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Burnitz Blitz

He wasn't an NFL player like Jordan, but Dodgers' new left fielder has given them similar intensity, grit

August 19, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

There was the diving catch of Arizona infielder Matt Kata's slicing liner to left field on July 26, the hard slide home to jar the ball loose from Florida catcher Ivan Rodriguez last Wednesday night, and other forceful slides into second base in attempts to break up double plays.

Dodger left fielder Jeromy Burnitz was not a former NFL defensive back like his predecessor, the injured Brian Jordan, and he's not the maniacal type who routinely crashes into walls or pummels catchers as did Jordan, who flattened San Diego's Gary Bennett on April 16.

But since being acquired from the New York Mets during the All-Star break, Burnitz, in a subtle but very noticeable way, has helped replace some of the tenacity the Dodgers lost in early July when Jordan underwent season-ending knee surgery.

"He has brought a very gritty demeanor to our club, and I'm very impressed with the fact he plays as hard as he does," Dodger Manager Jim Tracy said. "He has the approach of a solid guy that you want to have on your club.... He gets what we're trying to do here, and his attention to detail to the little things that don't show up in the box score mean a heck of a lot."

Burnitz did not grow up with visions of Pete Rose barreling into Ray Fosse or sprinting to first base after a walk dancing in his head. No particular player or coach had a profound influence on his playing style as he came up through the Mets' farm system or during his early big league years in Cleveland or Milwaukee.

"I've just always played the game that way since I started playing," said Burnitz, who is batting .259 with 25 home runs and 62 runs batted in entering tonight's game against the Montreal Expos in Dodger Stadium.

"It's weird, because I don't run every ball out; I'm not Charlie Hustle. I just figure when it's time to run hard, or to go hard after a ball, you do it. I don't consciously think about that, it's just the way I play. But it's nice that people notice. I'm proud to have a good reputation in the game."

That reputation is one of the things that attracted General Manager Dan Evans to Burnitz as he canvassed teams in his pursuit of a power-hitting outfielder in July. At the time, both Jordan and center fielder Dave Roberts were hurt.

"I knew the power was there, he had the versatility to play left field and center field, and he had a good arm," Evans said. "But the hard-nosed attitude is something a lot of people commented on.

"I thought he could replace some of the tenacity, the aggressiveness that we lost with Jordan and Roberts. I thought he would add a real spark, some desire. He plays real hard, and I enjoy watching him."

The Dodgers are 15-15 since trading for Burnitz, but the 34-year-old who bats from the left side has had an impact on offense -- though he's batting a sub-par .229 since the deal, he has seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 29 games for the Dodgers and has been batting cleanup against right-handed starters.

Burnitz went through a rough spell, going two for 24 in seven games from July 29 to Aug. 5, but after enduring the worst year of his career in 2002, hitting .215 with 19 homers and 54 RBIs for the Mets, he did not panic -- and rebounded with four home runs and nine RBIs in his next 11 games.

"I'd been to hell last year, I couldn't have struggled worse, so I know what it's like," Burnitz said. "To come out of it, you have to do the basic things right: Get a good pitch and put a good pass on it.

"You can still have a decent at-bat when you're going bad. In the past, my mind was so scattered I'd go 20 or 30 at-bats where I felt I didn't even have a chance. Now, even when I don't feel good, I feel I can have a good at-bat that can help the team."

To say last season was brutal for Burnitz is to say Met fans are kind of demanding. Burnitz, who was in the second year of a three-year, $25.3-million deal, had the lowest average among National League players eligible for the batting title, and even with a late surge -- seven homers in his last 25 games -- he didn't come close to approaching the 31 homers and 94 RBIs he averaged from 1997 to 2002.

To Met fans, Burnitz was just another in a long line of overpaid, underachieving players, and from August on he was booed roundly in Shea Stadium just about every time his name was announced. A year later, Burnitz draws from the lessons of 2002.

"It's really hard when you're healthy and you're not performing to your capabilities," he said. "But it was a good year because of the education I got. You learn how to deal with all the expectations in New York, with the fans booing. The down times are when you learn about yourself. I kept battling."

There was a perception when Burnitz was traded that he was glad to "escape" New York and the last-place Mets for the playoff-contending Dodgers. Burnitz, who was born in Westminster and lives in Poway, didn't see it that way.

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