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Move over Bo Knows and Neon Deion. Make room for the common man's cross trainer, San Francisco rookie John Burkett (right), one of the hottest pitchers in the National League. At week's end, Burkett had a 7-1 record, including five victories in a row, and a 3.31 ERA. He also had three perfect games. No, not in baseball. In bowling.
Burkett, a 25-year-old righthander who was called up from Phoenix on April 30, is as good in a bowling alley as he is on the mound. With a 225 average, he was able to pay his bills during this spring's lockout with the $1,500 or so in prize money he won at numerous small tournaments. He is even considering joining the PBA tour next winter. "I grew up loving both sports," says Burkett. "They just kind of fit together."
That wasn't always the case, though. Burkett, who was raised in Beaver, Pa., nearly quit baseball during his junior year in high school to concentrate on kegling. He had been working afternoons in a local alley for a few years in exchange for free use of the lanes, and baseball practice was cutting into his bowling time. "I figured I had to choose one or the other, and I thought bowling was it," says Burkett.
But his baseball coach, Ed Snitger, worked out a compromise that enabled Burkett to keep throwing both kinds of strikes. Burkett ended up leading his high school baseball team to the finals of the state championship in his senior year, which he finished with a 12-0 record and 155 strikouts in 85 innings. That same year he won close to $1,000 on the local bowling tournament circuit.
When the Giants selected him in the sixth round of the 1983 draft, Burkett packed his bowling ball and headed to Great Falls to play in the Rookie League. He reached the majors late in the 1987 season, appearing in three games, but was sent back down for the next two seasons. All along he bowled, even during baseball season. The most he has ever won in a tournament is $800, but while in the minors he usually picked up $200 or $300 in winnings every few weeks.
"The money helped out a lot," says Burkett, who made $26,000 as a minor leaguer in 1989 before getting a boost to the major league minimum of $100,000 this season. "During the lockout my wife, Laura, and I were living off our VISA card. At first she didn't want me to risk the $60 entry fees. But I thought I could win some money."
Last November, Burkett was planning to enter Cincinnati's Hoinke Super Classic bowling tournament, which paid the winner $90,000, but then he was invited to play winter ball by a team in Venezuela. "I wanted to show the Giants I was ready for the big leagues," he says, "so I put bowling off for awhile."
Burkett now confines his lane work to the day after he pitches. He believes that the bowling motion loosens his arm and helps him to relax. "In the long run, bowling has really helped my pitching," says Burkett. "I'm a weak person. My arms aren't big, but I can throw a baseball 90 miles per hour. I think a lot of it comes from bowling."
Even that pitching guru himself, Giants manager Roger Craig, is tempted to agree. "I don't know that I would advise young pitchers to start bowling," he says, "but it works for him. That kid's unreal."