Going Deep: Ellis Burks
Burks takes back seat to no one with Indians
Ellis Burks was flying to the Winter Meetings in December when some of his Indians colleagues walked back . . . back . . . back to visit. The well-traveled Tribe execs had oodles of miles to upgrade to first class, while Burks--veteran of 2,000 major league games and almost as many charter flights--had to wedge himself into the absolutely last coach seat, all but in the lavatory."Hey Ellis," his buddies jeered. "Special assistant doesn't seem too special now, does it?"The transition from field to front office continues for the universally respected Burks, who has eschewed easier coaching jobs to become a special assistant to Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and roll up more white-collar sleeves. I talked with him about making the transition to management, his injury-filled career and his future as a manager.ALAN SCHWARZ:
You've been on World Series teams, you've played in All-Star Games and played in down-to-the-wire pennant races. Can you handle the pressure of a Winter Meetings hotel suite?ELLIS BURKS:
(Laughs) My first Winter Meetings was in Dallas a year ago and I was a little overwhelmed. It was totally new. I did not know the strategies or how they operate with free agents and their agents and everything else. I felt a lot more comfortable in Orlando this year.
The front-office thing is definitely a learning process for me. I'm trying to see all aspects of the game. I know what needs to be done on the field, but as far as the office things, it was pretty vague to me. Once you go down to spring training as a special assistant, you have the duties of everything. You're on the field with your expertise with the players and all that, but also when that day is over, all the coaches and the general manager and all the special assistants get together and they make decisions on players. I had no idea how harsh they could be at times.SCHWARZ:
When I talked with Barry Larkin in 2005, while he was learning the front-office ropes with Jim Bowden and the Nationals, he was shocked at how much work working upstairs really is.BURKS:
Being a general manager is not exactly what it's hyped up to be. It's a lot of work. The first finger is being pointed at him on everything. And the workload is incredible.SCHWARZ:
What's a harder job? General manager of the Indians or center fielder of the Indians?BURKS:
Oh, by far the general manager. Center field was easy. Playing the game is just like it sounds--it's a game. You just go out there and have fun. There's no pressure. I don't believe in pressure. I played the game with enjoyment my whole career. I never snapped on somebody. If there's a disagreement with an official, an umpire, whatever, I might let him know what's on my mind and say it, and then I'm done with it. There's a smile on my face next time I'm up at the plate. I don't harbor grudges.SCHWARZ:
I noticed your career ended--with the Red Sox in late 2004--with exactly 2,000 games. Was that a coincidence? Or did you try to get 2,000 and then walk away?BURKS:
I was at 1,999, and the trainer told me that last week, "We've got to get you in one more game." My leg was still hurt, but I said that would be good--it would be nice to just have a nice round figure. So in Baltimore that last series of the year, I sucked it up and said let's get after it. Lo and behold, I'm facing the guy who's throwing 98 miles an hour, (Daniel) Cabrera--but I can hit a fastball in my sleep. He threw me a fastball first pitch, 97, and I turned on it and hit a double down the line. I had another at-bat, and lined to left-center field and the kid dove and caught the damn ball. That could've been my last hit of my career, last at-bat, it could've been a double. I was like, "Are you s---ing me?" That was a lot of fun though.SCHWARZ:
Whenever I think of you as a young player, I remember a quote from someone, I can't remember who. It went something like: "I don't know when Ellis Burks wins an MVP--1987? 1988? Not much later." Did you accomplish in your career what you wanted to?BURKS:
That was the manager of the Twins, Tom Kelly. I would say I accomplished what I wanted to do as far as a World Series ring. I signed that last year with Boston not even thinking that that was going to happen. Guys just started to believe in themselves and believing that this little myth of the Red Sox--it's over.
My career was really cut short with injuries. I missed over 800 games. And that's a lot of games, equivalent to 5 1⁄2 seasons. I've sat at home and thought about that. If I had 5 1⁄2 more seasons of injury-free ball, I could easily be a Hall of Famer, and that would be an unbelievable fulfillment to me. Small town out of Texas kid that didn't start playing baseball until he was 13 years old, that kind of stuff. But for the 2,000 games that I played, the times that I was out there, I think I did what I wanted to do. Those other games that I missed, you can't look back and say "What if, what if," but sometimes I do.SCHWARZ:
You took 2005 off with your family and then turned down some coaching jobs to join the Indians. It seems to me that coaching was too easy--you wanted the intellectual challenge of learning baseball's plumbing. Is that true?BURKS:
That's a fair statement. I definitely want to learn the inner half of baseball. I know how to coach, I know how to hit, I know how to play the outfield. I can coach it.SCHWARZ:
What didn't you know about working in a front office?BURKS:
That it's nothing personal when you don't re-sign a player. I couldn't understand that when I first got involved in baseball. Why are they talking about trading me? Why are they talking about releasing this guy? But it's a business--it's all about the bottom line. We gave you this much on the budget, we have to get the right personnel. We definitely would love to have gotten a righthanded bat to complement Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. And the market wasn't as plentiful as it has been in the past.SCHWARZ:
Did you consider Barry Bonds, if only as an intellectual exercise?BURKS:
It was one of the first things they asked me: "What about Barry? Would he be a fit here? Do you think he can still play?" You know he's going to bounce back from last year. The guy still has a lighting-fast bat. He turns on balls and you say, "How the hell did he hit that ball and keep it fair?"
I can easily see Barry playing on a regular basis for the first three months. After he comes close or surpasses the record, I think then he'll slow down as far as time played. He's going to get the record. Barring any injuries or people not pitching to him.SCHWARZ:
So 15 years from now, are you a manager or GM? Give me your gut.BURKS:
I really don't know. But in my gut, probably a manager because I'd like to be on the field by then, expressing different points of view with players and having the relationship with players. Being a player's manager like a Dusty Baker type.SCHWARZ:
So in the meantime, it's still life in the front office. And more plane rides in the last row?BURKS:
I didn't feel too "special" on that trip. I was like, "What the hell?" I just told the guys, "Hey, I'm backing you up."You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.