For the first time in nearly half a century, Fred Burnside isn’t coaching baseball, and those who know him best say he is dearly missed.
“In terms of what he taught me,” said Rene Ruiz, who played for Burnside at Miami Southridge, “I would consider it like a Harvard education for baseball.”
Ruiz is in his first year as South Dade’s head coach, replacing Burnside, his mentor.
Burnside, 70, wrapped up his 47-year coaching career last April, finishing his eighth season at South Dade after previous high school stops at Killian and Southridge and college-assistant jobs at Miami Dade South and Southeastern Louisiana. He even coached youth-league baseball for three years in Perrine.
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The pinnacle for Burnside came in 2014, when he led South Dade to the Class 8A state title, the first baseball championship in the school’s 60-year history. It was also Burnside’s first state title.
Prior to that, Burnside had two consecutive Southridge teams (2001, 2002) that were ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point during the season before getting knocked out in the playoffs by Hialeah. Burnside’s ’02 team lost 5-4 in the state final.
That Hialeah team, coached by Rich Bielski, had pitcher Gio Gonzalez, now a two-time All-Star with the Washington Nationals. And Southridge had shortstop Robert Andino, who has played for four major-league teams including the Marlins last year.
Former South Dade athletic director Joel Furnari, who has known Burnside for most of his life, said he tried relentlessly to get the coach over to his school.
“He said ‘no’ to me 10 times before he finally accepted,” Furnari said. “If you had a kid who was a baseball player, you wanted him to play for Fred because he would give the kid a fair shot. And if the kid could play, Fred would make him better.
“Every practice was well thought-out and calculated. Fred doesn’t leave anything to chance.”
Burnside, born and raised in Miami, was a second baseman at Palmetto during his playing days.
“That’s where you put your weakest infield,” Burnside said with his self-deprecating sense of humor.
Burnside attempted to continue his playing career at Miami Dade North, but he got cut by Demie Mainieri. (The two men would later become great friends.)
At age 24, Burnside started his coaching career as an assistant at Miami Killian. Two years later, he became Killian’s head coach.
Among his friendly rivals at that time was Coral Park coach Steve Hertz, who later ran the program at Miami Dade College.
“We were both in our mid-20s at the time,” Hertz said. “But from the beginning, Fred was knowledgeable and detail-oriented.”
Burnside was an associate head coach under Charlie Greene in 1981, helping his boss win the 1981 junior-college national title.
But it was high school coaching that seemed to be Burnside’s true calling. He posted a remarkable 506-169 record as a high school head coach.
Burnside won three state-wide Coach of the Year honors, twice with Southridge and once with the 2014 South Dade team that finished the year ranked fifth in the nation.
But the coach insists that his biggest joy comes from seeing his former players – such as Ruiz and South Dade athletic director Mike Polizzano – succeed in their lives after baseball.
As for his life after baseball, Burnside said it won’t be easy for him or his wife, Josie, who ran the concession stand at South Dade games and was sort of the team mom.
“We’re both going through withdrawal,” Burnside said.
Burnside is in his final year as a guidance counselor at South Dade. He took this final year so he could help Ruiz by making the schedule, getting the booster club set up with fund-raising activities and other such duties.
Once the school year is over, Burnside said he plans to spend his time visiting with his players who are competing in college. He also wants to visit some major-league ballparks, and he and his wife bought a place in Key Largo where he can enjoy another one of his favorite pursuits, fishing.
Burnside will also have more time to visit with his son, John, who is an athletic trainer at Florida Atlantic University.
“I’ve agonized over this,” Burnside said of his post-baseball life. “But I know I want to retire on the water, do some fishing.”