The thing about coming to define a ballplayer’s legacy is that it’s totally subjective. For instance, a guy like Simon Gagne is the longest tenured athlete in Philadelphia right now, and might go on to set a whole bunch of franchise records for the Flyers. However, Gagne was rarely the most important player on his team.
Of course an argument could be made about Gagne these days considering the Flyers are 7-1 in games that he played in during the current playoff run.
Still another thing about this exercise is that it defies statistics or any other type of metric. It’s completely one of those “it” things. You know, it’s so tough to define “it,” but you know it when you see, “it.”
So with the end of his days as an everyday player on a major league roster likely looming after the Tampa Bay Rays sent him packing, we are officially entering the beginning of the end for Pat Burrell. The weird thing about the fan favorite here in Philly being sent out by Tampa is how quickly the bottom fell out for Burrell. After he clubbed that long double off the top of the center field fence to set up the World Series-winning run in October of 2008, Burrell has not been very good.
No, he hasn’t been as awful as he was in 2003 when he batted just .209 and manager Larry Bowa wanted to send him back to the minors only to be vetoed by general manager Ed Wade because they signed the guy to a $50 million deal before the season. However, with the remainder of a $16 million deal still owed for the rest of the year, Burrell has been bad enough that the Rays had to do something.
After all, Burrell still has that big, sweeping swing that leads him to strikeout more often than he puts it into play. Remember that swing? You know, the one that made you throw things at your TV set because you saw it so often every summer so you figured someone must have been in Burrell’s ear telling him not to swing at those low and away pitches that sent his rear to the on-deck circle while his bat flailed like an old lady beating back a prowler with her cane.
Yes, that swing. Apparently the folks in Tampa had less patience for it than we did.
Chances are Burrell will clear waivers and catch on with a team as apart-time DH or right-handed bat off the bench. He’s not so far gone that he’s completely worthless even though he’s hit just two homers, whiffed 28 times in 84 at-bats, and posted a .202 batting average. Just like Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia, Rays’ manager Joe Maddon couldn’t say enough nice things about Burrell even when kicking him to the curb.
“The thing about Pat that I respect so much, this guy worked very, very hard despite a lot of outside criticism,” Maddon told reporters on Saturday. “But I’m always about effort and work, and this guy did that every day. He was the first guy showing up. He was always in the cage, always worked on his defense even though he didn’t play out there. He was very supportive among his teammates. It’s just unfortunate that it did not work out.”
In other words it was business, not personal. It was exactly what Ruben Amaro Jr. said when the Phillies decided to allow Burrell to become a free agent after his key double and role as the Grand Marshal in the World Series parade down Broad St. Quite clearly, it was a great send off and one Burrell never wanted. If the Phillies would have had him back, he would have stayed. And yet despite some kind words from people like Bill James touting his stats, the Phillies kind of knew better.
There were just too many of those swings.
But how will you remember Pat Burrell? Is he a Greg Luzinski type with some big slugging seasons before a very quick demise? Did he have a career worthy of the Phillies’ Wall of Fame?
Or was he the epitome of unfulfilled promise and hype? Was he one of those guys who just had so much talent and raw ability, but no idea how to piece it all together?
How about all of the above?
Burrell, of course, was the No. 1 overall pick out of Miami in 1998 who belted 29 homers in his first full season of pro ball in ’99 and then got the call to the big club in May of 2000. In fact, in his first big league game in Houston, Burrell hit one so hard that if that high wall in left field hadn’t gotten in the way, the ball might have orbited the earth. Oddly enough the pitcher who served up that shot was none other than his soon to be nemesis, Billy Wagner.
Burrell hit 18 homers in 111 games of his first season, 27 in 2001 and then the big year in 2002 with 37 homers, 116 RBIs and a career-high .920 OPS. After that season he had the city in the palm of his hand because of his ability to get huge hits against the Mets, that $50 million deal, and his de facto title as the “Midnight Mayor” of Philadelphia.
And then he just never put it all together. Sure, there was that good 2005 season and a strong 2007, but his inability to hit with runners on base in 2006 might have cost the Phillies a shot at the playoffs. Strangely, 30-homer seasons with solid RBI and slugging numbers seemed rather mundane, probably because we expected so much more.
Yet Philadelphia loved the guy. He somehow was excused from the boos that rained on Mike Schmidt during rough times, or hundreds of lesser players. Why was that? How could a No. 1 overall pick struggle to hit .200 and to avoid a trip back to the minors wind up being cheered… in Philadelphia? Somehow Burrell charmed the fans even when he was snubbing the press. Needless to say, Burrell was in a unique position for an athlete in the city.
Maybe the reason for that was because he was so accessible. There were probably thousands of Phillies fans that ran into him after games at The Irish Pub or out in Olde City, where he likely bought a few rounds for the house. Perhaps Burrell was immune to the catcalls because he lived the fantasy life of a star athlete to the hilt, and didn’t miss work or call in sick. In fact, he and his bulldog Elvis were usually the first pair in the clubhouse every day. Better yet, he was one of the leaders behind the scenes with the Phillies when they finally broke that playoff drought.
He did a lot of things that fans and ballplayers liked, such as calling out guys like Wagner for perceived slights and not airing his laundry in the media. Actually, Burrell called us “rats,” which is fair considering we ripped him for all those slumps and strikeouts. Sure, he was fine to shoot the breeze with or trade in some friendly banter or idle gossip, but to go to talk about himself or some insight on the team or the game… forget it. That’s when the walls went up.
For those looking for the defining quotes on Burrell, look no further than this gem Dallas Green dropped on Jim Salisbury a couple of years ago:
“I’ve been out with him a couple times in Florida. We have a secret (watering) hole every now and then.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. There are tons of guys in the Hall of Fame that were like that.
“It’s neat to have money, it’s neat to have good looks, and it’s neat to have broads all over you. Every place I’ve managed, I’ve talked to kids about the same thing. It’s a hell of a life. But there comes a time in every player’s life when he needs to get his act together.”
No one is saying Burrell doesn’t have his act together—far from it. However, the act often changes for all ballplayers and athletes. Sometimes it has to come crashing down to remember how good it once was.