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Burnitz now has control over violent swings

Sunday, May 14, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

He rides a Harley-Davidson Bad Boy. He wears leather jackets and skinny sideburns. He lives in Southern California and enjoys the Pacific just as much as the next gnarly dude. The number he provided the Milwaukee Brewers' front-office people, in case they needed to reach him during his first off-season with the team, was his pager. Everything about Jeromy Burnitz screams free-spirited free swinger.

But the swing is the thing.

It isn't just free. It is fast and full of fury. It is -- to use the NC-17 rating most often applied by baseball people -- violent. As in, first-year Brewers Manager and longtime San Diego coach Davey Lopes saying: "Even when I was on the other side watching, he always had a violent swing."

That crash of ash began this season with five home runs in as many games, each coming with no Brewers on base. His bat promptly fell silent for 25 games, or, as Burnitz so inelegantly phrased it, "a solid month of sucking." Then, just as suddenly, it began brutalizing pitches anew. He struck for five home runs in five games before arriving with the Brewers at Three Rivers Stadium this weekend for a three-game series against the Pirates.

The most amazing thing with the swing, though, is it feels looser to Burnitz.

It feels less vicious.

Not exactly a kinder, gentler motion. It's just that Burnitz, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound right fielder, no longer propels himself so completely at pitches that he senses he's about to go barefoot in the ballpark.

"I don't feel this year where I have the same feel as before, like I'm coming out of my shoes," said Burnitz, an All-Star starter and Home Run Derby runner-up to Ken Griffey Jr. a year ago. "I felt so good for a couple of years. But it doesn't feel the same.

"I think the swing changes all the time. I still think it's different from last year."

In 1999, Burnitz emblazoned his position in the major-league strata. He took 23 home runs, 73 RBI and a starting assignment into the All-Star Game. He gave Griffey a go in the Fenway Park derby. He finished with the Brewers' MVP award and atop team statistics in homers (33), RBI (103), walks (91, ninth in the NL) and on-base percentage (.402) despite missing a month with a broken right hand. Perhaps the most telling numbers of all came then: He left a 45-45 Milwaukee club and returned to one 10 games under .500.

It was his second consecutive season with 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs, making him only the third Brewers slugger to reach such a plateau.

It was his third consecutive season with 25-plus homers and a feared swing.

"He's already getting a lot of home runs and RBI," Lopes said. "If he gets more consistent, he takes it to another level and joins an elite group of people.

"If you look at the big guys, like Mark McGwire, Griffey, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa -- these guys all have pretty good on-base percentages. They all strike out. But they all get a lot of walks, too.

"It's a learning process. You can still take violent swings, but you've got to learn not to swing at balls in the dirt."

That's what Burnitz admittedly did during the 25-game slump. He not only went without a homer, he went without many hits: 1 for 23 ... 3 for 34 ... 14 for 86.

Burnitz lugged a .208 batting average into the County Stadium batter's box against Montreal May 6, whereupon he struck a first-inning homer. He followed with a 6-for-18 road trip that brought four homers and nine RBI in Wrigley Field. A single in Friday's second inning at Three Rivers gave him a six-game hitting streak (9 for 28, .321) heading into last night.

A bashing Burnitz is no foreign sight for the Pirates. In the past two seasons since Milwaukee switched leagues, he collected 10 homers in 119 at-bats against the Pirates before this series.

Burnitz, a 24th-round Brewers choice from Conroe (Texas) High School, rang up some lofty numbers at Oklahoma State -- where he was voted to the all-century team -- before coming to the New York Mets as a 1990 first-round selection. Three years later, he was pronounced the starting right fielder by Manager Dallas Green.

It was seven years ago yesterday, after struggling at the plate and with Green, that Burnitz was demoted to Class AAA.

A year and a half later, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians organization, where he spent some time at Class AAA Buffalo with Pirates outfielder Brian Giles and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

Burnitz, 30, and Giles found themselves in the same dilemma in Cleveland's minor-league system: no room in the outfield in the majors. "Spot starting," Giles said. "Occasionally. All he needed was the atmosphere where he could play every day and you knew the kind of numbers he could put up."

Like Giles with the Pirates. Like Upper St. Clair's Sean Casey with Cincinnati.

Burnitz's free swing was free to play every day in Milwaukee after a 1996 deadline trade for aging third baseman Kevin Seitzer. Burnitz hasn't stopped swinging since -- 110 homers in 503 games entering last night. A slugging percentage above a gaudy .500 and an on-base percentage around .360 -- pretty potent for such a powerful hitter.

"He's looking to juice the ball," McClendon said. "I always thought he was going to turn out to be a pretty good hitter. I thought Brian was a little more advanced at the time [in Buffalo in 1995], that Brian was going to hit for average from the start. But Jeromy has a high ceiling."

And the swing to break through it.

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