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Reborn in a Brave new world

An MVP at 23, Jeff Burroughs was in a bad slump, but a trade to Atlanta has been like a breath of fresh air

One morning last week Jeff Burroughs of the Atlanta Braves opened his newspaper to the sports page and ran his eyes down a column of agate type until he found the Texas Rangers' box score. He saw some familiar names—Harrah and Hargrove—along with some unfamiliar ones—Campaneris and Alomar. A year ago he would have seen his own name, batting fourth and playing right field. Burroughs still cannot understand why he was traded. His reorientation has been slow. But, he said, he is happy now to be in Atlanta, playing for the Braves and hitting in the park with the energized air.

When the Rangers sent Burroughs to the National League last December for five players and $250,000, they thought their once-bright star was prematurely fading. In 1969, while still the Washington Senators, the team had made the 18-year-old Californian the No. 1 draft choice in the country. The next spring Manager Ted Williams called Burroughs "the best-looking right-handed hitter for his age that I've ever seen." In 1974, at the still tender age of 23, Burroughs batted .301, hit 25 homers, drove in 118 runs and was the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Ted Williams, it seemed, sure knew his stuff.

But Burroughs, beset by an ill wind in Texas, slumped to .226 and .237 the last two seasons, and the Rangers invited trade offers. The Braves responded vigorously, gambling that in Atlanta Stadium Burroughs would resemble the player who once hit three grand-slam home runs in 10 days, instead of the one who had struck out a total of 248 times in '75 and '76. So far, the gamble is paying off.

Revived by his new surroundings and some old confidence, Burroughs was batting .316 and ranked among the National League leaders in RBIs (20) and homers (six) at the end of last week. As for the five Braves who were shipped to Texas, Pitcher Carl Morton has been released, Outfielder Dave May is on the bench, Roger Moret is on the disabled list, Adrian Devine is a stalwart in the bullpen and only Rightfielder Ken Henderson, batting .290, is playing regularly.

"When I heard last summer that Burroughs might be available, I was really surprised," says Atlanta Manager Dave Bristol. "A right-handed power hitter is just what we needed."

Finishing last in the Western Division in 1976, the Braves were 11th in the league in hitting, ninth in homers and 14-35 against left-handed pitchers. Although the team certainly has not overcome all those deficiencies—Atlanta is fifth in its division—the acquisition of Burroughs and free-agent Gary Matthews from San Francisco seems to have cured its ineffectiveness against lefthanders. The Braves won four of their first six games against lefties this season.

For a while it looked as if Atlanta would get neither Matthews nor Burroughs. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn delayed approval of the Matthews deal because of accusations that Atlanta owner Ted Turner had tried to sign the outfielder before the free-agent draft was held. Kuhn eventually approved Matthews' contract, but suspended Turner. Contractual matters also figured in Burroughs' initial refusal to report to Atlanta. "The Rangers would never admit it publicly, but I had a no-trade contract," Burroughs says. "I didn't have anything against Atlanta; I just couldn't understand why Texas would give up on me, because I was still driving in runs." Indeed, despite his sorry averages. Burroughs had 180 RBIs in '75 and '76.

A pep talk by Turner and a phone call from Brave Pitcher Andy Messersmith helped change Burroughs' mind. "If I had taken it to court or to arbitration, I think I would have won the right to stay in Texas," he says. "But I decided that if the Rangers didn't want me, it would be best if Heft."

Burroughs has since discovered an unexpected bonus in his new home. Even though the power alleys in Atlanta Stadium are 385 and 375 feet, compared to Arlington Stadium's 370, the Braves' park has always been a hitter's heaven. The city's 1,057-foot elevation, highest in the majors, helps make the stadium a launching pad for home runs. Arlington Stadium is far less conducive to long-ball hitting, because of a stiff wind blowing from right to left field. This was particularly unfavorable to Burroughs, whose power is to right center.

In four seasons playing for Texas, Burroughs did average 25 home runs and 95 RBIs a year, but 60% of his homers came on the road. "Playing in Arlington finally became a mental problem," he says. "I got tired of seeing balls held up by the wind, and I started trying to pull everything to left. I knew that was not my style, but I was fed up with losing so many hits and runs batted in." However, by trying to pull too much, Burroughs altered his swing, and his batting average plummeted.

This season Burroughs has gotten back in his natural groove; four of his six home runs have been at home, and only two were pulled to left. He considers his new surroundings a much better explanation for his success than the supposedly juiced-up ball that, some say, has accounted for the 38% increase in homers in the majors so far this season. "The ball is getting a bad rap," Burroughs says. "Why should a 2-1 game be considered normal. I say the ball is just back to being regulation."

Regulation ball or not, Burroughs smacked a home run in his first at bat on Opening Day in Houston and another in his first appearance at home. "It's a pleasure to hit in Atlanta," he says. "I've already hit a couple of balls out that would have been caught in Texas."

Because of some shoddy Brave pitching, Burroughs' batting has not done much to improve the team. His biggest days have been wasted; he hit a grand slam in a 14-10 loss to Los Angeles and had four hits and four RBIs in a 23-9 mauling by Cincinnati. His only game-winning hit was a home run against San Diego. And the Braves need to take advantage of Burroughs' hitting if they want to get true value from him, because he is not an otherwise particularly gifted player. He does not steal bases or make exceptional defensive plays, and he has already struck out 17 times in 20 games.

"I play every day and get the job done," he says, "but I'm not a crowd pleaser. I've been lousy some years and good some others. I just do the best I can and leave it at that."

Because he also played football and basketball in high school, he says he never "ate or slept baseball. I didn't care that much one way or the other about having a baseball career. In fact, the summer I signed I was a little disappointed, because I had been looking forward to fishing for a couple of months."

Now he saves his fishing and golf for the off-season. He is accomplished at both, shooting 70s and having caught bluefin tuna and marlin. But the toughest sport of all, he says, is the one he plays in the summer. "It's a constant struggle. I never have had a lot of confidence. My ego goes up and down like a yo-yo. But this year I'm feeling better again. Being with a new ball club and in a new league is like being a rookie."

As the Texas Rangers should remember, a young Jeff Burroughs is the very best kind.


Burroughs has new confidence in his old swing.