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LIFE IN THE BUSHES : For Burtt, It's Been a 14-Year Career of Fields and Dreams

June 16, 1989|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — "There's more exciting Pacific Coast League action tomorrow when the Dukes and Stars play at 7 p.m. The Dukes thank you for your support and ask you to please drive home safely-- and you kids get off that dugout right now!"

As "Cub Scout Night" gets predictably out of hand in the Albuquerque Sports Stadium--scores of uniformed children asking, nay, demanding autographs and sweatbands--another mark is etched in Dennis Burtt's voluminous minor league ledger.

He was the Albuquerque Dukes' starting pitcher that Tuesday night against the Las Vegas Stars. The Dukes, the Dodgers' triple-A affiliate, won the game, but Burtt was lifted with one out in the second inning and his team trailing, 6-4.

The Dukes came back for a 16-13 victory, which meant Burtt neither won nor lost in his 336th minor league pitching appearance. If you're wondering, 336 is not a record, just nearly half a man's life and practically all of his aspirations.

Burtt has spent 14 summers pitching in such places as Elmira, Winter Haven, Pawtucket and Toledo. He's in his third summer at Albuquerque, living with his wife, Terri, and his 2-year-old daughter, Nichole, in a pink stucco apartment that borders a cemetery.

His baseball life spans teammates named Kevin Costner--yes, that Kevin Costner--Bruce Hurst and Wade Boggs. There was a brief trip to the major leagues, a 31.50 earned-run average that sent him back to the minors and then last Tuesday night against the Stars when he walked off the mound in the second inning and into the dugout, placing his glove, cap and self down gently on the bench, because that's his way.

"He tries not to let things get to him," Terri said. "He's even tempered and easygoing. He might be stirred up inside, but basically he keeps a lot of things inside."

He was once told by someone in the Boston Red Sox organization that he didn't get mad enough to be a big league pitcher.

But, said Brent Strom, the Dukes' pitching coach: "If Dennis didn't have the temperament he has, I'm sure he would have developed a drinking problem by now."

Burtt is 31 and has an 0-3 record this season with a 7.42 ERA. They love him in Albuquerque, though. They think he's a great influence on the younger kids, the prospects. When it comes to his prospects, however, his age undermines another shot at the major leagues.

"I would say the chances of Dennis pitching with the Dodgers are slim," said Charlie Blaney, Dodgers' director of minor league operations. "That's not to say Dennis doesn't have a place in baseball."

And the minors have been his place for 14 years. Perhaps it is his saving grace--and tragic flaw--that Dennis Burtt was given enough talent to chase his dream every summer, but only enough to chase.

The gods sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have the rock roll down every time he was ready to push it over the summit.

In more recent mythology, a hero named Crash Davis (a.k.a. Kevin Costner) spent a lifetime in the minor leagues, including one season with the Class-A Durham Bulls. What sustained him in the movie "Bull Durham" was a brief taste of the major leagues, a genuine love of the game and the fear of what life would be like without it.

Summer is here and Dennis Burtt has started yet another push. Seemingly a deep well of optimism, even he gets discouraged and angry. When he does, he throws a ball against a wall. The ball hits the wall, then bounces back.

So does he.

Where Burtt's love of the game comes from, he doesn't know. He played a lot of sports as a kid. Baseball was always his favorite, but it wasn't a passion.

It wasn't that his father, Howard, was enamored of the game and passed that on to his son. Howard didn't play the game. The closest he had been, before he started coaching Dennis in Little League, was selling seat cushions during Hollywood Stars' games.

"I just had fun playing," Dennis said. "Maybe it's because I always won."

Today, he holds the distinction of having won championships in all five minor leagues in which he has played. Is that one a record? Good luck checking it out. Burtt seems both proud--he displays the championship rings in a glass case hung on a wall--and embarrassed.

"How many guys have been around the minors that long?" he says.

He played at Villa Park High School. He was a sophomore whiz kid. In one inning, he played shortstop, catcher and pitcher. Also on that team was a chubby-faced kid with a bad haircut named Kevin Costner who didn't make much of an impression.

When asked if he played with Costner in high school, Burtt said no, then paused.

"Is that who that guy was," he said. "I knew a guy named Costner. Was that who he was? Gee, I always thought his name was Keith."

Burtt graduated in 1975 and spent a year at Rancho Santiago College--then called Santa Ana College--before signing with the Red Sox. He was sent to a rookie team in Elmira, N.Y.

So were 18 other pitchers. Elmira didn't have a staff, it had a mob.

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