"It was like being on vacation every day.”
BY ROCCO CONSTANTINO
From day one at BallNine, we have been advocating that baseball is a game with a heartbeat. It’s not played on a spreadsheet. Batting average, RBIs and pitcher wins matter and striking out 200 times in a season is just not acceptable.
Leadership matters, clubhouse chemistry is important and not everything can be quantified with a statistic. If you have played any sport on a high level, this is all common sense.
One player who recognizes what it takes to play winning ball at the highest level in the world is Dave Burba and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Burba was the Mariners second round pick in the 1987 draft—the same draft they took Ken Griffey Jr. first overall—after a standout career at Ohio State.
He was then traded to the Giants and for the next decade, he usually found himself pitching for teams in heated pennant races and the postseason. That was not by accident.
He pitched in a number of different roles for five years with the Giants and then became a bulldog starter for the Reds and Indians. All the while, Burba was a fantastic teammate who was respected by those in the clubhouse with him and the players who were competing against him.
Burba pitched for six teams across his 15 seasons. He appeared in 511 games, starting 234 of them. No matter what role he was in, Burba got the job done. He went from being a reliable reliever in the early part of his career to a workhorse starter from 1995-2002 and then finished up his career back in the pen.
That path led to 115 career wins and a career winning percentage of .569. In the postseason, Burba raised his performance and was generally on the mound in pressure situations for the Reds and Indians. Over nine postseason appearances and 21 innings, Burba went 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA and never allowed a postseason home run.
There’s a reason that the teams with the best statistics or most superstars don’t win championships every year. Teams need leaders, mentors, people who create a positive attitude and players who willingly fill whatever role they’re asked to do in the name of teamwork.
Come on and spend some time with one of those fellows as we go Spitballin’ with Dave Burba.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Burba. Always love talking to players from those great Indians teams of the 1990s. Let’s start at the beginning though. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
It all started for me in my backyard. I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the kids were two or three years older than me. In the summer, they were out there playing baseball and I was standing on the sidelines. Every kid wants to play and I was no different, just standing there with my glove and nobody would ask. I lived about a football field away from a field where kids were always playing, so I’d put my glove on the handlebars of my bike and ride up there hoping someone would ask me to play. Finally, they asked me if I could catch, and I said I could, so they let me play and put me in centerfield. One kid hit a line drive at me, and I came running in and dove and caught it. Then it was like, “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? Want to come play with us again?” Being accepted by the older guys really got me to enjoy playing.
Growing up in Ohio in the 1970s were you a fan of the Big Red Machine?
Of course, I was a Reds fan, but the problem was that I was a Dodgers fan as well. My buddy and I used to play Wiffle ball in the driveway and he was always the Reds, so I had to pick a team and I chose the Dodgers. I was a big Steve Garvey fan. We would go through the lineup and have to bat lefty or righty depending on who we were. He was really smart and kept all the statistics.
“I’m not saying that I’m Mr. Cool Cat, but if I came in and panicked or thought about the consequences of not getting the job done, there’s no way I can perform. I just try to stay calm and execute pitches and not let my mind take over.”
You ended up pitching for Ohio State and got drafted out of there in the second round in 1987. Could you tell us what brought you to Ohio State?
I started getting a few local scouts at high school games and they’d ask me if I was going pro or college. I had a travel ball coach tell me that the Yankees wanted to pick me up as a free agent, but I was too young and wasn’t ready for that. He was right. I was only throwing 80 in high school. So, I was playing for this travel ball team and we had a game where the Yankees AAA team played in Columbus. I pitched and after the game Ohio State’s coach came up and asked if he could talk to me about playing for Ohio State. I said, “Of course!” Prior to that, I was probably going to go to Anderson University to play football and baseball. But Ohio State came along and said they’d let me be a guaranteed walk-on and if I proved myself academically, they’d give me a scholarship.
