CD's Connect The Dots...Foot In Mouth Disease

Senior Writer
Posted Mar 6, 2007


There is a disease afloat and though not confined to the Philadelphia area or many of its local sports phans, it does seem to have germinated there and has been contracted by many of its most ardent Phillie supporters. Even celebrated Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt had a somewhat mild case of it recently. It is embarrassing rather than terminal and is called...foot in mouth disease.

Oh, please do not suddenly race to your local medical books for an antidote, for at present there is none. Still, if currently embattled Phillie left fielder Pat Burrell has the kind of "breakout" season than many are now predicting for him, an updated version of the book will have to be immediately placed in print.

The cure will consist of nothing more than an acknowledgement by all of the formerly stricken patients that they were a tad too harsh on Burrell for his "less" than stellar season in 2005. Far from being "less" than dedicated as often accused, it now appears he was "less" than healthy, something he never openly discussed but has recently come to light.

In truth, the almost constant criticism of Pat Burrell has been going on since the rather forgettable 2003 season, when he went into a season-long hitting slump which was exacerbated by the almost continual "mind games" being played on him by then Manager Larry Bowa. Oh, make no mistake, Burrell was occasionally awful that season and went some into deep hitting woes that would seemingly last for weeks.

Still, it did not help matters that Bowa was forever benching Burrell at the first sign of trouble and occasionally in anticipation of it! On several occasions, the slugging left fielder would be summarily pulled from a game if he struck out on his first couple of at bats and even a pop psychologist will admit that this is certainly no way to encourage positive reinforcement in a struggling hitter.

Yet, for all the ups and downs of that season for the embattled Burrell, it all came to a head on a hot August night in Milwaukee, when it seemingly looked for all the world that the story was about to turn towards a happy ending. The date was August 19 and the Phils were a hot bunch heading into a crucial "Dog Days of August" thirteen game road trip that would probably determine their fate.

Heading into this trip, the Phightins were playing their best ball of the season, having just swept the St. Louis Cardinals at home as part of a then current five game winning streak. Pat Burrell had played a significant role in this surge, having knocked in four runs and hit a crucial game clinching home run in the final game of the home stand. As the team entered play that Tuesday night in August, they stood at a season high fifteen games over .500 [69-54] and trailed only the division leading Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants in overall records in the National League. A wild card berth beckoned and the team looked ready to take off.

That season was significant because it was a year of heightened expectations after the arrival of free agents Jim Thome and David Bell and the trade for pitcher Kevin Millwood. Many baseball scouts felt the team was the best in the NL and with Burrell now hitting well behind Thome and rookie Chase Utley recently promoted to play second base, all systems seemed pointed to go.

Indeed, all lights seemed colored green until that fateful eighth inning on the first night of the trip when the Phils found themselves rallying from an early three-run deficit to tie the game at three. They quickly loaded the bases with one out and Pat Burrell scheduled to bat. Certainly, here was a time for Bowa to show confidence in his outfielder despite his 0-for-3 night. In fact, the situation seemed almost celestial in tone and probably more than a few Phillie phaithful expected this to be Pat Burrell's 2003 coming out party.

In almost embarrassing fashion, Bowa yanked Burrell after he was striding to the plate and inserted left-handed hitting Ricky Ledee as a pinch-hitter. Not surprisingly, Ledee struck out, the rally fizzled, and the Brewers immediately scored three runs and won the game 6-4. Though there was still 38 games left after that loss, for all intents and purposes the Phillie season...and Pat Burrell's ended that night.

The team lost nine-of-ten games starting that night and slipped from wild card contention shortly thereafter. And in almost cryptic fashion, Burrell hit a home run during a 7-0 victory that ended the ten game slide in New York and went far out of his way NOT to shake Larry Bowa's hand following the blast. He hit only one more home run that season to finish with 21 and an abysmal .209 batting average. Some say that Burrell has never truly recovered from that season, though his numbers have usually been decent enough.

