Friday, January 8, 2016

The Oakland A's/Seibu Lions Series: Ty Van Burkleo

For this part in our series, we talk about one of the few player and coach combinations between the Oakland A's and Seibu Lions organizations. Van Burkleo never played for the A's, but did act as a hitting coach in the 2000s. Van Burkleo found his first real opportunity in Japan with the Seibu Lions and was part of a very important team, which was during the Golden Age.


Tenures: 2007-2008 with the Oakland A's (as hitting coach), 1988-1990 with the Seibu Lions

Statistics with the Seibu Lions

1988: 118 games, 453 PAs, .268/.406/.617, 38 HRs, 90 RBIs
1989: 37 games, 135 PAs, .210/.304/.412, 6 HRs, 11 RBIs
1990: 41 games, 129 PAs, .196/.302/.464, 9 HRs, 22 RBIs

Ty Van Burkleo was born in Oakland and raised in Chatsworth, California. Van Burkleo went undrafted after graduating from high school in 1981, but after enrolling at Los Angeles Valley College, he was signed as an amateur free agent in December of 1981 by the Milwaukee Brewers for $30,000.

As an 18 year old, the Milwaukee Brewers sent Van Burkleo to Beloit where he showed success as a three true outcomes hitter, hitting 22 home runs and striking out 135 times in 129 games. He'd then spend time in Stockton, where he didn't find the success he had in Beloit and as a result, the Brewers released him in the middle of the 1984 season.

Van Burkleo was a free agent for all of 8 days, as the California Angels decided to sign him and send him to Peoria. He'd end up playing in Redwood, Palm Springs, and Midland. He'd enjoy some success in Palm Springs and Midland, but he was given his outright release in the middle of the 1987 season and at the age of 23, he was without a team and direction.

With things in the United States coming to a stall, Japan came calling and that team was the back-to-back-to-back defending Japan Series champions, the Seibu Lions. The Lions had dominated the 1980s with Japan Series championships in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1987.

The Lions saw a lot of potential in the 6'5", 230 pound frame of Van Burkleo and in 1988, he took NPB by storm. Surrounded by a tremendous lineup with former Softbank Hawks manager Koji Akiyama, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, and Hiromichi Ishige, Van Burkleo saw a career season where he tied for the team lead in home runs (38) with Akiyama.

As a whole, the 1988 Seibu Lions hit 188 home runs, but still had to fight off the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the Pacific League pennant. The Lions were the beneficiaries of a major choke job by the Buffaloes, who were behind the Lions by a half game with Kintetsu having four games left to play. The Lotte Orions dramatically defeated the Buffaloes on the last game of the season and therefore, the Lions were given the Pacific League pennant and a date with the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series.

The 1988 Japan Series saw a feasting by the tremendous lineup from the Lions and they won the series in five games. In game 5, the series was won thanks to catcher and current Chiba Marines' manager, Tsutomu Ito, who had a walk-off base hit to end it all.

This video below shows highlights from games 3-5 in that series. You'll see cameos from current Softbank Hawks manager and Seibu Lions legend, Kimiyasu Kudo. You'll also see just how big a series Akiyama and Kiyohara had at the plate. There's even one cameo of Van Burkleo from 6:54-7:10 where he's the beneficiary of an error that plated two runs for the Lions in Game 4. Lastly, you'll see that the Seibu Dome was an outdoor stadium and a roof was not installed until the 1990s.

After winning the 1988 Japan Series, Van Burkleo was named the Lions player of the year and heading into 1989, the Lions media guide tabbed Van Burkleo to continue his success. The front office even awarded Van Burkleo with a $500,000 salary for the upcoming season and at the age of 25, things looked good.

Unfortunately for the Lions and Van Burkleo, success didn't continue for the Lions in 1989. They were statistically the best pitching team and also the 2nd best hitting team in the Pacific league, but they found themselves finishing third, eight games behind the Kinetsu Buffaloes who finally won a Pacific League pennant after missing out on the previous year. For Van Burkleo, his at bats became decreased thanks to the adding of another gaijin who was larger than life known as Orestes Destrade.

Destrade was brought in during the early part of the year and he fit a similar skill set to Van Burkleo. As a result, Van Burkleo found himself on the bench while Destrade became the main DH and would begin his career as one of the better gaijin's brought to Japan. Van Burkleo was then demoted to the farm team, a place that he'd become very familiar with during the rest of his time in Japan.

The 1990 season would go the same for Van Burkleo, and in this season, Destrade became the Pacific League Home Run King. On the flip side, Van Burkleo was once again demoted to the farm team while the Lions would head back to the Japan Series which saw them defeat the Yomiuri Giants in a clean sweep. Destrade would earn MVP honors.

