Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell may seem like an odd player to root for — underperforming, overpaid, universally maligned by Phillies fans — but for a while I’ve felt bad for the guy. He and shortstop Jimmy Rollins have spent their entire careers with the woeful-no-longer Phillies, and Philly fans are nothing if not unforgiving about underperforming, overpaid players.
As the Phillies moved through their awesome postseason run, which culminated in a World Series win last night, reporters would ask Burrell how it felt to be in the position the Phillies found themselves in. You got the sense in these post-game interviews that Burrell could never quite come around and give reporters a canned quote — something along the lines of, “It’s great to be here, we’ve got a great team, blah blah.” Instead, he tended to say something ambiguous, as after the Phillies beat the Dodgers to make it to the World Series:
Throughout the clubhouse pandemonium reigned as players, owners, team officials and every part of the organization celebrated the biggest win this century.
All but two players.
“I’m just not ready yet,” said the longest tenured Phillies player Pat Burrell. “I need to collect my thoughts.”
Burrell has been through both the good and the bad with this organization. The former No. 1 pick was supposed to be the face of this team but in recent years that’s simply not been the case. Burrell, who is in the final year of his contract, had a tough time gathering his thoughts, and coming to an understanding of what all of this meant.
Instead, he stood between a television riser and a row of lockers with bench coach Jimy Williams. With a Bud Light in his right hand, he muttered words to Williams and then looked out over what had once been a dream, then a nightmarish goal he never thought he could achieve. And finally, a moment of reflection.
“I’m just watching this celebration and thinking about all the times, and years in the minor leagues and how it’s all come to this point, and now it’s worth it,” Burrell said. “I really don’t know what else to say.
“Pretty much 100 percent right. This is (an introspective) moment. I’m just taking it in. There is a lot of anticipation, but when it comes it takes you by surprise.”
What’s made this so special for Burrell is that unlike any other point in his time in this organization, Burrell feels a part of a team. A 25-man roster with just one goal and one that has had a different player step up in each of the nine postseason games.
In an almost fitting display of humility, Burrell didn’t want to discuss a series in which he hit .357. He didn’t want to talk about a running catch in the sixth or, about anything he’s done.
Instead, Burrell looked around and saw teammate Jimmy Rollins, allowed a smile to creep to his face knowing that for all but two months, Rollins has been on the same journey, and the concept of team was written in every movement he made.
The other part of this is that Burrell is officially a free agent now, and he actually had a pretty good season this year (players have a way of doing that in contract years — see Ramirez, Manny and Rodriguez, Alex), so more than anyone except for 46-year-old Philadelphia-area native Jamie Moyer and perhaps Jimmy Rollins as well, I really, really wanted Burrell to win this thing. All during the playoffs, I was transfixed by what I perceived as the tense quotes that hinted at Burrell’s love-hate relationship with the Philly fans. But last night that changed, and he explained the Philly pride more than most are able to express (usually people bring up the throwing-snowballs-at-Santa trope). It made me misty-eyed:
“We play in a tough town to play in, and I’m proud of that,” said Pat Burrell, the longest-tenured Phillie, whose leadoff double in the seventh started the winning rally. “I’m proud to say I play here. I don’t think anybody in here understands the way the city and the people think more than I do. To be able to hand this over to them is as good as it gets.”
I don’t know that Burrell will get, or want — or the Phillies fans want him to have — another contract, so it’s nice that he at least went out on a high note:
[Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell] met as teenagers at the Area Code Games, a California-based baseball tournament designated for the top young players to be seen. Rollins and his roommate were playing dice at one of the tournaments when Burrell walked in his room. He wanted to learn how to play and Rollins gave him a quick rundown.
“Five minutes later he was sitting on the bed watching TV with no money,” Rollins said.
Burrell didn’t have to worry about money soon enough. He signed a six-year $50 million contract before the 2003 season. However, now he had to deal with Philadelphia’s fans, who didn’t give him much room for error.
He went through enormous slumps, including going .209 with 64 RBIs in just the first year of his contract.
“I know what (a championship) is going to bring,” Burrell said. “I know because I had to sit through the ’80 stuff and the ’93 stuff. Winning erases a lot of stuff.”
Burrell has said that he wants to remain with the Phillies. He stood in the clubhouse after the win, soaked in champagne. Chase Utley, one of his closest friends on the team, opened a bottle just for him.
He slowly poured it onto Burrell’s head, and the left fielder never flinched.
“You see these kids when they walk through the door. You go through their trials and tribulations with them as they go through the learning process to get here,” assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. “When you get here, there is another learning curve and to see them succeed is a tremendous feeling.”
The left-field boo birds have been Burrell’s harshest critics and yet cheered him harder than anyone else when he delivered his only hit of the World Series off J.P. Howell. Eric Bruntlett, who pinch-ran for Burrell, eventually scored the go-ahead run in the seventh.
His numbers don’t reflect his work ethic. Burrell was usually the first one at the ballpark and the last one to leave.
Burrell even took naps under manager Charlie Manuel’s desk.
“And he ate all the food in the kitchen,” the euphoric manager said. “I can say anything I want to him. I can tell him how good he is. I can tell him how bad he is, and he will work on it.”
There will come a day when the fans won’t be able to boo Burrell in a Philadelphia uniform.
That day could come sooner rather than later.
However, in his game at Citizens Bank Park this season, he was loved and admired.
“You can never take this away,” Burrell said.
I think what I’m impressed about is that through all the “trials and tribulations” — read: unrelenting verbal abuse by tens of thousands of insane Philly fans — the guy stuck it out and in the end manned the fuck up and helped that team win a championship. Now maybe I’m not close enough, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention through all the thin years, but Philly challenges players like no other place it seems, and I’m happy for Burrell. Burrell means something in a David Brooks kind of milieu — something about hanging in there or something, I’m not sure what.
Now Burrell is apparently pretty soft spoken — unlike Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, who lost the 1993 World Series for the Phillies when he threw a meatball to Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter — but I can see him returning one day to maybe do color for the team (as Wild Thing does; the Texas native lives in Jersey now). Philly has a way of doing that to one, maybe — the passion is fierce and the loyalty fiercer.