Pat Burrell retired yesterday. I suppose the lasting impression of him wearing a Giants uniform kept me from taking proper notice. Burrell was a very important Phillie, and as I was reminded today, almost everyone has a Pat Burrell story. If you’ve ever crossed paths with this guy, or know someone who has, you’ve probably heard a tale of Burrell. We’re talking mostly off the field endeavors. The first Burrell story I ever heard was from my college roommate, who had rumors on Pat the Bat from his Cape Cod League days. That’s not the story I’m going to tell here today. It’s not the proper forum, and I’ll get to my far tamer tale in a minute, but first a quick acknowledgement of Burrell’s career.
Burrell was part of the homegrown nucleus that eventually won the Phillies a World Series. Along with Jimmy Rollins, Burrell was one of the first of this generation to arrive in Philly. From the jump, there was always a bit more focus on Burrell than the other players. Jimmy Rollins arrived in the big leagues as an unknown commodity to most casual fans, but any Phillie fan worth a damn had been tracking Burrell since the day Phillies took him with the 1st overall pick in 1998. Of course, to get the 1st pick, you have to be the worst team and the Phillies were terrible then. Not only was Burrell charged with turning the team around, it was also his responsibility to erase the memory of J.D. Drew. The Phillies had wasted their 1st rounder on Drew the year before (Drew would go 5th in the same 1998 draft to St. Louis). Instead of getting two future cornerstones, Burrell was looked at to do all the work on his own. Luckily for him, there was a lot of less-hyped help also on the way.
That isn’t to say that Burrell didn’t live up to expectations, but they might have been just too high. He cruised through the Minors and arrived partway through the 2000 season. He went 2 for 5 with 2 RBI in his debut in Houston and I honestly remember Jayson Stark talking about him on Baseball Tonight either that night or sometime soon after his debut. The name he used was Jeff Bagwell. Burrell was a middle of the order power threat that could hit .300. He had been a .300 hitter in the minors, and that is the comparison Stark came up with. He would not become Jeff Bagwell, but he had several solid years with the Phillies and rode some historic hot and cold streaks.
He always seemed to do all right with the fans, though, even in his hard times. He seemed to have an awareness of what was expected of him and he was always accountable. And, maybe the fans were always hoping that the former #1 pick would eventually become a superstar. Maybe it is because everyone had heard a Burrell story or two and they found him more real than other players, easier to relate to, I don’t know.
My personal Burrell story comes from the Spring of 2004. Burrell was coming off his nightmare season. One-year removed from signing a huge contract extension (earned with a .282/37/116 season in ’02) Burrell had slumped mightily to .209/21/64 in 2003. I was down in Clearwater that Spring and I found myself playing golf with Burrell and Jason Michaels. I was recently out of college and on the ride over to Burrell’s course he and Michaels both grilled me about my schooling while regaling me with tales of exactly how little work they’d done at the University of Miami. Burrell, who was in his mid-20s at the time, a few years my senior still struck me very much as a college guy. He had a 50 million dollar contract, but on the way to the course stopped for a tin of dip. This was all very easy to relate to, aside from being in a much nicer car, I could have been with any of my friends headed out to the course.
I don’t remember much about the round, or the place we played. There was one funny moment when we got there and the guy working didn’t know Jason Michaels. He asked him what position he played and Michaels took a self-conscious pause trying to figure out how to say he was a reserve–Burrell needed no such introduction. I’ve played with people who made me nervous, I’ve played at courses that made me nervous, but I never really felt any of that on the course with Burrell. He was easily impressed with my game, inquisitive about my dating life, etc.
Sometime late in the back nine we came a short par three. We hit our tee shots and we got to the green, it was covered with those seeds that fall from maple trees. The ones that helicopter to the ground if you drop them. They were everywhere and we started to make an effort to clean off the green before realizing it was a futile pursuit. Burrell still had a few of the seeds in his hands. He dropped one of them and watched it spin toward the ground.
“Look,” he said. “It’s just like my career. A downward spiral.”
He was the first to laugh and then everyone laughed, because what else could you do? Obviously, Burrell never took himself too seriously, but also it takes a lot of self-awareness to say something like that. I think a lot of people think athletes are delusional, brainwashed into thinking they’re great and will be able to play forever–see Jamie Moyer. But, there was none of that with Burrell. Maybe it kept him from reaching the peaks of his potential, but it definitely made him a good guy to play a round of golf with.
I was happy that he did eventually turn his career around. He had four very productive seasons right up through that World Series, and even after he left I found myself pulling for him (with the exception of the NLCS). I think part of that was because of that round of golf we played, but also Burrell was just an easy guy to pull for. I’m sure he’ll come back to Philadelphia at some point, a World Series reunion or whatever, and receive a hero’s welcome. In my mind, he deserves it–for the stories alone.