In 1979 the Chicago White Sox were being called the team for the future, mainly because they had six young and impressive starting pitchers—Ken Kravec, 28, Francisco Barrios, 26, Rick Wortham, 25, Ross Baumgarten, 24, Dick Dotson, 20, and Steve Trout, 22. In 1980 two promising farmhands, LaMarr Hoyt and Britt Burns, joined the crew. So why didn't the White Sox win something—even a half-division pennant—in 1981? Well, Kravec's record slipped from 15-13 to 3-6 and he was shipped cross-town to the Cubs in '81. Barrios pitched infrequently and erratically for two years, was released last September and died of an apparent heart attack last April. Wortham went from 14-14 in 1979, to 4-7 in 1980, to Montreal and the minors in '81. Baumgarten slid from 13-8 to 2-12 to 5-9, and is 0-2 with Pittsburgh this season. As for Trout and Dotson, they're 5-6 and 3-11 respectively for the Sox this year. Hoyt? He won his first nine decisions this season, but since then has lost 9 of 13.
That leaves Burns, a 23-year-old lefthander, and if Chicago has a future. Burns seems to be it. In 1980 he was his league's Rookie Pitcher of the Year, walking only 2.38 batters per nine innings while winning 15 and losing 13 for a hitting-poor team that finished 20 games under .500. Last season he was 10-6, with a 2.64 ERA despite the seven-week strike and another four weeks during which he commuted to his starts from Birmingham, where he attended his dying father. At week's end, Burns was 11-4 with a 3.55 ERA for a team struggling to stay at .500.
He's called Hoss because of his size (6'5", 218 pounds) and easygoing manner, but there's nothing relaxed about his pitching. On the mound he pushes his stomach forward like a man itching to fight, and his style reminds people of another dominating lefty, Steve Carlton. Like Carlton, Burns has a rising fastball and a slider that breaks down and in on righthanded batters. Both pitchers concentrate so fiercely on throwing to the catcher that the hitter becomes almost incidental. "I know who's up," says Burns, "but that's in the back of my mind. In the front is what I have to do."
As for their dissimilarities, Carlton, 37, has better command of his curve and changeup; Burns may throw harder. Also, Carlton is one of baseball's fastest workers, while Burns labors like a monk over a manuscript.
August 8, 1982
"Burns is the best young lefthander I've ever seen," says broadcaster Ken Harrelson, who has been in and around the majors nearly 20 years. "The young Sam McDowell and Frank Tanana had better stuff, but they got by on raw talent. Burns knows how to pitch. He's not the typical 'flaky lefthander.' "
"What separates Burns from the others is his control," says Tony LaRussa, the White Sox manager who has fallen out of favor with the team's ownership in light of Chicago's 7-12 record since the All-Star break. "He throws strikes—good strikes—up and down, in and out." In fact, in 542 major league innings. Burns has walked only 173 batters. Sox Assistant G.M. Ron Schueler, who was canned as the club's pitching coach last month, points to Burns's confidence. "He even had it when he came up from A-ball late in the 1978 season and got himself knocked around a couple of times by the Tigers," says Schueler. "Some kids would have gone into a shell and never come out again. Burns found out that he could get by for a while on his fastball, but that hitters would eventually get to him by waiting for his lollipop curve. So he went down and worked on developing a breaking ball."
Burns had come up with a good slider by 1980, but when it fails now, he has a decent curve and changeup in reserve. And plenty of common sense. "I'd rather throw strikes and let them hit the ball to my fielders than try to strike everybody out," he says. "I know what I can do."
In part, this knowledge was instilled by his late father, Charlie, an insurance salesman and baseball nut who died last year at age 54. "He'd say, 'It doesn't matter how good you are, there's always someone better,' " Burns recalls. "He taught me never to be satisfied. I'd play in a Little League game, strike everybody out, go 3 for 4, and I wouldn't be happy until we sat down to dinner. I'd say, 'How'd I do?' He'd say, 'Fine.' That made my whole day worthwhile."
Always big for his age, Burns grew so fast that when he was 13 he needed to have pins inserted in his hip area to stabilize the growth centers at the upper ends of his thigh bones. He missed an entire year of school while recuperating from the surgery. He still lurches from side to side as he walks, as if he were on stilts. Britt spent his year off contentedly drawing pictures of the family horse and writing poetry. He says the enforced layoff taught him the importance of conditioning. "I had been a slow, fat kid. Now I'd have to work extra hard to catch up." And he did.
By the end of his sophomore year at suburban Fultondale High School, he was nearly unbeatable in Division 3A, the second-highest level in Alabama. The next year, Charlie Burns moved the family into the 4A Huffman High district. At Huffman, Burns had a 20-1 record. He had 292 strikeouts and allowed only 30 walks, 30 hits and one earned run for an infinitesimal 0.05 ERA in 139 innings. One night during his senior year, some two dozen scouts showed up to watch him, so the school went ahead with a game that should have been rained out. Burns threw an 18-strikeout no-hitter. He figured he had given the scouts his best shot. If they weren't impressed, well, he could always accept the scholarship he had been offered by Auburn. The scouts were impressed. Even so, the White Sox might not have signed him if Robert Cromie, the former book editor of the Chicago Tribune, hadn't been passing through Birmingham. Cromie sent a newspaper clip of the game, which the White Sox hadn't scouted, to club President Bill Veeck. Ken Silvestri, a scout in those days and now Schueler's successor as pitching coach, was dispatched to Birmingham, and Chicago drafted Burns in the third round.
Two years later, Burns was in the majors to stay, to the special delight of his biggest fan, his dad. But on July 16, 1981 Charlie Burns was struck by a car while picking up the mail outside the family's summer home. He fell into a coma for several days and suffered brain damage. He died on Sept. 9. When the strike-interrupted baseball season resumed on Aug. 10, Britt spent one day in five pitching for the White Sox and the rest of the time with his father. His pitching actually flourished during the ordeal.
"Britt's career had always been uppermost in our minds," says his mother, Nancy, a retired secretary. "We'd given it a preeminence it didn't necessarily deserve. As a result of the accident, we put Britt's pitching in proper perspective. He felt less pressure. On the other hand, Britt says he pitched more intently. After all, he was pitching for his father."
"His eyes were usually open," says Britt. "We had no way of knowing whether he could hear us, but there was no way I was going to go down there to tell him, 'Well, I lost one for you, Dad.' It wasn't all that hard to pitch. The pitching helped me take my mind off the accident. I found strength and determination I never knew I had." At one point Burns threw 30 consecutive scoreless innings.
"It was one of the most courageous performances I've ever seen by an athlete," says LaRussa. The White Sox owners thought so, too: After the season Burns signed a three-year contract calling for $350,000 in 1982, $550,000 in 1983 and $750,000 in 1984. If money can guarantee a rosy future, the Sox appear to have made at least one very good investment.