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TROY, N.Y. — When the White Sox fell to 16-24 with a 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, many people pointed out — most with tongue planted firmly in cheek — that they were merely following the gameplan of the 1983 White Sox, who recovered from the early struggles by “Winning Ugly,” winning 99 games and winning the AL West.
The 2010 White Sox may have fallen further, but they’re still on pace. The “Winning Ugly” team crossed .500 for the final time at 34-34, which the White Sox did by beating John Lannan and the Washington Nationals two Sundays ago.
On Saturday, I had an opportunity to talk to a member of the ’83 Sox. Britt Burns, who serves as the Houston Astros’ minor-league pitching coordinator, was in town to work with the Tri-City ValleyCats’ pitching staff.
While Burns was the only member of the rotation with a below-.500 record (10-11), he turned in an incredible, notorious pitching performance in Game 4 of the ALCS. Burns tossed nine shutout innings before Baltimore’s Tito Landrum cracked him with a solo shot in the 10th.
Talking to Burns about how the 1983 team was able to dust itself off and finish the season with a 43-13 tear, he touched upon one key difference between his Sox and this year’s version. At the time of “Winning Ugly,” the Sox hadn’t won a pennant in 34 years. Expectations were muted as they gradually climbed toward respectability. The 1983 campaign was a culmination of that progress.
“We didn’t even really think about [the slow start],” Burns said. “We collectively, as a group, hadn’t been there before, so we didn’t really have a whole lot of expectation, other than we knew we had a chance to do something. We all looked around and said, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good team. If this, this and that come together…’
“Once we did start getting on a roll and start hitting on all cylinders, we saw how were matching up against the other teams in the division … obviously, we started feeling pretty good about it.”
This, this, that and everything else came together for that team, winning 99 games with perfect balance. They finished first in runs scored and third in ERA, and Burns said starting pitching drove the Sox towards their 46-15 finish to the regular season. He singled out Floyd Bannister and Richard Dotson, who posted a combined record of 27-3 with a 2.24 ERA in the second half. And then there was the Sox pitcher who actually did win the Cy Young, Lamarr Hoyt.
“I didn’t get on track until September,” Burns said.
Hip pain too much to bear
Inconsistency plagued the second half of Burns’ Sox career, alternating brilliant starts with compete flops. He finally put it together in 1985, leading the Sox with 18 wins, exceeding 200 innings for only the second time in his career, and finishing seventh in the AL Cy Young voting.
He wouldn’t have a chance at an encore. The hip that had troubled Burns since childhood turned arthritic.
“In my last start, I had that sick feeling in my stomach that I was probably done.”
That Burns’ hip could end his career was no secret. Shortly after the 1985 season, a story ran in the Chicago Tribune with the headline:
BURNS SAYS HIP THREAT TO CAREER
Yet the New York Yankees were still interested in his services. In maybe his one good move, then-GM Hawk Harrelson sent Burns to the Bronx, with the Sox receiving Ron Hassey and Joe Cowley in a five-player trade. The Yankees planned to use Burns as a No. 2 pitcher, but despite changing his delivery to alleviate stress on his hip, he couldn’t continue.
The Yankees were aware of the hip issue (how couldn’t they be?), but not the extent of it.
“They knew about some of it; I don’t know if there was a degenerative arthritis … I don’t know if they had a precedent to go on. They didn’t know, and I didn’t know if I would heal from it … if I had one year left in me or whatever.”
I asked if the Yankees put him through a physical or ran other tests.
“No, they didn’t at that time. I’d heard there was disclosure; what that amounted to back then, I have no idea.”
The power of Herm
For the last few decades, the Sox have played the injury game as well as anybody. They’ve shown a knack for knowing when to hold and fold players, and prevent and manage injuries with the ones they keep around.
Twenty-five years after Burns was traded, some teams still aren’t particularly diligent when it comes to trying before they buy. The Sox picked up J.J. Putz on the cheap after a down year depressed his value. He had bone chips in his elbow, but he says the Mets didn’t give him a physical.
Likewise, they picked up Freddy Garcia off the scrap heap and built up his shoulder strength after three other clubs ditched him.