In 1991, Van Burkleo looked to another opportunity in the Far East and the Hiroshima Carp of the Central League came calling. The Lions sold Van Burkleo to them after he asked for a trade.  In Hiroshima, Van Burkleo saw similar problems that he encountered in Saitama, with no DH in the Central League, Van Burkleo was forced to play in the field and he was well-behind the depth chart at first base and in the outfield.

Van Burkleo only saw 29 games with the ichi-gun in 1991 while in Hiroshima. The Carp would win the Central League pennant that year, and they'd meet the Lions in the Japan Series. The Lions would win it all again, this time in 7 games, with Koji Akiyama hitting four home runs.

It was clear that Van Burkleo's career in Japan was over. A team that came calling was a familiar friend to Van Burkleo as the California Angels organization brought him back to the States, ahead of the 1992 season. He played in Edmonton and was earning an annual salary of $36,000, it was a long way from his glory days with the Seibu Lions.

In an article from the LA Times, Van Burkleo spoke about his time in Japan and didn't have a lot of nice things to say about his time there. He didn't like the Lions legendary manager, Masaaki Mori, complaining about how often they'd pinch hit for him, whether he'd hit two home runs or go 0 for 2. He felt as though he was a "black sheep" and that he was treated as a "temporary helper" (Suketto in Japanese)  rather than a full-time contributor to the team.

On Mori, Van Burkleo had this to say straight from the article.

"The Seibu manager was also fiercely nationalistic, being a former player for the Tokyo Giants during the Sadaharu Oh days, when they won seven or eight straight championships and did it without American players. He believed that every team in the league should be all-Japanese."

These comments reflect similar criticisms of Japanese managers during that time period. Van Burkleo didn't complain about the training of Japanese ballplayers but instead attacked how he was used with no loyalty to him. He would later go on to complain about how the Hiroshima Carp expected him to hit 40 home runs and they started him on opening day where he went hitless. The Carp wouldn't start him for another 2 months.

Van Burkleo eventually made his Major League debut for the California Angels during the 1993 season in a game against the Oakland A's. He'd play in 12 games in that season, and even hit one home run. He'd then play in a couple games for the Colorado Rockies in 1994, but that would be the last time he'd play in the major leagues. 

He'd bounce around the minor leagues for a few more years, playing in Colorado Springs and Lake Elsinore, once again landing in the Angels organization. By the age of 32, Ty Van Burkleo's playing career was over. He wouldn't stay retired for very long and by the next year, he was coaching with the High Desert Mavericks who were a Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate at the time.

He'd then take a job as a minor league hitting coordinator for the Angels in 2001. In 2007, Van Burkleo would earn himself a position in this series, by joining Bob Geren's staff as the hitting coach for the Oakland A's in 2007-2008.

It was during this time, Van Burkleo would return to Japan as a member of the A's since they started the year in Japan during the 2008 season. As chronicled by our friends at the Japan Times, 15 years after publicly ripping his time in Japan, a much older Ty Van Burkleo talked about how happy he was to be back and how he only remembers the good times. He admitted to having difficult times, but that was natural for anyone.

He even went over to Saitama to see the newly refurbished Seibu Dome, which had gone through many changes since Van Burkleo last saw it. He met with the Lions' gaijin players of that time. (And a couple of those players will be chronicled later in this series)

Van Burkleo even went onto say that his old teammates: Koji Akiyama, Kimiyasu Kudo, and both Tonio and Hisanobu Watanabe were all good enough to play in the States. 

To add more to the nice story book ending of Van Burkleo and the Lions' relationship, Seibu would go onto win the 2008 Japan Series, almost as if Van Burkleo had brought back the magic from that 1988 team.

After the 2008 season, the new manager of the Seattle Mariners, Don Wakamatsu (who was also part of the A's organization), offered him the bench coach job which gave him a new level of experience. He'd hold this position from 2009-2010, until Wakamatsu was fired after the season.

Van Burkleo would not pick up a coaching job until 2012, when he was named the interim hitting coach of the Houston Astros. After 2012, he was named the Cleveland Indians hitting coach as a part of Terry Francona's staff, which is the position he holds to this day.

Note: In the LA Times article, Van Burkleo is listed as having played 5 seasons in Japan. They also say that he joined the Lions in the middle of the 1987 season, where he hit .279 with 20 RBIs in 34 games. This is not included in baseball-reference or any other database that I've looked at. 


Others in the series: 


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