.
Cliburn was invited to his first major-league training camp in 1984, and pitched mostly in B-squad games. In 1984 he pitched entirely in relief at Triple-A Edmonton, going 7-7 in 45 games with a 2.88 ERA. At the end of the season, he was called up to the Angels and made his first major-league appearance on September 17, pitching two mop-up innings in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals. The following year, he began the season back at Edmonton.
Before the 1985 season, the Angels’ bullpen had gained a reputation for being somewhat of an arson squad. That was about to change. In late April of 1985, Cliburn was recalled from Edmonton to replace an injured player and spent virtually the whole season with Gene Mauch’s Angels, posting a 9-3 record with six saves and an ERA of 2.09 in 44 games, throwing 99 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.85. He teamed with Donnie Moore to provide the Angels a one-two punch in the bullpen that kept the team in contention all season. Cliburn attributed much of his success to advice he received from manager Mauch early that season. Mauch told him that he had to throw the ball at the knees rather than thigh-high. He needed to have location and command to succeed. The “shins to ankles” approach, as Cliburn called it, was the key to his success.
On April 26, at Seattle, he made his first appearance of the 1985 season. He entered the game in the sixth inning with his team leading 11-1. Cliburn pitched the final four innings to earn his first save.
Four days later, at home against the Boston Red Sox, Cliburn entered a 2-2 game in the top of the 12th inning. He proceed to match zeroes with Boston relief ace Bob Stanley, who had entered the game in the eighth inning and who had, over the course of five innings, retired 14 consecutive batters. In the bottom of the 13th inning, the Angels mounted a threat, loading the bases with one out and Doug DeCinces due up. Manager Mauch walked over to congratulate Cliburn on his first major-league win. The congratulations were premature as the Angels failed to score. Cliburn resumed pitching and, in the bottom the 14th inning, the Angels put runners on second and third with two outs, only to come up empty again. After finishing his work in the 15th inning, Cliburn had pitched four scoreless innings, allowing only two hits. When Bobby Ojeda of the Red Sox issued the last of his four walks in the 15th inning, Rod Carew came across with the decisive run and Cliburn had his first major-league win.
Cliburn’s next two wins also came in extra innings. On June 4 the Marathon Man entered the game with one out in the 10th inning. He went the rest of the way, allowing no runs and four hits in the last 5? innings as the Angels defeated Baltimore 6-5. The following day, Cliburn found two $100 bills in his locker. He discovered that DeCinces, a former Oriole, had placed the money in his locker to reward him for his efforts. Cliburn said, “I didn’t have an easy one, but I wanted to keep going out there as long as I still had stuff and was throwing strikes and feeling good. I kept saying, ‘God, can’t I have just one quick one (inning)’ ”6 In all, five of Cliburn’s nine wins in 1985 were in extra-inning games.
It seems that overtime was Cliburn’s time all season, even when he was not involved in the decision. On June 28 the Angels went into extra innings against the Royals and Cliburn entered the game in the 11th inning. He held the Royals scoreless for two innings and the Angels scored in the top of the 13th, putting Cliburn in position to pick up his fourth straight extra-inning win. However, he allowed the Royals to tie the game in the bottom of the 13th. Cliburn left the game after the 13th and was not around when the Royals pushed across the decisive run to win the game in 14 innings.
Angels manager Gene Mauch, when asked about Cliburn’s extra-inning success, said, “I don’t know that he thrives on it, but he definitely responds to it.”7
On August 11 Cliburn entered the game in the sixth inning in relief of John Candelaria, who had held the Minnesota Twins scoreless for five innings while the Angels built up a 6-0 lead. Cliburn completed the shutout and was credited with his third save, allowing only two hits in his four innings, and retiring the last seven batters he faced.
After chalking up his seventh win, and his fourth in extra innings, on August 14, Cliburn was able to reflect on his journey to the majors and his success in 1985. He said, “What’s happened this year is unbelievable, but I never lost hope. As long as people kept giving me an opportunity, I knew there was a chance. I wasn’t going to give up until someone said, ‘Stew, you just can’t pitch in the majors, go on home.’ I mean, as long as I had a job, I looked upon it as my responsibility to stay motivated until someone gave me that chance. The Angels did that this year, and it’s a dream come true. The struggle paid off, but remembering it keeps all this in perspective.”8
On August 30 Cliburn was sailing along with an 8-2 record, five saves, and a 1.80 ERA when he entered a game in the sixth inning to protect a 4-0 lead. He pulled a muscle in his left side delivering the first pitch against the Yankees. The pain was so intense that, as he said, “I don’t think I could have thrown another pitch, it’s that painful, but I don’t think it’s that serious.”9 The injury kept him sidelined for 13 days.
On September 22 the Angels held their annual Fan Appreciation Day in front of a crowd of 47,895, and Cliburn was awarded the team’s Rookie of the Year trophy. Not one to sit on his laurels, he entered the day’s game in extra innings (no surprise), pitched scoreless ball for two innings, and gained his ninth win of the season. The game, which ended after 4 hours and 25 minutes, marked the Angels’ fifth consecutive win and the team ended the day in first place in the AL West.
