Regarded as the Mets' rightfielder of the future, Burnitz in '91 became the first 30-30 man in the 53-year history of the Eastern League, hitting 31 homers and stealing 31 bases for Double A Williamsport. By '94 he was in the Mets' Opening Day lineup, but then he got on the bad side of manager Dallas Green, who was known for his lack of patience. Green often publicly criticized Burnitz for what he perceived to be lackadaisical play and pouting, and ultimately shipped him to the minors before trading him to Cleveland in November '94.
Burnitz's current skipper, Phil Garner, understands how the player's style might be misconstrued. "It's just the way he carries himself," says Garner. "He can have some bad body language. Sometimes when he walks back to the dugout after striking out, you'd think this guy had lost all hope in life. But he comes to play every day, plays extremely hard, and we get along fine with that."
Green wasn't the only New Yorker to misread Burnitz. Reporters tagged him as an introvert, with one writer going so far as to call him "painfully private." Burnitz scoffs at that. "First of all, the reporters are in the manager's office, and he's saying, 'Burnitz stinks, he's out of here.' Then they come up to me and ask me about it. There wasn't a whole lot I could say."
No one in Milwaukee has accused Burnitz of being withdrawn. During spring training a year ago, a fan mistakenly handed him a card with a photo of teammate Bob Wickman, who weighs 25 pounds more than Burnitz, and asked for an autograph. "That's it!" Burnitz cried with a tone of mock indignation. "Time to go on a diet. I must look like a fat slob."
Burnitz says he has always been a Harley-riding guy, only now he's playing for a Harley-riding manager in a town where pitching changes are marked by a Harley-riding dude taking a lap around the ballpark. In short, Burnitz and Milwaukee are a perfect fit, and he is making the most of it. He batted .281 with 27 homers and 21 steals last year, and he has been a key to the Brewers' surprisingly strong start (12-5 at week's end, tops in the National League Central). He was among the league leaders in homers (six), RBIs (19) and coming out of one's shoes on a swing (countless). "He's a wild swinger," says Garner. "You don't want to take away that aggressiveness, but he has to take it down a little bit."
During batting practice last Saturday, Burnitz launched consecutive pitches into the rightfield seats, then nearly corkscrewed himself into the ground going for three in a row. During the game, however, he showed better discipline by taking a low, outside curve from Giants lefthander Jim Poole to leftfield for a double. It was just the kind of thing he works on in the cage. "I'm not good enough to show up and just get in the game and hit," Burnitz says. "I do a lot of extra hitting. I'm not a great hitter." Not yet, at least.
Stieb's Last Flings
Comeback for The Aged
Dave Stieb has come full circle. Twenty years ago he began his professional career as a Class A Dunedin ( Fla.) Blue Jay. These days the 40-year-old righthander is pursuing an improbable comeback—in Dunedin—after five years in retirement. Contemplating how much time has passed, he gazes at his teammates and sees three players who were only a year old when he made his pro debut. It's no wonder his teammates have nicknamed him Dinosaur. "I don't know if that necessarily means I'm old," Stieb says with a wry smile. "I prefer to think that it means I'm big and bad."
Stieb is listed on the Dunedin roster as a player-coach, but there is greater emphasis on player with every passing day. Last Saturday night he pitched five innings against the Brevard County Manatees, a Marlins farm team, allowing two earned runs and striking out nine. It was his third start in a comeback that began in February after Toronto invited him to spring training to be a guest instructor.
Stieb left baseball in '93 because elbow tendinitis and an aching back had made him ineffective. Until this spring he hadn't thrown a pitch since then at any level above Little League batting practice. "He doesn't have the velocity he used to have," Toronto general manager Gord Ash says, "but he still has good movement on his slider. The years away from the game have helped his elbow. His fierce desire and competitiveness are still there."