“Have bat, will travel” could have been Burks’ motto. Tabbed a future MVP by Twins manager Tom Kelly, the speedy Burks earned the Red Sox’ starting centerfield job at the age of 22, and as a rookie in 1987 became only the third player in club history to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in one season. He earned spots on both the Baseball Digest and Topps all-rookie teams, and in 1988 hit .294 with 92 RBI and 25 stolen bases. Defensively, Burks was one of the best centerfielders in the majors, with great range and a sure glove offsetting a somewhat erratic arm. His rise to stardom was interrupted by shoulder surgery in 1989.
It was the first of many setbacks for Burks, who later suffered through bad knees, bad quads, and a bad back. None of his injuries were career-threatening, just nagging battle wounds that took him out of the lineup for short stretches. His oft-injured status maddened teammates, fans and managers alike, but to Burks it was just a by-product of playing good, hard baseball. “They’re all baseball injuries, it’s not like I got hurt falling out of the damn bed,” he told newspaper reporters in 1999.
It was hard to argue with him, because a healthy Burks was worth having. In 1996 he got over 600 at-bats and, helped by the thin air of Coors Field, scored 142 runs, knock in another 128, and bat .344. With the Giants four years later, he again hit .344, batting fifth behind Barry Bonds and NL MVP Jeff Kent. That performance earned him a three-year, $20 million contract from the Indians after the season.