Rick Burleson

Yesterday, after doing some research for this next interview in the “Where Are They Now” series, we mentioned the numerous players that have played for both the Angels and the Red Sox.  The complete list of those players can be found here.

One of the more interesting players on that list is former shortstop Rick Burleson.  Burleson played for the Red Sox during their raucous battles with the Yankees in the 1970’s and with the Angels during the heartbreaking, but star-studded, decade of the 1980’s.  Some Angel fans might forget that Burleson was also a coach with the inglorious 1995 Halos.

We were honored to talk with Rick on Wednesday and learn more about his life and playing career.

Rick, we really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.  Let’s start by telling our readers what you’re up to these days.

I’m working for the Diamondbacks, under Jack Howell, in player development.   I’ll be the “hitting coach” at AAA Reno and I’ve been a hitting coach for them the last two years.

Before that I spent eleven years managing in the minor leagues.  I managed in the Cincinnati organization for 7 years, in the Dodgers organization for two, and in the Mariners’ organization for two.  I also spent five years as a big league coach with the A’s, Red Sox, and Angels.

Having managed minor league teams in the past, do you aspire to be a Major League manager some day?

Sure, everyone would want to do that.  But the reality is that there are only 30 of those positions available in the entire world.  And there’s more to it than just wins and losses, too.  You need someone to really sponsor you.  You need a position to open and you really need a person behind you.  I’ve been in this game for a long time – this is my 39th spring training – this is what I’ve done since I was 19 years old.  Of course I’d love to manage.  But I’m a realist.  I love working with these young guys.  Hopefully, I’m showing them something and leaving my thumbprint, my fingerprint, on this next generation of players.  That’s what you hope for.

Of course, you always kind of hope for that call but I don’t lose sleep over it or anything.  I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing.  This is what I know, it’s what I do.

In the current economy, I’m just fortunate to be doing what I enjoy. 

You’re a family guy with four grown children.  We’re not implying that you’re old, of course, but do you have any grandchildren?

Yeah, I do.  My wife, Karen, and I have four children.  We have two grandsons, 15 months and 3 months, from my son, Chad, who’s 28…he works in sales for Makita Tools.  My oldest son Tyler, who’s 31, works for Enterprise Rental Car.  He and his wife are about to have a child, too, so we have another grandchild on the way.  My youngest son, Kyle, works out in Rancho Cucamonga, in sales for the Quakes [the Angels’ A-ball minor league affiliate] and my daughter, Lauren, is 22 and in college.

You’re a Southern California guy, born in Lynwood, went to high school in Downey, played junior college ball at Cerritos College.  Were you a Dodger guy or an Angel guy growing up?

Well, I think I was about 10 years old by the time the Angels showed up, so I was already a big Dodger fan.  I had been a Dodger fan since I was a 7 or 8.  I was a big National League fan until I was drafted by the Twins and then again later by the Red Sox.  That kind of made me an American League guy.

Who did you emulate as a ballplayer?

As far as players, I was a fan of Maury Wills, definitely.  And Luis Aparicio, too, which was strange because when I first arrived in Boston, Luis was on that team.

Are you still connected to Southern California?

Yes, definitely.  Karen and I live in La Habra.  We met when I was 19 years old.  She went to Whittier College.  Even before the trade to the Angels, I had built a home, in November of 1979, in La Habra heights, so even while I was in Boston, I had a home in Southern California.  We lived in that home in La Habra Heights, which is L.A. County, for about twenty years.  About ten years ago, we moved into a home in La Habra, which is Orange County, and we still live there.

My son Chad also pitched at Caly Poly Pomona, so we got to follow him while he did that, which was neat.

So, yeah, we are still very connected to Orange County and Southern California.

Who gave you the nickname “Rooster?”

Don Zimmer.  He was the third base coach for the Red Sox when I came up in ’74.  He used to hit me ground balls day in and day out, all through spring training and during pre-game.  One day he says, “look at him out there, with his hat off and his hair standing up, he looks like a rooster walking around.”  And that’s the kind of player I was, too, a fighter.  It stuck.  People still call me “Rooster.”  I never minded it.

At 23 years old, you were the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox at a time when the team was also breaking in Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, and Cecil Cooper.  Was it evident early on just how good that group of players would become?

Yeah it was, because we had all of that early success.  I mean we were in the World Series in 1975 with all of these young guys.  We earned it, too.  We knocked off the A’s in the playoffs and they were a dominant team.  We deserved to be there, facing that great Cincy club, all those players, Rose, Morgan, Perez, Concepcion, Johnny Bench, George Foster, that was a historic team.  But we matched up well with them, took them to the ninth inning of the seventh game.  It could have gone either way.

