CD's Connect the Dots... No Standing Pat

In the late 50's the legendary Frank Sinatra crooned a famous song called "That's Life." In it, he laments that "You're riding high in April, shot down in May." Although the great Sinatra could never have known his song was appropriate for a well-known Phillie baseball player, Pat Burrell must know well the feeling. He, and an anxious fan base await the results of June.

Perhaps no story in the lores of Phillie baseball circa 2003 was as well chronicled as the struggles of erstwhile Philadelphia Phillie slugger Pat Burrell. Not since Manager Gene Mauch in 1964 has a Phillie baseball hero's foibles on the baseball diamond been as second-guessed, over analyzed or just plain criticized as Burrell's season long slump last year.

Admittedly, this was not for lack of ammunition.  Fresh on the heels of the acquisitions of Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and David Bell, our local diamond nine were expected not only kick up their heels in the NL East race, but many expected nothing less than a NL pennant.  That the Phils failed to do so provided ample fodder of blame to be placed in several places, none more prevalent than right in Burrell's lap.

To be fair, Pat the Bat never shunned his responsibilities, never cursed the fates, and never feigned illness or injury.  He was always ready to play, and hustled from day one. As a show of support for Pat's efforts, if not results, Phillie fans, normally notorious for their ill-tempered treatment of slump-ridden players, treated Burrell with kid like gloves.

It was as if his struggles were there struggles, and more than one fan could be seen in the stands almost wincing with pain at every Burrell feeble swing at an low and outside breaking pitch.  Yet the fact remains that had he had any semblance of his breakout 2002 season last year, the Phils, and not the Marlins may very well have been wearing the crown in October.

The story of Pat Burrell is a fascinating one and may well reveal much about his struggles last year and his attempt at redemption in 2004.  It also takes on an added element of mystery as history provides a telling example of what this year means to Burrell's ultimate career success, or lack thereof

If ever a player seemed destined for major league stardom it was Burrell.  Literally a baseball star since his prep days at Bellermine High School in San Jose, Burrell is still considered by many to have been the greatest collegiate baseball freshman of all time! Playing third base for the second ranked Miami Hurricanes, he hit a staggering .484 in his freshman year!  His succeeding .409 and .432 averages made his an easy choice as the Phils #1 pick in the 1998 amateur draft.

Once signed by the Phils, Burrell did nothing to discourage the talk that he was not destined to become the next "Mark McGuire" a slugger of almost mythic proportions.  He hit. 303 in his professional debut and followed that with a .333 average at Reading in 1999.  By the year 2000 Burrell was in the Phils everyday lineup in left field and continued his assault on what promised to become new Phillie batting records.

His 2002 season seemed to initiate his coming out party as he hit .282 with 37 HR's and 116 RBI.  The Phils seemed confident enough in his future to reward him with a long-term 50 million dollar deal, and everyone appeared satisfied.

When the Phils, in almost giddy fashion, announced the signing of Thome last winter, Phillie fans could be forgiven for having visions of a new Murderer's Row in the middle of their order. With Bobby Abreu, Burrell and Thome hitting 3-4-5 in the order, projections of over 100 home runs and 330 RBI seemed more than reasonable.

Yet a very strange thing occurred during last year's Phillie coming out party… Pat Burrell forgot to attend. Almost from the first day of spring it was apparent that the cool, confident sweet-swinging Burrell was missing, replaced by an imposter, who seemed forever to be swinging at bad pitches and taking strikes right down the middle.

Once the season began, things only went from bad to worse, and Manager Larry Bowa took to first moving Burrell down in the order and then, in almost total resignation, removing him from the order altogether. Before the season, this would have seemed almost blasphemous, but Burrell's sub .210 average made his presence in the lineup an uncertain thing.

 

Oh, there were moments when he seemed to find his stroke, as in his two home run evening in Shea Stadium against his favorite patsies, the New York Mets.  Even more memorable was the Saturday afternoon game at Pac Bell Park, when his two home runs led to an exhilarating extra inning triumph against the NL West leading San Francisco Giants.