The story of Pat Burrell and the Philadelphia Phillies should have been a fairytale one considering the circumstances of his initial signing and the expectations that went along with it. It actually began back in the summer of 1997 when the team proudly drafted an All-American outfielder from Florida State named J.D. Drew. At the time, his name was spoken of almost in hushed tones and he was widely considered to have been the "greatest collegiate baseball player" who ever lived. High praise indeed, but seemingly justified.

There was a story circulating then that Drew's agent, the contentious Scott Boras, had attended the '97 All-Star game and was immediately questioned by superstar Barry Bonds about Drew's abilities. At the time, Drew and the Phillies were involved in a highly publicized and acrimonious battle to secure his signature. He was demanding, through his agent Boras, a then unheard of ten million dollar contract for five years. The Phils were quite enamored of his skills but were not about to buck the baseball establishment and held firm at a much lower amount.

Upon seeing Boras in the National League clubhouse, Bonds asked the agent about Drew's skills whereupon the super sleuth quickly replied that as good as Bonds had been at Arizona State, Drew was the better collegiate player. Suffice it to say, the Phils never signed Drew and his circuitous travel through the professional baseball cities of America since then is news for another day.

What is not news for another day was the happenings that took place the following year in 1998. Once again, the Phils found themselves with a top pick and selected a highly publicized All-American third baseman from the University of Miami named Pat Burrell. While Drew may have been considered the "greatest collegiate player" in baseball history, there is little doubt but that Burrell was then and still is the "greatest collegiate hitter" to ever perform at the college level. In fact, his numbers are almost staggering.

To wit, a .484 batting average as a freshman! A career batting average of .442 and power and average numbers to stagger the imagination. Clearly, the Phillies had to sign Burrell...and sign him they did, to a contract of 8.5 million for five years. At his signing press conference, a beaming Pat Burrell said all the right things about wanting to play in Philadelphia, being happy to have been drafted by them, and basically making himself the anti-Drew to an adoring populace.

And for awhile that adoration seemed not only justified but perpetual. Burrell made his storied major league debut in the year 2000 after two solid seasons in the minor leagues and immediately became a tremendous offensive presence in a Phillie lineup that featured Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Rico Brogna. His rookie numbers of 18 home runs and 79 RBI were solid enough and the best was certainly yet to come.

His 2001 season was even better and with his power numbers of 27 home runs and 89 RBI helping lead the way, the Phils under the guidance of rookie manager, Larry Bowa, came within a few late season victories of stealing the NL Eastern Division from the Braves. Still, storm clouds were on the horizon, thunderous rainstorms between Bowa and All-Star third baseman, Scott Rolen.

These thunderclouds produced a hail of invective comments between Bowa and Rolen in the spring of 2002 and he was finally dealt in July of that year. This was now, for better or worse, Pat Burrell's team and he seemed to take up the challenge with his best year to date. He not only hit 37 home runs and knocked in 116 runs but hit a career best .282 with an outstanding .544 slugging percentage.

When the team signed first baseman Jim Thome to a free agent contract following the '02 season everything looked rosy for the team heading into the 2003 campaign. With Abreu, Thome and Burrell hitting in the middle of the lineup and with Kevin Millwood bulwarking a staff that featured Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers the team looked to have championship potential. Until that fateful August night in Milwaukee.

Pat Burrell rebounded somewhat in 2004 and then had a very strong season in 2005 under the guidance of new manager, Charlie Manuel. He hit 32 home runs and drove in a career best 117 runs while hitting .281. Still, there were whispers about Burrell's after-hours commitment to the game and though his numbers seemed decent enough, he was consistently being criticized by an ever present element of the Philadelphia press and baseball populace.

It was in the latter part of 2005 when it was revealed that Pat Burrell was having foot problems and, indeed, he ran with a very noticeable limp when racing around the bases. Still, he played in 154 games and decided to wait until the off-season to have what was then termed "minor" surgery of his foot. This was the report, though to this day no one is quite sure where and by whom this story emanated.