Garcia wasn’t shown the same kind of attention when the Phillies took him off the White Sox’s hands for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. They ignored the declining velocity and watched it turn into a shoulder that required surgery. The same happened six years before when Toronto failed to give Mike Sirotka a physical before finalizing the David Wells trade.
Herm Schneider is at the center of it, and Burns spend plenty of time with him.
“Herm took very good care of me, as he did everybody,” Burns said.
“Back then, he was the guy who left no stone unturned to get the answers. I remember a specific incident with Rich Dotson, couldn’t seem to find the root of some shoulder stuff, and they ended up doing a procedure I don’t think anybody had heard of. Herm kept digging until he found an answer, and ‘Dot’ went on for a few years after that. He might have been done with another organization.”
Burns commended Schneider for managing the hip issue.
“I found out later that they could see the arthritic changes occurring,” Burns said. The only thing the Sox — or Yankees — didn’t know is how much pain it would cause Burns. His hip told him when to hang it up.
White Sox connections
Burns says he keeps an eye on what the Sox are doing throughout the season (he asked me what the deal was between Williams and Ozzie Guillen). He also gets the alumni newsletter and keeps in touch with a number of former teammates.
White Sox connections have served him well through his post-playing career.
“It’s funny that a lot of my employment has been with former Sox people,” Burns said. Dave Dombrowski, who served as assistant GM to Roland Hemond before Harrelson fired him in 1986, in particular, has sought out Burns’ services, hiring him to work with minor-league pitchers with both the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers.
Burns has also had casual discussions in the past with Jerry Reinsdorf about potentially working with the club, but nothing serious has materialized.
“In general terms, it would be nice if it all worked out, and that entails a lot of variables,” Burns said. “I think it would be interesting someday, and I would certainly welcome the opportunity.”
The kind of balance the 1983 team boasted has eluded the 2010 White Sox, as their return to American League play indicates that they’re still at least one bat short.
Joe Cowley (the writer, not the aforementioned pitcher) says Kenny Williams is trying to make it happen:
According to multiple sources, Williams has been acting on his list in the last week, specifically targeting the Washington Nationals’ Adam Dunn.
“Names have been talked about by both sides,” one source said. “[Williams] might want to act quickly, though.” […] But Williams is working against the Los Angeles Angels, who are starting to turn up their efforts to acquire Dunn. And most of the Sox’ highly regarded pitching prospects were dealt in previous trades to acquire Jake Peavy and Juan Pierre.
Minor league roundup:
- Charlotte 13, Buffalo 12
- Alejandro De Aza and Buck Coats each went 5-for-6. De Aza doubled twice and drove in four; Coats one and five.
- Brent Morel went 3-for-4 with two runs scored and a sac bunt.
- Tyler Flowers went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts.
- Jordan Danks singled twice, walked once and struck out once over five at-bats.
- Mississippi 5, Birmingham 3
- C.J. Retherford hit a solo shot, walked and struck out over four trips to the plate.
- Christian Marrero went 0-for-3 with a walk.
- Salem 12, Winston-Salem 1
- Brandon Short went 1-for-4 with a double.
- Jon Gilmore went 1-for-4 with an RBI and two strikeouts.
- Josh Phegley went 1-for-4 with a strikeout in his return to High-A.
- Kyle Bellamy threw two scoreless innings, with a hit, walk and a strikeout.
- Augusta 13, Kannapolis 9 (10 innings)
- Kyle Colligan went 3-for-5 with a solo homer in his return to the lineup.
- NIck Ciolli (2-for-5) and Brady SHoemaker (1-for-4, walk) each drove in three.
- Johnson City 6, Bristol 4
- Rangel Ravelo went 1-for-4 with a strikeout.
- Dan Black had two singles and two RBI in four ABs.
- Matthew Heidenreich allowed six runs on nine hits and a walk over 4 1/3 innings, with one walk and three strikeouts.
- Missoula 10, Great Falls 3
- Thomas Royse had a rougher time in his second outing: 3 1/3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K.
- Juan Silverio went 1-for-3 with an RBI.