One of the requirements for being a relief pitcher is that you must have a label: long man, middle man or short man. Short men come in two types, as in a short man and the short man. A short man, for example, is subject to percentages, the book. If he's righthanded and a lefty batter comes to the plate, chances are he'll be replaced by a lefty. Ditto for a southpaw short man in the reverse situation. But not the short man, for his talents are such that the manager believes he can retire any batter, regardless of which side of the plate he swings from. Thus a short man may get the first two outs in the bottom of the ninth, then give up the ball. The short man is the pitcher a short man gives the ball to.
In Boston this year, the ball is being given to Tom Burgmeier, who during a troubled Red Sox season has not only been the short man, but also the pitcher. Burgmeier has been the sole redemption of a staff that allows a whopping 5.01 runs per game. In 37 appearances through last Saturday he had a 4-1 record, with an earned run average of 2.22. Although he had just returned to action after a bout with tendinitis in his left shoulder that sidelined him for three weeks, he had 16 saves, third-most in the American League.
During his absence the Red Sox fell from a contending second to a disappointing fifth. Little wonder, then, that Manager Don Zimmer says, "There's no question that he has carried the pitching staff this season. I don't even want to think about our team this year without him." And sure enough, when Burgmeier resumed relieving last Friday night against Minnesota, he picked up another save.
In his 12-season career with California, Kansas City, Minnesota and Boston, Burgmeier has played all the relief-pitcher roles. No one, least of all Burgmeier, had any reason to suspect that he would be anything more than just another bullpen arm this season. In the previous two years he had made only 79 appearances and accumulated just four saves.
Boston hoped the short men this season would be free agent Skip Lockwood and Bill Campbell, who had been battling shoulder problems. When both pitchers developed early-season ailments, it was up to Burgmeier and righthander Dick Drago to come through. And though Drago faltered, Burgmeier flourished, and the Red Sox had a new, albeit reluctant, hero.
"Things are the same with me, but people think I must be throwing harder, or that I came up with a new pitch, because they look at the stats and see I have 16 saves instead of two or three," Burgmeier says. "The only things that have changed are the situations. Now I come in in the ninth when the game is on the line and I have an opportunity to get a save, instead of pitching four innings in the middle of the game."
His finest relief appearance this season was a 4⅖-inning stint against the Yankees on June 25 in which he allowed only one hit and struck out eight—Reggie Jackson twice. With the tying run on third, he ended the game by striking out Willie Randolph. But lengthy outings are unusual for Burgmeier. In four appearances against Baltimore, covering only 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, he has three saves and has allowed only four hits and no runs.
As befits the man, Burgmeier doesn't get tricky on the mound. What you see is what you get. Fastball, changeup. The only hint of deception is in his third pitch, which is the subject of some debate. Burgmeier calls it a slider; others call it a curve. Doesn't matter. "If the catcher holds two fingers down for a curve or three for a slider, he's going to get the same pitch," says Burgmeier.
Those same pitches have been thrown in 582 appearances during Burgmeier's long career. But now he has outstanding control. "Every pitcher knows what the weaknesses of a hitter are, but that doesn't mean they can get the ball there," Zimmer says. "Burgmeier has been getting it there."
"It's a matter of degree," says Burgmeier. "You can have good control and throw 10 pitches to the same spot 10 times, but it's right down the middle of the plate. Great control is when those same 10 pitches are always on the inside or outside corners. I'm in a groove where I can hit those spots."
"He's been successful because the hitter isn't getting anything fat to hit," says Texas Ranger Outfielder Al Oliver. "His pitches are off the middle of the plate, borderline; too good to take, but too tough to get at and hit."
Such acclaim hasn't altered Burgmeier's realistic way of looking at the reliever's lot. Says he: "There are times when you make a lousy pitch. The batter creams the ball, but the first baseman makes a diving catch and steps on first—double play, ballgame and save. The glory's there, but only for 24 hours because then you're back at the park and in another game. This time you make a great pitch, but the batter hits a little dinker over first and you lose. When you go back into the dugout, no one's going to say, 'Wow, that was a great pitch,' or 'You sure did a good job yesterday.' You lost, you didn't do your job."
Clearly, Burgmeier is doing his beautifully these days. And maybe that shouldn't seem so surprising, for he has had two other outstanding seasons: with the Royals in 1971 (nine wins, 17 saves and a 1.74 ERA) and with the Twins in 1976 (eight wins, one save and a 2.50 ERA). But even at his best Burgmeier tended to be overshadowed, as he was by Campbell when they were Minnesota teammates. Adding it all up, you get a 58-40 record and 76 saves. His three starting assignments in the last few seasons have been in emergency situations. The last time he was part of a starting rotation in the major leagues was in 1962, when he was signed by the Houston Colt 45's. He was released shortly thereafter, an expendable starter with mediocre stats in a fledgling organization.
A month later he was signed by California, which discovered his resilient arm and made him a reliever in the minors. That resiliency was Burgmeier's ticket back to the majors. The Royals chose him in their 1968 expansion draft, and he's been a fireman ever since. The difference this year is that he's the only one extinguishing any fires.