Cooperstown Confidential: Michael Pineda is not Britt Burns

In a couple of Internet locations, I’ve read the notion that Michael Pineda could be the next Britt Burns for the New York Yankees. I’m not sure whether these remarks were written in jest, or were simply intended as hyperbole; it’s not always clear what someone’s tone is based on the written word.

But let me be the first to say that there is very little similarity between Pineda, currently on New York’s disabled list, and Burns, who was forced to retire in the mid-1980s because of a terrible hip condition.

Britt Burns was a terrific young left-hander who emerged as the ace of the White Sox in the early 1980s. After the 1985 season, the Yankees sent right-hander Joe Cowley and catcher Ron Hassey to Chicago for Burns and two prized minor leaguer prospects who never panned out, outfielder Glenn Braxton and infielder Mike Soper.

The Yankees expected Burns, who had won 18 games while striking out a career-high 172 batters in 227 innings, to take his place as the No. 1 starter in their reconfigured rotation. They envisioned Burns, with an 88 mph fastball that was sneaky and deceptive, anchoring a 1986 staff that featured promising young pitchers Doug Drabek and Dennis Rasmussen and reliable veterans like Ron Guidry and the Niekro brothers. At least that was the plan. In an inexplicable decision, the Yankees released Phil Niekro just before the start of the season.

But the bigger story was Burns. When Burns started pitching in spring training, he complained of pain in his hip. Shortly thereafter, the Yankees realized that Burns would never pitch for them—or anyone else for that matter.

As it turned out, Burns had a chronic, degenerative hip condition, highly unusual for a man in his mid-20s. He had actually missed his last two starts of 1985 because of pain in his hip. Before finalizing the trade with the White Sox, the Yankees had their doctors examine the hip. They advised Yankee management not to make the deal, but George Steinbrenner, who was in the midst of his power years, ignored their suggestion. It was clearly a case where Steinbrenner should have listened to his “baseball people.”

In the spring of 1986, Burns made two appearances for the Yankees in Grapefruit League play. He was hit hard in both games. In the second game, a March 17 match-up with the Blue Jays, Burns pitched through excruciating pain, lasting only three innings . His velocity fell off significantly. Just as alarmingly, he couldn’t cover first base on a relay and struggled in pivoting to make a throw to second base. Burns felt such intense pain in his right hip that he couldn’t concentrate on pitching. After the game, he fought off tears as he told reporters about the feeling in his hips and legs. “I’m in pain and I don’t know what to do,” a teary-eyed Burns told the New York Daily News.

Shortly thereafter, doctors told Burns that he would need a hip replacement. On May 27, Burns underwent a four and a half hour operation called an osteotomy. The operation left him with a scar measuring 10 and a half inches. As part of the surgery, doctors corrected a hip deformity and placed a plate in his leg to keep his leg and hips in alignment.

At the time, no one in major league history had ever pitched (or played) with an artificial hip. (Bo Jackson would pull off that trick in the 1990s.) Burns vowed to come back, but he would eventually be forced to retire, even though he was seemingly in the prime of a wonderful career.

Pineda’s situation is vastly different. First of all, he’s even younger than Burns was, only 23, and with much less mileage on his arm and body. Burns had piled up 170 or more innings three times in his major league career, while Pineda has reached 170 innings only once (last year).

Unlike Burns, Pineda was able to throw, and throw without pain, in several spring training starts. It was not until his last start that he felt discomfort in his shoulder, with the pain forcing him to ask out in the early innings. In response, the Yankees ordered an MRI (a magnetic resonance imaging test), which showed inflammation in the shoulder. Inflammation in the shoulder is never a good thing, but it is hardly career-threatening. In fact, I would guess that nearly every major league pitcher in history, at least the ones with any semblance of a career, has had shoulder inflammation at one point or another.

Most significantly, Pineda’s MRI revealed no structural damage, either to ligaments or cartilage in the shoulder. Doctors did not prescribe surgery, but merely rest as a way of dealing with the soreness. It is expected that Pineda will be able to resume throwing later in the month, with a return to the mound possible in May. It would be shocking if Pineda failed to pitch in another major league game.

