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ON BASEBALL

Striking change for Burkett

A month before spring training, John Burkett is still out of a job, though he said the New York Yankees called a couple of days ago. How serious they are, he doesn't know yet. The other teams that have called this winter -- the Cubs, Twins, Orioles, Cardinals -- showed only what he called "slight" interest. "Obviously, when the Yankees get involved, they can make things happen," he said. "Maybe they will, maybe they won't."

But Burkett, who won a total of 25 games for the Red Sox in his two seasons with Boston before becoming a free agent, vows he won't go to camp armed only with an invitation. If someone wants to offer him a guaranteed big-league contract, fine. If not, he has other things to do.

Like bowling. The 39-year-old Burkett has entered the American Bowling Congress Masters tournament, which begins Wednesday in Reno's National Bowling Stadium. This is no lark. Burkett has 10 sanctioned perfect 300 games, has maintained a 230 average this winter in a neighborhood league in Silverlake, Texas, and recently bowled a 299, leaving the 10 pin standing with his final shot.

"With bowling, there's some luck involved," he said by phone from his home yesterday. "You can make 12 perfect shots. My last shot was as good as my first one, but the pin didn't drop."

While the Masters is an ABC event, it's recognized as a major tournament by the Pro Bowlers Association. Burkett, who has finished in the money in previous PBA events, said he may enter the PBA's Reno Open after the Masters, depending on how well he bowls (he once threw 42 successive strikes), and whether he may have to switch back to baseball.

The bowling will not be the start of a new career, said Burkett, who as a kid began bowling at the Wedgewood Lanes in his hometown of Beaver, Pa., where he used to clean out ashtrays and take out the trash.

"I wouldn't take it up full time," he said. "I'll just dabble a little bit. Baseball has afforded me the chance to do that and not worry about it too much. Just have a little fun with it."

Burkett said he has been throwing the baseball in case he comes back in 2004, which would mark his 21st year in pro ball and 16th in the big leagues. But he also took up skiing for the first time, an activity that in the past has always been prohibited by his baseball contract, another indication he is prepared that this is the end, baseball-wise.

"We went to Jackson Hole [Wyo.] with my wife and kids, and I really enjoyed it," he said. "The week we were there, we had 5 feet of snow."

The biggest payday of Burkett's career came when outgoing Sox GM Dan Duquette signed him to a two-year, $11 million contract prior to the 2002 season. His 25 wins cost the Sox roughly $440,000 a win, a generous chunk of cash for a guy who ended the season as the club's No. 5 starter.

But despite having a fastball that in the last few years of his career rarely exceeded 85 miles an hour, Burkett understood the art of pitching so well that he has 166 career wins, which is one more than the career total of Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Famer.

"This lasted so much longer than I ever thought it would," said Burkett, whose best season came in 1993, when he went 22-7 for the Giants, and whose career appeared to have come to an end in 2000, when the Devil Rays released him in spring training, only to have the Braves pick him up.

Burkett won Game 3 of the NL division playoffs for the Braves against the Astros in 2001, and the Sox won both of his starts in the postseason last fall, though he did not get the decision in either a 5-4 win over the A's in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, or a 9-6 win over the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS.

"If that was my last game," he said, "it's pretty cool that they gave me the ball in an elimination game." The Sox trailed the Yankees, 3 games to 2, in the series. He laughed. "But now I can't get a job? How do you explain that?"

Burkett was bemused to hear that the Sox reportedly were prepared to pay Byung Hyun Kim $10 million for two years to replace him as the No. 5 starter.

"Wow, that's a little surprising to me," he said. "He's an all-right guy, but to me that's taking a bit of a risk. Getting him last year, the way he reacted to Boston [Kim made an obscene gesture to fans in Fenway Park] and things, I don't know about that.

"But some people have to make good on the deals they made, and they did give up [Shea] Hillenbrand for him. He was OK, he did OK, and I'm sure he can pitch better. And I've seen people do things one year, and the next year people love them."

Burkett just wants to keep his best shots out of the gutter.

"I wish only the best for those guys," he said. "Theo [Epstein] was great to me. I didn't expect them to try and keep me around for the rest of my life.

"I hope they do great. They have a lot of great guys, and if I'm not playing, I'll probably buy that MLB TV package and punch up the Red Sox."

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