It's unusual to find a college athlete who plays both basketball and baseball. Pepperdine's Dennis Burbank is one, but he doesn't plan on being unusual much longer.
An All-Southern Section basketball forward from Valencia High School in Placentia, the 6-5, 220-pound Burbank was also a star pitcher and the Orange League's most valuable player in his senior year of 1986-87. He came to Pepperdine on a basketball scholarship late last summer.
Tom Asbury, the veteran assistant recently appointed Pepperdine's head basketball coach when Jim Harrick left for UCLA, said that Harrick "basically signed" Burbank on the recommendation of a friend of Pepperdine in Orange County.
In his freshman year in college, Burbank played just 15 minutes of basketball, entering games usually after the outcome had been settled. But he has been an outstanding pitcher and a godsend for Coach Davie Gorrie, whose staff has been riddled by injuries.
Before the season began, Gorrie said: "We felt that pitching would be our main strength until we could get stable with new people at other positions."
But three top sophomore pitchers suffered injuries and a fourth dropped out of school. Gorrie said that he has lost pitchers Craig Stiveson and Wayne Helm for the season, Stiveson with tendinitis in his arm and Helm because of elbow surgery. The third casualty, Randy Hacker, pulled a back muscle but is expected to return soon. Scott Singelyn, the fourth absentee, ran into eligibility problems and dropped out of school after the winter quarter.
Without much pitching, the Waves stumbled at the beginning of the season, but they have rebounded, paced by the steady hurling of senior Doug Simons and Burbank, who made a quick transition from basketball to baseball. As the week began, Simons had a 7-2 record and a team-leading earned run average of 2.82, Burbank was 8-1 with a 3.65 ERA, and Pepperdine was 28-19-1 overall and 13-2-1 in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
Gorrie said that Burbank "has made a real contribution--he really has. I don't know where we would be without him, to tell you the truth."
Asbury and Gorrie both feel that Burbank's future is in baseball, and so does Burbank. The trouble is that the freshman pitcher-forward has a basketball scholarship and that several of Gorrie's players are on partial scholarships, making it difficult for the baseball coach to grant Burbank a full ride. Difficult but not impossible, Gorrie says.
Asbury, who would welcome having another basketball scholarship to give, said that Burbank "was a real fine prospect in both sports. He was a real fine high school (basketball) player . . . but he is really undersized for a power forward."
But Asbury said that he "is having a great baseball year, and that's where his future is. The logistics of financial aid are not a giant problem, but it is one that has to be addressed and will take a real juggling act."
Gorrie said that he is more than willing to try his hand at juggling. He said that, though Burbank is concerned about getting a baseball scholarship, "he thinks it's more of a problem than it probably is.
"He would like to be a baseball player, and I want to make sure we have the money to give him. He will have his scholarship."
That should be good news for Burbank, who said that he feels he has "no future in basketball."
The big right-hander, also a good designated hitter in high school, said it is important for him to concentrate on baseball. "Your sophomore year is the most important in baseball. You have to have a good year then to improve your value in the (major league) draft.
He said that he has also been told to focus on baseball by scouts from the Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins made him their 23rd-round draft choice after his senior year of high school. He said the scouts told him to "stop playing around and decide what you're going to do with your future."
"I haven't decided yet, but as soon as baseball is over, I'll know what's going to happen."
Gorrie apparently has made that decision for him. If all goes well, Burbank will have all of his sophomore year to concentrate on baseball.
Burbank said it would be tough for him to continue to combine the two sports. He said that a college football player who also plays baseball has a little time to rest between the seasons. But he added that he started pitching this year on the day that the basketball team left on a road trip and that he caught up with the cagers on the day of their first game of the trip.
As the basketball season was ending and baseball was beginning, he would spend an hour at baseball practice and two hours with the basketball team.
One day, he said, he was with the baseball team during an afternoon game and went directly from the diamond to a night basketball game at Loyola Marymount. He changed from one uniform to another at Loyola, he said.
His first pitching effort of the season was a little rocky. He went four innings, giving up a two-run home run.
In basketball, he said that he had hoped he would be one of the first players off the bench, instead of playing just a few minutes all season. "That was real hard because in high school, I played every minute of every game.
"At this level, it's not a matter of which sport I enjoy more but what I want to do with my life. I'm a baseball player, and I just happen to have the ability to play basketball.
Burbank said that it has been difficult for him to keep up with his studies but that he has managed to do so, maintaining a B average as a political science major. Once, he said, he missed three two-hour essay tests in American history and was required to make up all of them in one two-hour span. He got passing grades in each, he said.
Gorrie said that Burbank "is a tremendous competitor and is going to be a fine pitcher. He is good now, but he is going to be even better. I think, as his career continues, he is going to be much more of a (major league baseball) prospect than he might have been out of high school. He is gaining maturity, strength and command of his pitches, and, once he dedicates himself to one thing, I think he is going to be a very fine ballplayer . . . Dennis is also a good prospect as a hitter."
Gorrie said that he thinks Burbank has a future as a major leaguer but that will "depend upon his degree of improvement." He said that he throws hard and should throw harder as he matures and gains better control of his curve ball. His chances will improve, the coach said, if he can "come up with a good off-speed pitch. But he's composed out there. He battles."
Burbank said that, if he is unable to make a career out of major league baseball, he plans to go law school. But he added:
"I think I have it. I think I've got what it takes. What I lack I'll work for--and I'll get it."