Tri-City Dust Devils

Burba brings experience as Dust Devils pitching coach

For 16 major league seasons, Dave Burba was a fan favorite wherever he went.

It only figures that in his first season as a professional pitching coach, he has endeared himself to the Tri-City Dust Devils.

The 6-foot-4 right-hander enjoyed a memorable career with six teams -- including the Seattle Mariners from 1990-91 -- and won 115 regular-season games. But, as a coach, he already has made his mark on a Dust Devils pitching staff that could be headed for the history books.

"I didn't know what to expect from my first time in short season, but from the performances the pitchers have shown, I'm very pleased. I think (Tri-City manager) Freddie (Ocasio) is, too," Burba said.

The Tri-City staff boasts the lowest ERA in the Northwest League at 3.09 -- 35 points lower than the next-lowest mark -- and has averaged the fewest runs (3.8) and walks (3.0) per game.

The Dust Devils are also on the verge of the NWL record of 10 shutouts, held by 1990 Eugene Emeralds and the 2002 Vancouver Canadians. With 21 games left in the regular season, Tri-City has blanked nine opponents -- including a recent stretch of seven in 12 games.

Maybe there's a reason the Cleveland Indians asked Burba to take a young 20-year-old left-hander named C.C. Sabathia under his wing in 2001. Not only does Burba know a lot about pitching, he has a gift for preparing young players for the pro game.

"You can talk to him about anything," said Kyle Hancock, a right-hander who is recovering from shoulder surgery. "I've been able to pick his brain a lot. Whether it's about pitching or life, he's done this before. We respond to him pretty well.

"The biggest thing is, he keeps it loose."

Burba does that in a number of ways. He's a regular participant in the Dust Devils' between-innings, on field promotions, often "throwing" contests to let kids win. He's also the judge for the Dust Devils' Kangaroo Court, an event that allows the team to let its hair down, so to speak.

Burba dons a long blond wig and a floral house coat before sitting down in the Dave Lemak Clubhouse with the team to read out each written offense. As far as clubhouse justice, he's swift and fair, but he considers Kangaroo Court itself to be invaluable.

"It's more of a team bonding thing than anything else. It's a time for coaches and teammates to have fun with each other instead of it always being a business," Burba said. "I'm lenient. The bottom line is getting 50 cents. Somebody's going to pay it. For me, it's about the time.

"If court lasts 10 minutes, I'd say eight of it is spent laughing."

And if you know Burba, laughing is one of his favorite things, along with golf and fishing. On major league road trips, he would befriend local citizens in hopes of finding the best fishing holes.

Sometimes, Burba would find the best ones in unexpected places.

"Once I fished in downtown New York and took a 30-pound striper out of the Hudson River," he said. "Just about everywhere I went, I had a fishing hookup."

He's also got some pretty fond memories of his time in the major leagues, which landed him in Seattle, San Francisco (1992-95, 2004), Cincinnati (1995-97), Cleveland (1998-2002), Texas (2002) and Milwaukee (2003-04).

Burba started nearly half of his 511 games, finishing 115-89 with a 4.49 ERA. He even racked up a couple of saves with the Brewers in 2004.

He was also a solid postseason pitcher, going 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA in nine games. Two of those wins came with the Indians in 1998, the first of which came in a 9-5 home win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 in the American League Division Series.

"I ended up pitching 5 2/3 innings, which tied a playoff record," Burba said. "When (Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove) took me out of the game, I got a standing ovation. I felt like I was floating across the field. It's something I'll never forget."

Pitchers aren't often known for their bats, but Burba hit a few longballs, too. He lights up when he gets to talk about his three big league homers.

"I had a philosophy. If I didn't have to bunt, I was swinging for the fences. I looked like an ass sometimes, but three times I wasn't," Burba said.

Two of his home runs came during consecutive starts with the Reds in 1996. The first was a solo shot at Riverfront Stadium off Pittsburgh Pirates' right-hander Paul Wagner on July 14. The next came on the road against Pirates' lefty Chris Peters.

"I hit that one good. I knew that was gone. I got around the bases and got in the dugout, and Eric Davis waved me over, put his arm around me and said, 'If you're going to hit homers, you need to work on your trot,' " Burba said.

"That's not the funny part. The next day the USA Today listed at-bats per home run. I forget who was No. 3, but Mark McGwire was first at 11.1, and Dave Burba was second at 11.2," he said. "So of course I cut that out, blew it up and plastered it all over the clubhouse.

"You've gotta have fun with it while you can."