Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Ellis Burks

As someone who played for the Red Sox from 1987-92, Ellis Burks doubly appreciated the chance to hold aloft the World Series trophy in 2004. Photo from Boston.com.

I thought Ellis Burks provided one of the best stories on the 2004 Red Sox, despite the fact he recorded just 33 at-bats due to multiple knee surgeries. He remained with the team throughout his arduous rehab, probably because he knew better than anyone else in that locker room what kind of demons those Sox were trying to exorcise. Burks joined the Sox in 1987, four years after he was drafted by the club in the first round and one season after the painful World Series loss to the Mets introduced “The Cures of the Bambino” into the American sporting vernacular.

Burks was quite an asset in the locker room, winning admirers for his work ethic as well as his ability to provide leadership even though he wasn’t able to contribute much on the field. He did, though, manage to make it back as a pinch-hitter in late September and notched a hit as a pinch-hitter in his final Fenway Park at-bat Sept. 23. Terry Francona rewarded him with a start on the penultimate day of the season Oct. 1 and Burks recorded a double and a run scored in the 2,000th and final game of his career.

Burks had no regrets over his career but did wonder late in 2004 what kind of numbers he would have put up if he didn’t miss so much time with knee, back and elbow injuries. He played 100 or fewer games five times in his 18-year career and still finished with a .291 average, 352 homers, 2,107 hits, 1,206 RBI and 1,253 runs scored.

In seasons in which he played at least 100 games, Burks averaged 140 hits, 24 homers, 82 RBI ad 83 runs scored. Five more seasons like that and he would have finished with 2,520 hits, 432 homers and 1,472 RBI and 1,494 runs—numbers comparable to those of Andre Dawson, who will likely enter the Hall of Fame in the next couple years.

There will be no Hall of Fame for Burks, who is eligible for the ballot next year, but that World Series ring is a pretty good consolation prize.

And on a personal level, Burks—who is currently an executive with the Indians—was one of the nicest athletes I’ve ever met. We hit it off during this interview in September 2004 and continued to chat regularly over the next several weeks. When I told him my credential request for the ALCS and World Series was turned down, he gave me his cell phone number and said to give him a call if there was anything he could do to help me out. (Ex-Sox PR chief Glenn Geffner ended up landing me the credentials, for which I told him I’d name my first-born after him)

Burks’ relaxed demeanor was a marked contrast from earlier in his career. He admitted in this interview he interacted as minimally as possible with reporters during his first stint with the Sox (ex-Sox general manager Lou Gorman also noted this, without prompting, in a separate interview in 2005).

That wariness was still present, if not bubbling at the surface: At the end of our interview, Burks asked to see my credential so he could remember the outlet for whom I worked.

This interview was conducted early in the book-writing process, so it’s not as thorough and a little more general than those conducted later in the project. Hope you enjoy it anyway:

What was it like dealing with the media during your first stint with the Red Sox?

At that time there were no courses of any kind. My whole theory was the questions that were asked, I answered. I didn’t elaborate any further on anything extra. It was simple: A and B, you ask, I answered. That’s it. Next question. Later on, I realized that things you might say may be taken and twisted certain ways, so I was very careful of what I said.

That was just a learning experience—I saw a lot of negative things happen to players like Jim Rice, Oil Can Boyd, Todd Benzinger, Mike Greenwell. It was just a total learning experience, man. And I learned to joke around with the media quite a bit, so that sort of took the edge off it somewhat.

Is there more or less media now?

This is more now, I guess, because of the added hype with New York. New York had always been one of the teams that the Red Sox always wanted to beat because of the Bucky Dent thing and history of it all—losing the Babe to New York. So you still had a lot of added hype for that. Since 1918 the Red Sox haven’t won a championship, and they weren’t going to let us forget about it.

Are players reminded more of the franchise’s past here than in other cities?

It’s definitely one of those things where you’re reminded constantly about the last time you won a championship. But whichever team wins here is gonna go down in history, they’re gonna be remembered forever and the media’s going to portray them as gods because it’s been so long. For the most part, that’s something that we as players don’t think about. We’re just trying to be the best we can be and bring a championship to this organization.

Is the press more or less negative here than in the other cities in which you’ve played?

Well, to my experience, there’s three or four places that can be pretty negative. Philly. New York, of course. And Boston’s not negative. Losing streaks, something negative said in the paper, [reporters are] going to harp on that. But it seems like in New York and Philadelphia, they just come to the ballpark wanting to say something to get you going. It gets tough. But when you’re a professional ballplayer, that’s just going to happen. People are always going to try to look for something to add to something someone else said. I don’t bother [or] involve myself in [that]. If you have something negative to say, don’t step to me.

When the Red Sox do well, is the coverage here more positive than it might be if the home team was doing well somewhere else?

That’s the case everywhere. If you’re on a streak like this—and this is what we’ve all been waiting for, this is what all the writers have said this team is capable of doing—when we fulfill that, everything is lovely. That’s great. That’s the way it should be. But, of course, when we lost two in a row, things panic—especially if New York’s won two in a row. It’s like, oh geez, the roof’s caving in. And you just have to really put things in perspective. You’re not going to win every game, you’re not going to lose every game.

How has the space in the locker room changed since your first tour here?

A little more space. Just the one room back there and a small weight area and the video room. You’ve got a media room back there. It’s definitely improved.

Are there more places for players to have some privacy now?

No. I prefer the washroom. That’s where I go [laughs]. You guys better not come back there.

Do you read the papers?

Sometimes. I didn’t even know Kevin Brown broke his hand. I don’t make it a point to read the papers, because I don’t need to know what people are talking about. I know what’s going on, so I don’t need to know what somebody else’s opinion is.

How about teammates? Typically, do they read the papers?

Some guys do, some guys don’t. Some guys are into that—they’re into knowing. They want to know what you guys are saying about them.

Is Boston harder on its stars than other cities?

I don’t know if you’re harder, but you tend to make yourself known. Players are aware you’re around. Certain articles that are written stand out. I’m not saying [the media is] negative, but it’s definitely noticeable at times, some of the articles or headlines or whatever.

That goes back to a lot of things. Like if you’re not media-friendly, you’re the enemy. If you don’t talk to the media, you’re a troubled guy, you don’t want to be bothered…you’re subject to ridicule or any type of unnecessary things. Ted Williams wasn’t [media-friendly]. Barry Bonds was not. Albert Belle wasn’t. Eddie Murray. You know, that really has nothing to do with the team.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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