Burnitz a Quick Cup of Coffee With Tribe Before Becoming a Regular
By Craig Gifford
Jeromy Burnitz did not start his career with the Cleveland Indians. However, the power-hitting outfielder did have an early-career cup of coffee with the Tribe before hitting it big in Milwaukee.
Much like players like Sean Casey and Brian Giles, who been featured in this spot in recent weeks, Burnitz was a casualty of the strong Indians teams of the 1990s. There were too many established outfielders for Burnitz to ever make a name for himself in Cleveland, when he was with the club in 1995 and 1996.
Cleveland GM John Hart saw enough in Burnitz to pick him up in a November 1994 trade with the New York Mets. The trade only cost Cleveland Paul Byrd, Jerry Dipoto and Dave Mlicki. All were good players, but no stars. None turned out to have the career of Burnitz. The only thing is, Burnitz did not realize his potential in Cleveland.
Burnitz played in a mere 80 games for the Indians, hitting seven homers. He actually had a lot more playing time with the Mets in his first two big league seasons, playing in 131 games for New York.
On August 31, Cleveland, with a glut of outfielders and a need in the infield, shipped Burnitz on to Milwaukee for solid infielder Kevin Seitzer. Seitzer played a role in helping Cleveland to the palyoffs. However, the Tribe was stunned by the Orioles in that season’s first round.
Meanwhile, Burnitz was getting ready to fulfill his potential for a Brewers team sorely in need of a star. In 1997, at the age of 28, he broke out in a big way, with 27 homers and 85 RBI. The 17th overall pick of the 1990 draft was finally looking like it. Burnitz continued to mash, putting up career highs of 38 long balls and 125 RBI in 1998. In 1999, he hit the national scene with his only All-Star Game appearance. Despite being voted to just the lone Mid-Summer Classic, Burntiz played at a high level all through his final season in 2006.
Milwaukee, much like the Indians have in years past, had to trade Burnitz before the 2002 season to avoid losing him in free agency after that year. Burnitz went on to his original team, the Mets. He had a down year, with just 19 homer in 2002, but rebounded with back-to-back 30-plus homer campaigns in 2003 and 2004 as he hit his mid-30s.
As he approached his late 30s, Burnitz could only get one-year deals from teams, afraid he would break down. He spent 2005 with Colorado and 2006 with Pittsburgh. That final season, he still showed he could hit with 16 long flies and 49 RBI. Unfortunately, for him, a low .230 batting average and the fact he would be 38 in 2007 did him no favors on the free agent market. No teams picked up Burnitz for 2007 and he retired.
Burnitz, despite being a consistent threat to hit 30-40 homers, is not remembered as a great player. In another era, he might have been. However, his numbers paled in comparison to those being put up by acknowledged and presumed steroid users during the 1990s and early 2000s “steroid era.” He finished with 315 career home runs. That number might have been more if he had not spent his first four seasons as a part-time player with the Mets and Indians. His career .252 batting average was actually solid, given Burnitz’s reputation as an all-or-nothing hitter.
There was no way Burnitz was ever going to make it in Cleveland. At that point, the Indians had Alber Belle, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez in the outfield and Hall-of-Famer Eddie Murray at DH. Not only were all four HOF-level players, all stayed relatively healthy, giving Burnitz little chance to prove himself.
The final analysis of Burnitz will be one that sees a solid player who could jack the ball out of the park at a moment’s notice, however, it was not at the pace of a Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. He was a good, though not great player, who managed to play at a strong level for 14 years.