Britt burns hobbled from the pitcher's mound to first base on a ground ball to the right side. This was just a routine spring training drill, but each awkward, seemingly painful step Burns took threatened to end with his collapse. Minutes later, as he surrounded a well-placed bunt, he looked like an oversized vehicle doing a three-point turn in an alley. "I see you, Hopalong," pitcher Ron Davis yelled at him jokingly.
Burns laughed. "That's only the first nickname," he would say later. "There will be more."
Burns smiles now because four years ago he could barely put on his right shoe without help—or without crying. These days he can run without pain, though when he does he looks like a cross between Fred Sanford and the Tin Man. He's pitching again despite a right leg that he says, "is about 65 years old. But I have the heart of a three-year-old, so that compensates for it. And my arm is as good as ever."
Burns was once one of the better pitchers in baseball, a burly, 6'5", hard-throwing lefthander who won 70 games for the Chicago White Sox from 1980 through '85. However, in spring training of '86, after being traded to the New York Yankees, he was forced out of the game at age 26 by osteoarthritis, a progressive degeneration of the joints that's rare in someone so young. Massive surgery on his right hip that same year alleviated much of the pain, and hunting elk in the mountains of Colorado helped restore his strength and his will. Last week found him in the Yankees' minor league camp, in Tampa, attempting a comeback at 30. Burns says he expects to be a member of New York's starting rotation when the season begins.
Spring training is about players like Burns. It's about long shots seeking to beat the odds, like former Los Angeles Raider tight end Todd Christensen, who recently hit a home run on the first pitch he saw at an Oakland Athletics' mini-camp before his tryout fizzled. It's about aging veterans looking for a final shot, like Baltimore Oriole minor leaguer Daniel Boone, 36, who last pitched in the majors in 1982, but has a new knuckleball to show off. It's about fresh-faced kids hoping to get noticed, such as 22-year-old Steven (Turk) Wendell, who refuses to wear socks under his stirrups when he pitches in the Atlanta Braves' minor league camp.
Spring training is about rookies trying to nail down roster spots. Third base jobs could be won by Mike Blowers of the Yankees, Robin Ventura of the White Sox and Carlos Baerga of the Cleveland Indians. Carlos Quintana needs a million grounders to learn how to play first base for the Boston Red Sox. Baltimore's Ben McDonald has pitched only nine innings in his minor league career, but a good spring might guarantee him a spot in the Oriole rotation.
Now, who knows? These are the guys who need all six weeks of spring training to make their cases, and these are the ones most affected by baseball's lockout. "It could screw up a lot of guys," says Ken Rowe, the Yankees' Triple A pitching coach.
Consider the case of first baseman-DH Randy Bass, 35, who was invited to Baltimore's major league camp on a look-see basis. A two-time Triple Crown winner in Japan, Bass was released by the Hanshin Tigers in May 1988 and sat out last season. Now, at his 350-head cattle farm in Lawton, Okla., he awaits Baltimore's call to report.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal," says Bass. "At this age, you'll never get another chance. I'd like to play in the major leagues again, just to see what it's like after so many years. But it doesn't look like I'm going to get that chance."
Meanwhile, Burns is trying to put a positive spin on the situation. As one of many Yankee nonroster invitees, he has been allowed to work out during the lockout. "I might be the only guy ready to pitch come April," says Burns. "The lockout might be a break in my favor."