Many people call that the greatest World Series of all time. After five innings of game 7, you’re up 3-0.  Did you think at that time that the Series was yours or did the first six games of the Series keep you from being too comfortable?

When we won game six in 12 innings, on that dramatic home run by Fisk, I thought, “hey, here we go, let’s finish this thing out.”  I did think we were going to win.  But they played well, they came back in that seventh game, even after falling behind early, and they got it done.  Joe Morgan bloops that single to center to put them up and, like I said, they did what it took to win.  They were a good club and they played well.

That turned out to be our only chance at the series, which was too bad.

The game began to change with free agency and…

Even more than that, it was timing.  We were a great team in the late ’70’s but there were two other teams in the American League East that had something to say about who should win the division, the Yankees and Baltimore, two great clubs.

Had there been three divisions and a wild-card back then, who knows.  The wild-card has added a lot to baseball.

So, are you a fan of the wild-card format?

I am.  Baseball and the NFL have the two best playoff formats in professional sports.  Basketball and hockey, where about half the teams make it to the postseason, I mean, come on!  Why even play the regular season?  The regular season should mean something. It should matter.

You sound like a guy who would be in favor of the ALDS expanding to 7 games.

I don’t see that happening.  You want to complete the World Series before November 1.  A seven game format would probably push you into November.  Maybe they’d have to cut the regular season back to 154 games, I don’t know. It would be nice, but it probably won’t happen.

After becoming a Boston icon of sorts, you’re traded to the Angels before the 1981 season.  The trade wasn’t popular in Boston.  How did you feel, at the time, about being traded?

I was being traded home.  The stadium was twenty minutes from my house so Anaheim was really the only place I would want to go if I was traded.  I wanted to stay in Boston for my whole career but I understood that they wanted to trade me before I was eligible for free agency.  They did the same thing with Fred Lynn.  They wanted to make sure they got something for us.  I was traded along with Butch Hobson for Carney Lansford, Rick Miller, and Mark Clear.  At least they got something for me.

Look at Fisk.  They tendered his contract too late, he never even saw it.  They ended up getting no compensation for Fisk.  He just left.  A modern GM might be hung if he allowed that to happen.

But the trade happened.  You can’t look back too harshly.  Of course you wonder about things.  Would I have gotten hurt had I never left Boston?  You just don’t know.

The trade never really troubled me at the time as much as it did later.  Signing a six-year deal with the Angels, and then getting hurt, that saddened me.  Those were my prime years.  I had big hopes.  But some things are out of your control.

That first year in Anaheim might have been the best offensive season of your career.  You and Grich had something special going in that strike-shortened year.  Ever wonder what you two would have done that year if given a full season?

Oh, sure.  We missed fifty games that year.  Grich and I were co-MVPs for the team that year, we were really playing well.  We were home but we were still working out, keeping in shape.  We didn’t really know when we would be going back, so you had to stay ready.  We lost money, too, obviously.

You know, whenever we had those types of situations it was for the betterment of the next generation of players.  You can only hope that the modern players appreciate the things we did back then.  I don’t really know.

Every once in a while you’ll hear a player make reference to Curt Flood, but mostly it doesn’t seem like they’re thinking about the past in that way.

Maybe not.

Having been part of that intense Red Sox/Yankees rivalry in the late ’70’s, how strange was it to suddenly find yourself teammates with Reggie Jackson in 1982?

It was different.  It was an adjustment.  Those were heated battles with the Yankees.  That rivalry, and especially in those years, was maybe as intense as any in the history of sports.  When you’re playing against those guys, you don’t like them but over the years you start to respect them.  I didn’t like the Yankees, I wanted to beat their butts.  But, you know, I respected those guys too.

And then when you find yourself teammates with a guy like Reggie, and you get to know him, know what he’s about, you appreciate him.  Reggie had great qualities.  People made him out to be arrogant but he was actually down to earth as a teammate and very conscious of his position.

The fans and media didn’t always know what Reggie was doing behind the scenes, like visiting sick kids without drawing attention to it, but he was a great guy.  I developed an admiration for Reggie.

You had been so durable throughout your career.  Then, in ’82, you injure the rotator cuff.  Was there one play or movement that you remember thinking, “uh-oh,” or was it more gradual than that?

It was more gradual.  Coming out of spring training I had a sore shoulder.  It wasn’t comfortable.  I was getting cortisone injections and treatment for it.  The shoulder responded and I was finally starting to feel better.  We played a 17 or 18 inning game against Seattle and I took another cortisone shot.  A couple days after that, before a Saturday night game against the Twins, I was really feeling strong.  I remember telling someone before the game, “this is the best it’s felt” and I was really throwing well.  In that game, though, I went into the hole, made a play, threw the ball across the infield and something happened.  It felt like someone had stuck an ice-pick into my shoulder and then pulled it out.  It felt like a rush of air came out of my shoulder.  I just knew something was wrong.  As the ball’s coming around the infield, I could just tell I had done something.

