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The ’91 Bulls: Old magic eludes “Perfect Game” Burlingame

February 7th, 2012 · No Comments · '91 Durham Bulls, Baseball

Dennis BurlingameDennis Burlingame etched his name into Durham’s history book in his Bulls debut, tossing a seven-inning perfect game on Opening Day 1989. The then-19-year-old righthander teamed with southpaw Steve Avery to stifle the Frederick Keys 4-0 and 1-0 in a doubleheader Bulls fans would recall fondly for years. Avery, who held the Keys hitless until the sixth and allowed just two hits in the nightcap, may have been the most heralded young prospect in the Braves organization, but Burlingame outpitched him—at least until late May when he was shut down with what was diagnosed at the time as an inflamed elbow. His numbers were frozen at 4-0 with a 0.50 ERA in 11 starts. In 54.1 innings he yielded a ridiculously low 28 hits and five walks, good for a 0.607 WHIP.

The Braves were still optimistic about his future, even after he sat for several months rehabbing his arm. Atlanta’s assistant scouting director Rod Gilbreath said that fall, “A guy like Burlingame could move up as fast as you want him to because he’s got a fantastic arm.” Indeed, before he was hurt he threw harder than Avery.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Mullica Hills, N.J., eventually required offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, a setback that cost him most of the 1990 season. When he returned he was dropped back to low Class A Sumter, where a tight pitch count limited him to 36 innings in 12 starts. By the following spring he was ready to stretch things out again, and for that the Braves sent him back to Durham.

Burlingame was the workhorse of the ’91 staff, leading Durham with 26 starts and 161 innings. His 11 wins were tops on the squad and he tied for team honors with three complete games. But he was never able to truly rekindle the magic that he’d harnessed two years earlier, when he owned the Carolina League. Though he fashioned an impressive 3.01 ERA, his secondary numbers told the tale of a different pitcher than Durham had seen in his first tour. The 42-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1989 melted into a 95-to-80 showing. Skipper Grady Little had cited his command and ability to throw strikes as the key to his earlier success. It never returned.

In fact, his control worsened. From 1992-94 he walked 236 and fanned 250 in 416.2 innings. In the spring of 1993 the Braves asked him to try throwing his knuckleball more frequently. Though he initially began throwing the knuckler in high school, he hadn’t featured it heavily throughout his first five minor league seasons, mixing it in only occasionally to give batters something to think about other than his fastball and curve. In light of the success Tim Wakefield was having in Pittsburgh, working on the flutter ball seemed like a good idea at the time.

Burlingame struggled at the upper levels of the system that year, walking 51 and striking out only 40 in 81.1 innings between Double-A Greenville and Triple-A Richmond before being dropped all the way back down to low Class A Macon to finish out the year. The following spring the Braves assigned him to a co-op team in the Class A California League to continue working as a full-time knuckleballer. Burlingame went 5-11 with a 6.89 ERA for High Desert in 1994, walking more batters than he struck out for the first time in his career. He led the Cal League that season in walks (104), runs (130), and earned runs (110), and tied for second with 19 wild pitches. That spelled the end of his tenure in the Braves system.

With the big leaguers on strike, eight major league organizations offered Burlingame a chance to sign as a replacement player in the spring of 1995. After an offseason of pumping gas back in New Jersey he was tempted, but eventually decided against it. “If I’m going to play in the major leagues, I want to play in the real major leagues,” he said that spring. “I don’t want to play replacement baseball.”

He signed instead with Monclova in the Mexican League, but appeared in just two games before heading home, concluding what many had once thought would be a brilliant career. Burlingame returned to his hometown, where he has spent much of the past decade coaching high school baseball, including the past three years at his former high school, Kingsway Regional.

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