Cleveland Indians pitcher Dave Burba grimaces as he throws from the mound during spring training at Chain O'Lakes Complex in Winter Haven, FL, 22 February, 2001. (Photo: TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)
You were a second-round pick in 1987. Could you tell us about your draft experience?
As a freshman, I pitched in the Big Ten Championship Game and did well. Then as a sophomore I started throwing harder and started to notice more scouts at the games. That summer I played in the Valley League and did well there. When I was a junior, my fastball clicked up a little bit again, and now there was a lot of scouts at my games. I never paid much attention to them, but my friends were into it more than I was. My friends were telling me that I was going to be drafted and they were right; the Mariners took me with the first pick in the second round.
The Mariners first round pick was pretty good that year too. Fellow by the name of Ken Griffey, Jr. You got to play with him a couple of years in the minors when he was just 17 and 18 years old. What was he like back then?
He was already a man among boys. He was just a kid, but you just watched the way he did things and you were like, “This isn’t a high school kid. This isn’t even a college kid. This guy is a dude.” One game we went out to Everett to play the Giants and he hit an opposite field home run. An absolute bomb. They have a plaque out there where he hit it. You know what he did next at bat? Dropped a bunt down the third base line. I was like, “Are you shitting me?” Nobody would even think to do that.
You were in the Majors just a few years later as a September callup in 1990 and pitched well. What was it like to get that call and make your debut?
I was in AAA and they started talking about expanding the roster at the end of the year. We’d look around and try to figure out who the few are going to be. Fortunately, I was one of them. First thing I did was call my parents and celebrated. It was 1 o’clock in the morning. We flew into Seattle and then into Baltimore. We had a three-game series there and I didn’t pitch at all. We went to Boston next. I was in the bullpen and we got the phone call for me to get up. I was a little nervous throwing a bullpen in Fenway in front of all these people, but I was ok.
I get called in, do my warmup pitches and everything is good. The batter [Mike Marshall] steps in the box and I came set. All of a sudden, my back leg starts shaking and I can’t stop it. I had to step off. I did it again and the same thing happened. I couldn’t stand still. So, I figured I would just come set and throw a pitch real quick. I threw the pitch and am not sure where it went, probably somewhere around the plate. I didn’t pitch real well in my debut, but I got the cobwebs out of the way.
Pitcher Dave Burba of the Cincinnati Reds during a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. (Credit: David Seelig /Allsport)
Your postseason debut went a little different. You came on in relief and retired Mike Piazza, Tim Wallach and Delino DeShields, the last two with the bases loaded, in Game 2 of the 1995 NLDS and picked up the win. What is it like pitching with that kind of pressure on you?
I had been relieving all year, so it was nothing different. It’s a playoff and there’s more on the line, but as soon as you start thinking that way, you’re defeated. I’m not saying that I’m Mr. Cool Cat, but if I came in and panicked or thought about the consequences of not getting the job done, there’s no way I can perform. I just try to stay calm and execute pitches and not let my mind take over. I was able to get out of it, we scored a run the next inning and I picked up the win. It was awesome.
When I was researching for this interview, I came across a survey of about 500 Major Leaguers from 2004 and one of the questions was asking players to name their favorite teammate of all time. You had the second most votes only behind Jim Thome. You must have been an awesome teammate, so can you talk about how important that is?
I’m not gonna just step up on a team like the Indians and say, “I’m the man,” but once I got comfortable in a place I could do different things. I was there to be part of something special, and that meant being a good teammate. I wasn’t playing the game for me, I was playing it for my team. Anybody in the clubhouse or even in Cleveland Stadium, I considered a teammate. That’s how we started playing really well; when everyone said they weren’t playing to hit .300, they were playing to help a team win a baseball game. That’s why we were good. Obviously, we had great players, but you don’t win unless you play as a team. Anyone that stepped into that Cleveland clubhouse was welcomed from the start because they were there to help us win baseball games.
