Catching Up With Dave Burba
Steve Eby | On 20, Nov 2013
For a guy who had a 15-year, 115 win career, former Cleveland Indian Dave Burba certainly didn’t start out with a bang.
“I was kind of on the bubble,” Burba said of his early career.
Drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the second round (33rd overall), the former Ohio State Buckeye spent the first few years of his Major League career without a really defined role.
“I spot started in Seattle,” Burba said, “but when I got called up, I was basically a bullpen guy.”
Through 28 games and two starts with the M’s, Burba compiled a 2-2 record with a 3.83 ERA in 1990 and 1991. He was then a part of a big trade in the offseason—one that involved several future Cleveland Indians.
Prior to the 1992 campaign, Burba was dealt to the San Francisco Giants along with Mike Jackson and Bill Swift in exchange for Kevin Mitchell and Mike Remlinger. Despite being with a new organization, Burba’s role really remained the same.
“When I got traded to San Francisco they put me in the rotation,” Burba remembers, “Then they put me in the bullpen. The next year I spot started and then the next year Dusty Baker made me strictly a bullpen guy. I spent ’94 and half of ’95 in the bullpen.”
Regardless of his back-and-forth role, Burba remained confident in his ability and place in baseball.
“I always considered myself a starter because that’s what I did in the minor leagues,” Burba said. “When I got traded to the Reds, they transitioned me to be a starter for three or four starts and built my innings up and I took off from there.”
The trade to Cincinnati came after three and one half unimpressive seasons by the Bay and lit a fire under the budding starter. Burba helped lead the Reds to the 1995 playoffs by winning six games in 15 appearances (nine starts). The Reds won the National League Central Division and swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Burba worked his first three playoff games for the Reds in ’95—something he wouldn’t do again until his time with the Indians later that decade.
Burba won double-digit ballgames as a permanent member of the Cincinnati rotation in both 1996 and 1997 and was scheduled to be the team’s Opening Day starter late in Spring Training of 1998. It was not to be, however, as Burba was dealt to the Tribe on March 30 in exchange for first base super-prospect Sean Casey.
“They called me in the office the night before and told me about the trade,” Burba recalls. “Initially it was disappointing. I was supposed to be the Reds opening day starter. I was very thrilled and excited to say that I was going to throw the first pitch in the 1998 season. That’s something that’s part of history. To be able to say I threw the first pitch in the ’98 season and the opening day starter for the Reds.
“Like I said, I was a little disappointed at first, but then I thought about it and realized that I’m going to a championship club and it’s going to be exciting.”
The big right hander came to an extremely talented ball club that was fresh off of a World Series appearance in 1997. The team boasted a heavy hitting lineup that had David Justice, Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, Travis Fryman, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez. The pitching staff featured Charles Nagy, free agent signee Dwight Gooden as well as second-year sensation Bartolo Colon and postseason hero Jaret Wright. When he was acquired, Burba was seen as the missing piece of Cleveland’s championship puzzle.
“I was a little nervous because they had a lot of great players here,” Burba remembers. “Once I got here…they accepted me. But personally, I was nervous and maybe put a little pressure on myself to begin with. After I settled in I realized that these guys are great guys and wanted to win just as bad as I did.”
The pressure of pitching for a championship caliber team didn’t seem to intimidate Burba too much, however, as the newest member of the rotation tied Nagy for the team lead with 15 wins. “Here I come over and I felt that I had something to prove…and I think I did okay. I think I proved that I belong here.”
Burba didn’t just use his pitching arm to prove his worth; he let his bat do some talking in an interleague game against his old teammates on June 7. “In interleague play I hit a homerun against the Reds,” Burba said. The blast that barely cleared the left field wall at Cinergy Field came off of Cincinnati starter Scott Klingenbeck and was the first homerun by an Indians pitcher since Steve Dunning in September of 1972. “I got a standing ovation in an opposing stadium. That was a thrill.”
The 1998 Indians won their fourth consecutive Central Division title and defeated the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS three games to one. After losing Game One to Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, the Indians had their backs against the wall when Burba came through big in the clutch in Game Two.
Gooden got the start for the Indians that afternoon but was not long for the game when home plate umpire Joe Brinkman ejected Doctor K after facing just four batters. Gooden was arguing balls and strikes and Manager Mike Hargrove turned to Burba to put out the fire.
“In the ’98 playoffs I pitched 5.1 innings (out of the bullpen) which was a playoff record—I didn’t know it at the time,” Burba said.
Burba allowed three runs to the powerful Boston lineup, but got the win and saved the day—and series—for the Indians. “When I walked off the field I got an unbelievable standing ovation.”
The following season was arguably Burba’s career best, as he worked a career high 220.0 innings and won another 15 games for the 1999 Tribe. He helped lead the team to 97 wins—tied with the 1948 Indians for the fifth most in franchise history. Despite being on a 103-win team with the 1993 San Francisco Giants, Burba still considers the ’99 Tribe as the best team he ever played on.
“The ’99 Indians,” Burba said confidently. “They were both great teams, but offensively (the Indians) were a little stronger. The pitching probably would have matched up pretty good.”
Burba never won a World Series in his Major League career, but had his most team and individual success as a member of the Cleveland Indians. He was a member of the Tribe from 1998-2001 and then late in 2002. In between, he pitched for the Texas Rangers and he finished his career with stints with the Milwaukee Brewers and back in San Francisco in 2004. After bouncing around the league, Burba looks back on his time in Cleveland fondly.
“Just to be a part of this organization and a part of this team with the players that surrounded me—I’ll never forget that,” Burba said. “I played with some of the greatest players that ever played the game.”
Burba played with those players in front of a packed Jacobs Field nearly every night. He was a part of the team during the franchise record 455 consecutive sellouts that is immortalized in the mezzanine level of Progressive Field today. When Burba comes back to Cleveland, he is saddened to see that the fan support for the modern day Tribe isn’t what it used to be.
“It’s very surprising after coming to the stadium every day,” Burba said of Cleveland’s attendance issues. “I want the fans to realize that it does make the players play a little better. When you come to the field and you know that the stadium is sold out. Hell, it was fun for me even when I wasn’t playing, knowing that I’m going to a field that is sold out. Just the electricity that it brings to the field and excitement that it brings to the players—they do play at a different level because they know the fans are backing them. The more that they can do that, the better product you’re going to have on the baseball field.”
After retiring from the playing field, Burba took a few seasons away from professional baseball and coached one of his son’s Little League teams. In 2011, he was back in the pros when he was hired by the Colorado Rockies organization to coach in their minor league system.
“The last three years I’ve been coaching in the Rockies organization,” Burba said. “I spent two years in the rookie level and (in 2013) I was the high-A pitching coach.”
In the little free time that professional coaches have, Burba enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.
Photo: Tony Ranze/Getty Images