So you threw the guy out?

Yeah.  But as that ball came back around, I was nervous.  Later in the game, I came across the bag to turn a double play.  When I released the ball, there was just this intense burning sensation and I knew right then that something was seriously wrong.  I walked off the field and I just knew it was bad.

I was examined by Dr. [Lewis] Yokum.  He ordered an MRI and it revealed a tear.  We opted for surgery, which in those days was not arthroscopic, it was serious. I was out for 14 months.

And, really, I would have been much better waiting longer to come back.  I had never missed much time before so I pushed it and pushed it to get back.  If I would have taken the safe side, I would have waited to return until spring of ’84 and it would have been that much better.  But I didn’t.

In mid ’83, I injured it again and missed the rest of the season.

Were you faced with another surgery in ’83, then?

No, we decided to let the scar tissue heal and rehab it.  We battled it through ’84 too.  Then we were shooting for a return in spring of ’85.  But on New Year’s Eve, I dislocated the shoulder badly while working out and ended up missing all of the ’85 season.

So when you first injured the shoulder in 1982, were you gone from the team completely while you rehabbed?  Did you travel at all with the team that year?

Not at all.  I was away from the team for the entire 1982 season, driving into L.A. every day for therapy.

Did you watch the ’82 playoffs on TV?

I did.  I was down in Palm Springs and I watched all of those games on television.

Do you still battle that shoulder?

I did for years.  It was getting bad.  Late in ’95, my wife and I were at the beach, an October day in Orange County, and I went out bodysurfing.  I dislocated the shoulder badly while I was in the water and could barely get back in.  I’m out in the water, basically with one arm.  I finally made it back to the beach.  I crawled up on the shore and told my wife, “It’s time to fix this.”  That’s when I decided to do the re-construction.  They tightened the shoulder up and it allowed me to play catch, throw some BP, that type of thing.  And that was important during the years that I was managing in the minors because you don’t have a big staff.  You have to be able to do some of that yourself.

A few years after that, it started bothering me again.  The doctors finally told me that if I wanted to be able to golf or pick my grandchildren up, it was time to stop throwing the baseball.

These days, of course, rotator cuff injuries are treated relatively quickly.  Back then, however, they were often a career-ending injury.  How good did it feel, then, to win “Comeback Player of the Year” in 1986 and contribute to that team after spending the better parts of four seasons battling that shoulder?

Rewarding.  It was very rewarding.  I didn’t get hurt in ’86 and I contributed to the team.  I was a bit more of a utility player that year, which was tough.  I didn’t play as much as I would have wanted.  I felt that I was healthy enough to play more but Gene Mauch was in control of that side of things.  By then, Dick Schofield had come on strong and he was the shortstop.  He was playing well.  He was hurt a little early that year and I filled in for him.  But when he came back, they went to him.

We had Schofield, Wilfong, Grich, and me.  I rotated around.  I played some shortstop, some second, some third, but mostly I DH’d.

That 1986 season can still be painful for Angel fans.  You had a very unique perspective on that series, playing against your former team and ex-teammates and friends.  We asked Jack Howell this same question a few days ago: What’s your lasting impression from game 5?

There were police around the field on horseback.  They were preparing to keep the fans off the field and I just remember the police lined up on horseback.  I had been removed from that game for a pinch-hitter.  At some point there, I went back to the clubhouse to change my shoes and hat.  When I got in there, there was a podium set up on a little stage, and there was plastic covering things.  There was buckets of champagne already lined up.

As I’m walking back to the dugout, I remember thinking, “wait, this game’s not over.”  And then, of course, Henderson’s home run off Donnie Moore changes everything.

We still had the attitude to win, though.  We fought back to tie that game and then we even had a bases loaded situation where Doug DeCinces came to the plate with one out and a chance to win the game.  He was the guy we wanted up in that situation.  You just knew he was going to get that run home.  But it didn’t happen.  Some things are meant to be and some things aren’t.  We had the right guy up in the right situation but that’s just baseball.  That game was just snatched away from us.

The old Yogism, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over” is especially true in the playoffs.  And we took that attitude back to Boston with us.  Unfortunately, they took it to us.  Like I said, it just wasn’t meant to be for us.

And it wasn’t meant to be for them either.  I mean, look at what happened to them that very same year.  They’re on the verge of winning the World Series in game 6 and then the ball goes through Buckner’s legs and that series is turned upside down.  You can call it fate, or whatever, but things happen for a reason.

In fact, when they finally did win in 2004, look at the situations they overcame in the playoffs, down 3-1 to Cleveland, down 3-0 to the Yankees.  You never know what can happen.