Sadly, Burns had to face that reality during the spring of 1986. Although Burns and the Yankees shared the pain of the degenerative hip, it was the White Sox who were considered the losers at the time the trade was announced. White Sox fans were furious over the deal; they regarded Burns as a homegrown favorite, one who had made his major league debut for the Sox in 1978 at the age of 19.

More importantly, according to the consensus of major league executives and scouts, the Yankees had pulled off a steal in acquiring Burns for Cowley and Babe Hassey. Cowley had pitched well for the Yankees in 1985, but he was regarded as no more than a No. 3 starter, and certainly two cuts below a legitimate ace like Burns. Hassey was a good platoon catcher, a left-handed hitter with power, who was coming off a season in which he had hit 13 home runs in 267 at-bats. But he was not an everyday player, and his catching skills were below average. (In an odd twist, the Yankees re-acquired Hassey in February of 1986, before he could even suit up for the Sox. And then later in ‘86, the Yankees traded Hassey to the White Sox yet again!)

In acquiring Burns for two veterans who had reached their ceilings, the Yankees appeared to have positioned themselves as one of the co-favorites in the American League East.

Growing up as a Yankee fan, I remember reading the news regarding Burns’ hip injury. At the time, I was studying in England while finishing up my junior year in college. There was no Internet in 1986, so I had to rely on my family to send me baseball-related clippings from the New York newspapers. I anxiously awaited those clippings, which came via traditional mail about once a week, usually arriving several days after the fact.

One day, I opened up the latest weekly package and began reading the first article, which stunned me. The article declared in no uncertain terms that Burns would have to undergo hip surgery and would miss the entire season. According to another article, his career was very possibly at an end, as well. I was crushed.

I felt bad, but you can imagine how Burns must have felt. First of all, left-handers dreamed of pitching at the old Yankee Stadium, with its longish dimensions to left and left-center field. Burns would not have that chance. Far more devastating, he was being told that he would not be able to pitch any more, even though at 26, he had just begun to tap into his vast pitching talents.

To his credit, Burns did not give up completely. He initially retired, spent five years away from the game, and then decided to give it another try. He approached the Yankees about a minor league contract. The Yankees said yes, gave him a look in five games, and watched him take a beating at the hands of minor league hitters. So they released him. The following year, Burns dialed up the Red Sox, who were also willing to give him a minor league deal. But Burns soon realized he just couldn’t pitch on an artificial hip.

How good could Burns have been? He wasn’t quite on a Hall of Fame pace, not with a career ERA of 3.66, but he was a legitimate No. 1 starter who was denied his prime seasons of age 27, 28, and 29. He could have easily been a John Candelaria/Mike Cuellar type pitcher, winning 170 to 190 games, and taking his place in the mythical “Hall of Very Good.”

I have no idea whether Michael Pineda will emerge as that kind of pitcher. But I have a very hard time believing that he will end up as the next Britt Burns.

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Comments

  1. John C said...

    The deal for Burns was one of many deals the Yankees did in the 1980s that kept them from the top of the AL East standings. It seemed like every year, they’d make a boneheaded deal that would cost them just enough games to not win the division. Finally, they made so many of them that when Don Mattingly got hurt, they fell apart.

    There were questions about Burns at the time the deal was made. It was common knowledge that his hip was hanging on by a thread. For another thing, he’d been hurt and ineffective (4-12, 5.00) in 1984 before bouncing back in ‘85.

    Cowley in ‘86 went 11-11 with a ERA+ of 112 for a ChiSox team that went 72-90. I don’t think that he could have made up the 5 1/2 games between the Yankees and first place, but he would have made things interesting.

  2. Chris Waters said...

    Although I was really ashamed of it shortly afterwards, I really rooted for Burns’ injury to be bad. As an A’s fan, he was such a jerk. He would dust people off for the heck of it, except for the good teams. Then I saw him pitch in pain during spring training, not bitching at all, and then I got to meet him later when he was trying one of his comebacks, and it turns out he is really a good guy. He deserved better.

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    As an aside, Cowley also pitched a no-hitter that year although he did walk 7 batters and allow one run.

  4. Frank Jackson said...

    FYI: Burns is now the pitching coach for the Sugar Land Express, the new Atlantic League franchise starting play later this month.

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