Spotlight: Ellis Burks

One of my fondest Red Sox memories as a kid is actually of my aunt ‘Dibbie’ as it was she who introduced me to and nurtured me through this vast, complex and often bitter-sweet heartbreak we call Red Sox Nation.  Cold rainy games in the early ’80’s through bright humid matinees in the ’90’s she’d make an effort to take me to Fenway.  Dwight Evans was her favorite player in those days.  She originally grew up a Braves fan, riding the elevated train (when Boston’s T had one) with her dad before his early passing and following the exploits of ‘The Kid’ from Beantown’s ‘other’ team before falling in love, as one does, with the Scarlett Hose.  It was because of Dibbie that when I attended The Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville for its final summer as a little kid (my mom scored an awesome gig as camp nurse) I actually knew the legend of ‘Number 9’ and could properly worship him when he arrived. (Being the only child of a staff member there, I ate breakfast with Ted every morning of the several days he spent there.)

It was during the late 1980’s heyday of the Oakland Dynasty that I saw her true Red White and Blue Sox.  A warm, sunny afternoon later in the season spent in the leftish-centerfield stands.  Dave Stewart versus ‘The Rocket’.  Rickey Henderson (future Sox) in Center, (former Sox) Dave Henderson in Left, which of course prompted the usual “Hey Dave, you couldn’t remember your name or number without Rickey…” jokes since Dave wore 42 and Rickey 24.  Sox were down, every member of the A’s seemingly having a Hal of Fame Day and each time Dewey came to the plate my aunt cheered, loudly, and as she saw it, appropriately.  Of course, a Bleacher Creature disagreed.  He’s too old, too broken down and just too everything… receiving an “Oh Shuttup…” in response.  This carries on until about the eighth, a couple of men on… Evans steps in.  Dib kicks up her cheering… ‘C’mon Dewey!  Bleacher Creature, a few more beers in him, tries to out sqwak her.  Here’s my sixty something year old aunt, a lifelong manager, volunteer and helper of others whom many always mistook for some form of nun, turning. “When he hits this homer..!”

Crack!  Into the net (No Monstah Seats yet).

And what did this calm, saintly woman do?  Jump up and down, turn and point to this drunken Creature, “Stick that in your ass!”  And as everyone high-fived and congratulated her on her choice of perfectly timed hero, all was right with the world.  the Sox went on to lose, as they usually did when she took me, but Dewey, for a moment anyway saved the world.

Within a few short seasons Dwight had packed for a single season tour in Baltimore and retired.  Sure, there were stars on the Red Sox still, but none that interested her.  Bruce Hurst was gone, Roger Clemens a d!ck and Wade Boggs just wasn’t it for her.  But, Ellis Burks had begun filling some of the void after his arrival following the 1986 season and took over full-time, co-starring with Evans until his departure.  Unfortunately, Burks would only last a few seasons longer for her Sox.

Selected by the Sox in the 1st round (20th pick) of the 1983 Major League Baseball Draft, Burks made his debut in the 1987 season as a regular center fielder at age 22, showing excellent range, a sure glove and a strong arm while becoming the third player in the Red Sox history to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in one season.  The only problem for Burks while with the Red Sox was that he was injury-prone.  He had shoulder surgery in 1989, and it was the first of many setbacks for him as later Burks suffered from bad knees and back spasms.  During the 1990 season he hit two home runs in the same inning of a game, to become the second player in Red Sox history to achieve the feat.  After six fairly good seasons in Boston, and despite his injuries, he ended up leaving as a free agent and signing a one year deal with the Chicago White Sox in January 1993.

Burks surpassed all expectations around him by turning in a solid, injury-free season, filling the Pale Hose urgent need for a quality right fielder.  He was one of the club’s better performers in the playoffs, batting .304.  A free agent at the end of the season, he signed a lucrative five-year contract with the Colorado Rockies.

Ellis enjoyed his best season in 1996 . He led all National League hitters in runs (142), slugging (.639), total bases (392) and extra-base hits (93); was second in hits (211) and 2B’s(45), and fifth in HR’s (40) and RBI (128).  His .344 was also second in the batting title race (behind Tony Gwynn’s .353).  Burks finished third in the NL MVP voting. He also stole 32 bases that season, marking only the second time ever that two players from the same team collected at least 30 home runs and 30 steals, as Colorado outfielder Dante Bichette (future Red Sox)  accomplished the same feat that year.  He was part of the formidable Blake Street Bombers that included the likes of Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, and Vinny Castilla.  This was the heart of the Rockies’ lineup that was second in the National League in home runs by team in 1994 and then led the National League in home runs from 1995 to 1997.  He still remains in the top ten in many offensive categories for the Rockies.

In 2000, having been traded to the San Francisco Giants in mid-season 1998, Burks batted fifth behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, compiling significant numbers of .344, 24, 96, in only 122 games and 393 at-bats.  He was signed by the Cleveland Indians in the off-season and in his new role as a DH for the Indians, Burks provided consistent production in the middle-of-the-lineup, hitting .280, 28, 74 in 2001, and .301, 32, 91 in 2002.  He sprained his wrist in spring training of 2003 and kept playing in 55 games until the muscles in his right hand affected his ability to swing the bat. He underwent season-ending surgery to repair nerve damage in his right elbow.

The Indians didn’t pick up their 2004 contract option or offer him salary arbitration, and he returned to the Red Sox in 2004.   Used in limited duty, he retired at the end of that magical season with the 2004 World Series Ring for the team that he began his career with.

A two-time All-Star (1990, 1996) winning two Silver Sluggers (1990, 1996) and a Gold Glove (1990) in an 18-year career, Burks was a .291 hitter with 352 home runs, 1206 RBI, 1253 runs, 2107 hits, 402 doubles, 63 triples, and 181 stolen bases in 2000 games.

Needless to say, that was just icing on the already incredible cake for Dib.

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