Rob Wilfong, who had replaced you in that game 5, came up with a huge hit to score Ruppert Jones with the tying run in the bottom half of the ninth.  Was there any tension in the dugout, though, when Wilfong didn’t advance to second on Evans’ throw to the plate?

I don’t remember.  That’s the first time anyone’s ever brought that up to me.  I don’t remember that exact situation.  But I do know that Rob’s hit was huge.  To come back and tie that game like that was amazing.  I thought we were going to pull it out.

The Angels’ struggles against the BoSox in the playoffs certainly have their origins in that ’86 ALCS.  We’re assuming you still follow both teams; what’s your take on the current rivalry?

I don’t read too much into it.  The Angels have been good under Scioscia, the class of the AL West. But, for whatever reason, they struggle against the Red Sox and keep meeting them in the first round.  They’ve had some playoff success against the Yankees but they still need to break through against the Sox.  One of these years it’s going to happen, though.

Having played for both teams, it’s great to see them meet every year.

Who are you still close with from those Angels’ teams of the ’80’s?

I see or talk to Wilfong every few months.  I run into other guys at functions.  I saw Pettis the other day when the D-Backs and Rangers played each other.  There’s no single person, really, I just run into guys around the game.

In addition to being a player during the ’86 debacle, you were a coach with the ’95 team.  Was that the complete choke that people commonly think it to be, or was that simply a lack of quality pitching down the stretch?  What happened there?

As I remember it, we needed some pitching, so we acquired Jim Abbott right before the deadline.  I don’t think that worked out quite as well as we were hoping, which is a shame because, wow, what a great guy.

But it was a lot of little things.  People remember it because we had the big lead but what people don’t realize is how well you have to be playing to have that kind of lead.  That was a good team.  We lost the lead but we also swept Oakland in the last series of the season to get into the one game playoff in Seattle.

That was our next question…you had to be thinking about the ’78 playoff at that point.

Sure, it was very similar.  Both teams lost a big lead and then fought back to force a one-game playoff.  Of course, you fight all the way back like that and who’s waiting for you in the playoff?  A pitcher by the name of Randy Johnson.

In ’78, it was Guidry.

Exactly, we had to face Guidry in that playoff game.  Same type of thing.

How big was the DiSarcina injury to that ’95 team?

Anytime you lose a starting shortstop who’s a team leader, you’re going to feel it, especially in a pennant race.  That was very similar to what happened to me in ’78 as well.  I went down with torn ankle ligaments that year and missed 17 games.  When I got injured, we were up by 10 games, when I came back we’re up by only one.  Those types of injuries are big.

Ever wonder why J.T. Snow didn’t dive for that ball down the line, or is that too much second guessing?

That was a tough ball.  It was a seeing-eye squibber on the turf.  I don’t think he ever had a chance at it.  I remember watching that ball go down the line and thinking to myself, “is that really the hit that’s going to beat us?”  That game was scoreless to that point.   It was a great game.  That changed everything. 

Okay, Rick, last question is always the toughest:  Of all of the second basemen you played alongside, which one should have his number retired and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame?

Grich.

I played with a lot of good second basemen in my career.  I never had long stretches with one guy.  It was Remy for a couple of years, Denny Doyle, Doug Griffin, Tommy Helms, quite a few guys.  But Bobby Grich was the best.

That was one of things that was toughest about my injury.  I was really looking forward to seeing what the two of us could have been together up the middle. 

Anything that we’ve left out that you’d like to say to the Angels or their fans?

You know, I’ve been a season ticket holder since ’81.  I don’t make as many games as I’d like to because of my schedule but I enjoy going to the games.

I was never a big Disney guy.  I didn’t like those years when Disney brought out those uniforms and the cheerleaders and all that glitz.

But since Arte took over the team, he’s just done such a great job.  He’s made the stadium a beautiful facility and he’s perfected the advertising – I mean that is his business expertise I guess – and the games are like a spectacle.  It’s great.  I love what Arte’s done. It’s become a great organization.

Well, thanks Rick.  It was great talking to you and reminiscing.  These interviews are just one more reminder of how important the Angel alumni are to the team and its fans.

Thanks.  Good talking to you too.

[Thanks to Tile Bend Oregon for their help with this.] 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Rick Burleson

  1. Pingback: Rooster Crows - Youth Baseball Parks Blog - Locate Amateur Baseball Parks Near You

  2. Pingback: Rick Burleson Interview | MLB This Week

  3. john Christiansen

    My wife (working as a waitress) got his and Reggie’s autographs in 1983 in Seattle. Reggie never wanted to give his autograph, but Rick, being the great guy he is, talked Jackson into giving it up. Gotta find which box there in…

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