This past season was another successful season for Gary Burnham. He was again named the MVP of his team - the Ottawa Lynx - and hit .292 in a tough situation with Ottawa. "I'm not going to lie to you, Ottawa was awful. It's cold and for the first couple months of the season, the ball just doesn't go anywhere. It's definitely a pitcher's park and playing there is almost like a high school atmosphere, since there are never many fans in the park," said Burnham, who did his homework before heading North of the Border. "I compared stats of players who had played there and their numbers were usually down during the time they played in Ottawa. There were some exceptions, but in general, I knew it was going to be a tough place to play." That trend showed in Burnham's numbers. He hit just .259 at home and a much stronger .325 on the road last season. It's surprising, but as a team, the Lynx hit an identical .267 at home and on the road last season, although their pitchers took advantage of the pitcher friendly park, posting a 4.01 ERA at home and a 5.59 mark on the road.
With strong career numbers to back up his battle for a shot in the majors, Gary Burnham has no answer for why he's never gotten an opportunity to put on a Major League uniform. In fact, he's looking for answers to just that question. "Maybe you can tell me," asked Burnham when he was asked for an explanation of why he has never gotten a shot. "I've done everything I can and I know that I'm a good ball player. I'm just looking for a chance, even to go to Spring Training with a club and get a shot there," said Burnham. For many years, Burnham's friend and former teammate Chris Coste had the same burning question in his mind. Now, the two are separated by the fact that Coste eventually did get his shot. "I've talked to Costie about it and he just keeps telling me to hang in there. It's sort of ironic, because when he first got called up, he was hitting like .175 [actually, .177] and was sort of surprised that he got the call," remembers Burnham. Sometimes, a player's attitude can be an obstacle to the majors. Not so with Burnham, who has always been well liked and respected by teammates and is generally always a fan favorite for his style of play. In fact, if it was his attitude, why would the Phillies have brought him back for a second stint with the organization? Perhaps Burnham is right and his opportunity simply hasn't come around yet.
Still, for a left-handed hitter with good career numbers, there has to be some answer. The closest that Burnham has ever come to getting an answer was when he was in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. It was 2002 and Burnham was playing at Triple-A Syracuse and as September rolled around, the then 27 year old was hoping for a call to the big league club. He also had manager Omar Malave pushing for him to join the Blue Jays. Finally, Malave sat Burnham down for a talk and had to tell him that GM J.P. Ricciardi had sent down word that Burnham simply wasn't needed at the Major League level. "I won't every play the victim role," said an adamant Burnham. "I honestly believe that the opportunity just hasn't presented itself yet. I'm convinced that I'll get my shot."
As a minor league free agent, Burnham is free to sign anywhere he chooses and returning to Philadelphia isn't out of the question for him. However, the roots that he set down in the Phillies organization could be a stepping off point for him. In Ottawa, Burnham played for John Russell, who was named the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates this off-season. Russell, the former Phillies player and minor league manager, might well remember Burnham as the Pirates look to turn things around after a number of front office and field level changes in the organization. Burnham has to hope that Russell remembers him, because he's not going to beg for a shot. "I called JR [Russell] right after he got the job and left a message for him to congratulate him. I might call him again sometime, but I'm not going to be one of those guys who says 'hey, how about giving me a shot' and I'm not going to hound him. I'm glad for him, he deserves the opportunity," said Burnham of his former manager. While Russell may do well to alert the folks in Pittsburgh as to what Burnham might be able to do for them, baseball doesn't always work that way. The Phillies are a good example of that. Even after seeing the success that Chris Coste has had in the majors after a similar minor league background, they've turned a blind eye toward promoting Burnham with a September call-up. Even last September, when players like Chris Roberson, who may be a higher ranked prospect, but was hitting nearly 30 points less than Burnham, Kane Davis and John Ennis were getting called up, the Phillies didn't extend a courtesy call to Burnham. "Baseball doesn't work that way. There's not much courtesy in the game. Hell, I would have been happy to just be there," admitted Burnham. It was also curious that in looking for a left-handed hitter to bring off the bench, the Phillies turned to Russell Branyan instead of Burnham. "I do wonder why I couldn't have gotten those ten at bats," said Burnham. It's likely that Burnham could have at least turned in the .222 average that Branyan did as a Phillie.
At this point, Burnham doesn't have his heart set on playing everyday in the majors. "I could be a left-handed pinch-hitter to bring off the bench," said Burnham. "I can hit the ball and play hard and I believe I could help somebody."
If the opportunity that Burnham is waiting for simply hasn't come around yet, it needs to be right around one of these near corners. At age 33, Burnham isn't old, unless you're putting the word 'rookie' after his age. The truth is that he does play hard and has put up better numbers than a lot of guys in the minors have and many of those guys at least got a shot. If nothing else, baseball owes it to Burnham to find a spot for him on a Major League roster. Guys who have toiled in the minors for as long as he has, without complaining or souring on the game that they love are great for the game. Any team, any where, could get some mileage out of giving a guy like Burnham an invite to camp and a chance to show what he can do. If he fails, he fails, but there's no harm done. There also would be no harm done to giving a guy like Burnham a September roster spot and a couple of at bats in those situations that always arise late in those September games. You know the ones; it's 9-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and nobody on base. Surely, there could be no harm. For now, Burnham will let his agents work their magic at next week's Winter Meetings. He's vowed to play as long as there is a team that will hire him and there has to be one of those teams out there.
*Numbers are from all levels of Burnham's 10 year minor league career, but do not include the time he spent in the independent Atlantic League.