Cleveland Indians pitchers' John Rocker (front) and Dave Burba (back) spray champagne during the locker room celebration after Cleveland defeated the Minnesota Twins 9-1 to clinch the American League Central Division championship on 30 September, 2001 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, OH. (Photo: DAVID MAXWELL/AFP via Getty Images)
I just am always blown away by the talent on those Indians teams of the late 1990s. What was it like being around so many incredible players and watching them compete on a daily basis?
In 1998, I was in Sarasota in Spring Training and got named the Opening Day starter for the Reds. I was so excited about it because I was going to be the one to throw the first pitch of the 1998 season. Not everybody could say that. The night before though, I got called into the office and was told I was traded to the Cleveland Indians. I was like, “Wow! That’s crazy. The night before an Opening Day start I get traded.” I flew to Seattle the next day where the Indians were playing. I got to the game in the seventh inning and got to meet my teammates. My first thought was, “I’m playing on an All-Star team.”
All these guys were elite players and I had to go and compete as part of the team. That was my first thought. I had something to prove. These were All-Star players. Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, Travis Fryman. There were so many great players. I was playing with elite players, and I wanted to be a part of it. Then every year they’d bring in a new dude and he wouldn’t just be a dude, he would be a dude. It was fun to go to the park. We were sold out every night and it was electric. Great teammates and I loved every minute of it.
You pitched for six different teams in 15 years. Was there a team or year that stood out to you that as one that really jelled together well?
The team that stands out to me is the 1995 Reds. It was a machine; it wasn’t a team. If we came into town for a four-game series, we were gonna take three games and you were lucky to get the fourth one. It wasn’t being cocky; it was just the attitude we had. We had two or three different guys do something every day to help the team win. You talk about fun; we had a blast.
Pitcher Dave Burba #34 of the Seattle Mariners throws against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Division Series on October 13, 2001 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians crushed the Mariners 17-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
That attitude reminds me of the 1986 Mets and you guys had the same manager. Davey Johnson was the manager on that ’95 Reds team. How much was he a part of that attitude?
Before that I was with the Giants. We had to shut all music and couldn’t be playing cards a half hour before game time. We all had to be in the dugout ready for the National Anthem ten minutes before the game. There were rules. I got traded to the Reds and took a flight to Cincinnati and got there just before game time. The National Anthem was ready to start, and I looked around and saw a few guys playing cards and other guys were around the clubhouse doing other things.
I had played with some of the Reds previously in San Francisco, so I asked them, “What are you guys doing? Aren’t you supposed to be out for the National Anthem?” They looked at me and just started laughing. Everyone did what they wanted to do. Not in a disrespectful way – nobody would disrespect the game. But Davey just had a laid-back atmosphere and just wanted us to show up and play hard when the bell rang.
You’ve now been a successful coach since your retirement and are currently a pitching coach in the Rockies organization. As someone who has been in pro ball since the 1980s, what are your thoughts on some of the changes you see in the game today?
From my perspective, I am seeing so many more injuries. It’s tough to compare to when I played, but I don’t remember having 25 pitchers injured. I don’t remember guys pulling rib cages. What the organizations feel is necessary is their deal, but I always thought running and light weights worked best. That’s just my opinion. I’m not out there doing studies, but that’s what worked for me. I had an ulnar nerve issue but took care of it and pitched for 15 years and never had a problem after that. I’m big on running, doing arm exercises, strengthening your shoulder and doing core exercises. I don’t know about the heavy weightlifting. I can’t say it’s good and I can’t say it’s bad. I just don’t know. But I say there’s a lot more injuries today in my opinion.
I absolutely think that’s the case. It’s been great talking baseball with you, and I really appreciate your time. For my last question, I just wanted to ask you about your reflections looking back on your career as a Major League Baseball player?
It was like being on vacation every day. I got to go to a baseball field everyday where I had a family—my teammates. We got to compete against the best every day. I never walked around growing up saying that I was going to be a Big League pitcher, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. When you’re done with baseball, there’s nothing you can do to replace that competitiveness. You can’t duplicate that. There’s nothing that compares with going to the ballpark everyday to compete against the best of the best.