However, Burrell could never seem to string back to back solid games together and his daily struggles became front sports page news.  It reached its crescendo in August, ironically at a time when things seemed to be turning around both for he and his Phillies.  It occurred as the Phils embarked on their longest and most taxing road trip of the year, a 13 game trek through the Midwest and East Coast.

In a season that ends in bitter disappointment, there are often defining moments, points in time that can literally make or break a season for the team. In this writer's opinion, the Phils had such an occurrence, a tiny moment in time when all the stars were in alignment, all the past sins could be forgiven. This was Pat Burrell's moment to lift the Phils on his back and carry them to victory.

Alas, we will never know what Burrell might have done at that moment because he was not allowed to find out. As many Phillie faithful no doubt recall, the situation was this…Phils  involved in a 3-3 tie with the woebegone Milwaukee Brewers in the top of the 7th inning. The Phils, riding a five-game winning streak, and firmly entrenched in the wild card leading spot, loaded the bases with no outs.

Clearly, here was a spot made for a hero and it was Burrell's turn to hit. Although he was hitless in the game, and admittedly had looked bad doing it, he had homered in the previous game against the St. Louis Cards, and this seemed a great opportunity to make amends for four months worth of frustration.

In fact, this seemed a redeeming moment, and one can only wonder what might have happened had he have been allowed to hit.  Instead, Manager Bowa pinch-hit for him, with disastrous results. Almost as if the balloon's air had suddenly been allowed to disappear into thin air, so did the Phillie rally.  Two strikeouts and a fly ball later, the game was still tied, and Milwaukee gladly accepted this gift with an eventual 5-4 victory.

What made this game even more exasperating was that this was the night that ace righty Kevin Millwood felt he had been prematurely removed from the game, and voiced his displeasure.  The road trip, and the wild card lead, disintegrated from there, to the tune of nine losses in the next ten games. Although the Phils briefly rallied against the Marlins, they never really recovered from this game.

Although we will never know for sure, it may very well have been that at bat, that moment denied, that actually finished Burrell mentally. What is known is that he was constantly looking over his shoulder the rest of the season, and must have been the happiest man in the clubhouse when the '03 season reached its conclusion, at least two weeks too before planned.

Fast forward to 2004 and a newly invigorated Pat Burrell is already in Clearwater, and by all reports, with a completely new approach and attitude.  He is already receiving praise from hitting guru, Charlie Manuel and Bowa, both for a restructured batting stance, and a totally focused mentality.  It is interesting that his mental approach should be the subject of praise, as most knowledgeable people felt that Burrell's problems were almost all mental.

It behooves Pat to start the 2004 season on the right foot, not only for the Phil's hopes, but for his very own professional career.  History is very clear about sluggers like Burrell.  It indicates that sluggers often have one bad year early in their careers, but it is what happens the following year that dictates their eventual place in the stratosphere of slugging stars.

Both Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds had one-year blips in their successful careers, seasons that defied reason. Yet, their failure only lasted a single season, and they soon regained their former status as future Hall of Famer sluggers.

On the other hand, such young sluggers as Dave Kingman and Dave Nicholson were young sluggers of extreme promise and production. Yet, they followed early career slumps with a follow up season of equal frustration, and this turned out to be their career norms.

It is difficult to find the story of a slugger who earned the early success of Burrell, then followed it up with two bad seasons, before regaining their former luster. Pat the Bat knows history, and he understands his place in future Phillie lore may well be determined by how he does in 2004.

Clearly, an invigorated Burrell not only offers middle of the order protection for Abreu and Thome, but also gives the Phils greater flexibility with their bench. Often, Bowa would save lefty Rickie Ledee for a late game at bat against a tough right-handed hurler because Burrell was struggling.

The entire lineup figures to benefit from the newer, better version of the Burrell Machine and Sinatra himself has already written the expected words to the story.  As Burrell was "riding high in April and shot down in May", he can take solace in these lyrics by the great soloist sung so many years ago.  "But I know I'm gonna change my tune, when I'm back on top in June."

The chances are excellent that a Burrell "on top of his game in June" will equal a Phillie team "on top of their division come the same time!"

 

 

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast.

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