The team could not keep up the momentum and lost eight of its last 13 games. Nevertheless, the Angels finished the season in second place with a 90-72 record, just one game behind the first-place Kansas City Royals. Cliburn finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting and even had one first-place vote.
Cliburn’s future looked bright. However, he developed tendinitis in his right shoulder during spring training in 1986 and was sent back to Edmonton just before the start of the season. With Edmonton Cliburn pitched in only 20 games. At the end of the season he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone fragments from his right shoulder.10 Although he had a couple of good outings during spring training in 1987, he was once again sent to Edmonton.
Cliburn labored for an additional season in Triple A. In limited action, he went 1-0 with a 2.30 ERA in 15? innings. Before the 1988 season, he was offered a minor-league contract and an invitation to spring training as a nonroster player. Cliburn’s perseverance was once again to pay off. He had an excellent spring. In his first six appearances in spring training, he pitched 10? innings and had an ERA of 1.74. “I feel normal again,” he said. “I can tell a world of difference between this year and the last couple of years. It’s probably obvious in the way I am throwing the ball.”11
Cliburn’s arm difficulties were gone and he was ready to return to the majors. He won his first four decisions in 1988, his fourth and last win coming in a stellar performance against the Cleveland Indians on July 23. He entered the game in the second inning with the game tied 3-3. He pitched six innings, his longest stint in the major leagues, allowing one run and six hits as the Angels rallied to take a 5-4 lead. He left the game after the seventh inning and Greg Minton’s two scoreless innings preserved the win for Cliburn and the Angels.
In 1989 Cliburn did not make the club out of spring training. Doug Rader had replaced Cookie Rojas as manager. Dan Petry, normally a starter, was experiencing back problems and was moved to the bullpen. When Jim Abbott, a former first-round draft pick, was brought up to the team to take Petry’s place in the rotation, Cliburn was dispatched to the minors. He pitched for Edmonton in 1989, but did not do particularly well, going 1-4 with a 5.40 ERA in 25 games. He was released during the season, and signed on briefly with Oklahoma City, appearing in four games with the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. He was 32 years old at the time, but still had hopes of making it back to the majors.
In 1990 Cliburn returned to the Pirates organization during spring training. He did not do well and was released. The Pirates had indicated that there might be room for him as a minor-league pitching coach. That didn’t work out. In June he got a call from Bill Bavasi of the Angels and went to pitch at Palm Springs in the Class A California League, then finished up at Double-A Midland (Texas League).
With baseball forever in his blood, Cliburn pitched for Daytona in the Senior Professional Baseball league during the 1990-1991 winter season.
Before the regular 1991 season, Cliburn’s former pitching coach Marcel Lachemann spoke to him and told him his chances of returning to the majors were “slim and none.” Cliburn realized it was time to begin his career as a coach. He was appointed pitching coach in Class A at Palm Springs and was there for two years.
After being dropped by the Angels, Cliburn made his way to the Minnesota Twins’ organization as a minor-league pitching coach. His first year with the Twins was spent in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was then on to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for four seasons and Fort Myers, Florida, in 1998. In 1999 he joined the staff of the Double-A New Britain (Connecticut) Rock Cats (Eastern League). From 2001 through 2005 he worked in New Britain with his brother Stan when Stan took over as manager of the Rock Cats. In 2006 the Cliburn twins moved up the ladder to Triple-A Rochester. Stu returned to New Britain in 2009, and in 2015 he entered his 22nd season in the Twins organization, moving with the Twins Double-A team to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Cliburn said his greatest satisfaction was to see the players go through what he went through when he was a player. It is now the youngsters’ turn to perform and learn. His passion is as great now as ever, and his edict to his young pitchers is simple: Just hope that your dream will continue.
He married his wife, Cyndi, in 1995 and they settled in Fort Myers, the spring-training home of the Twins.
Last revised: September 3, 2015
In addition to the sources cited in the endnotes, sources for the biographical information provided herein include the Stewart Cliburn file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; and the Omaha World-Herald. Statistics have been taken from Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet. The author interviewed Stewart Cliburn on April 22, 2014.
1 Bob Lord, Delta Democrat Times (Greenville, Mississippi), August 5, 1977: 10.
2 Delta Democrat Times, June 14, 1977: 7.
3 Larry Harnley, State Journal Register (Springfield, Illinois), June 2, 1977: 28.
4 Norm Maves Jr., “Cliburn Twins Write Latest Chapter of ‘Who’s on First,’” The Oregonian (Portland), August 22, 1979: C-1.
5 Norm Maves Jr., “Mound Depth Bodes Well for ’80 Beavers,” The Oregonian, April 9, 1980: E2.
6 Ross Newhan, “Angels Get Past Orioles in 15 Innings,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1985: 31.
7 Newhan, “This Time Angels Play Two-Plus, Win in 12, Then Lose,” Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1985.
8 Newhan, “Cliburn Grinds to a Start: Angel Rookie, 28, Uses His Perseverance as ‘In’ Pitch to Majors,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1985.
9 Newhan, “Angels Finally Win in New York, 4-1, but It Could Prove Costly,” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1985.
10 Lisa Nehus Saxon, Daily News of Los Angeles, November 19, 1986.
11 Eric Nowland, Daily News of Los Angeles, March 25, 1988.