When Burrell reported to camp in 2006 he was still limping noticeably but refused to blame his sore foot for his difficulties. Amidst reports of his "less than caring" attitude among the masses, Burrell quickly became a lightning rod for all that was bad about the Phillies and the outlandish contracts being handed out to unworthy players. In one of his most regrettable decisions, the new Phillie GM Pat Gillick went public with is goal of moving salary, be it Bobby Abreu's upcoming 15 million dollar deal or Pat Burrell, who would be owed 28 million in the years 2006-07.

While Abreu eventually accepted a deal to the New York Yankees, Pat Burrell reportedly vetoed a deal that would have sent him to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. It is a testament to the disdain that many Phillie phans had towards Burrell that he was roundly booed and criticized for using his "no trade" clause to veto a deal. He simply stated that he liked Philadelphia, wanted to play in Philadelphia and was not anxious to leave the city or team.

In another time, in another era, this news might have enamored Burrell to the City of Brotherly Love for the rest of his career, but the time is now and we live in the Era of the Entitled Baseball Player and so he was merely viewed as just another selfish and self centered rich athlete. Though he continued to dodge verbal assaults all season at his propensity for taking a called third strike and for his inability to hit the outside slider, it was his defense, or lack thereof, that attracted particular criticism.

Not only was he striking out with regularity and not protecting the offensive outbursts of youngish phenoms Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but he was suddenly misplaying balls hit to the outfield that he was accustomed to catching. This did cost the Phils a few games, but none of any particular note. What did hurt the team was his sluggishness on the base paths and his slumping ways at the plate.

As the team made a late season charge towards the playoffs, the Phils more and more began to use outfield combinations that did not include Pat Burrell. Names like Jeff Conine and David Dellucci were prominent in the everyday lineup and Burrell was platooned from early August until the end of the campaign. When the year ended, he was given a report card with few A's and quite a few C's and D's. Not surprisingly, the chant again became, "Trade Burrell" and indeed, the Phils nearly did.

Being a native San Franciscan, Burrell reportedly said he would accept a trade to the Giants and rumors quickly surfaced of a Pat Burrell for reliever Armando Benitez deal. It speaks volumes about Burrell's supposed value at the time that many Phillie phans were actually applauding this rumor. In hindsight, this trade would have probably someday ranked as one of the worst in Phillie history but in November there were many ready to cash in their chips on Burrell's 13 million dollar contract and happily start with a new deck of cards. Including Pat Gillick.

Then a congruence of events began to unfold, culminating in a planetary alignment the likes of which Philadelphia baseball has not seen in some time. First, Gillick made a visit to Arizona, the winter time residence of Burrell, and a place where he finds refuge from the often critical Philadelphia press. Instead of finding Burrell to be lounging in the winter suns of Arizona, Gillick found Burrell to be working hard, reporting progress on his foot, and insisting that he wanted to stay in Philadelphia.

When Gillick returned to Philadelphia, he suddenly sounded like a man who had recently had an epiphany. No longer was he coming to bury Burrell but instead had decided to come to praise him. He commented that in retrospect, Burrell's 2006 numbers of 29 home runs and 95 RBI along with a .258 batting average [ironically this is identical with his career lifetime average] were not such an eye sore after all and that maybe, just maybe, he was playing on bad underpinnings after all.

It seems that Burrell's foot injury, the one that was supposedly minor in nature and completely healed last season was in fact, quite delicate and serious and would take up to a year to heal totally. This came from none other than the doctor who had performed the operation and felt that Burrell had taken far too many unnecessary shots from an unknowing public and press. To his credit, Burrell never discussed either the foot injury or the pain, though in today's world and with today's athlete, excuse is often spelled with a capital E.

This news came to the forefront recently after former Phillie all time great third baseman, Mike Schmidt, was quoted heavily in an Ohio newspaper about his disappointment with sluggers like Burrell, who strike out too much and never give themselves up to better the team or themselves. This must have pained Burrell nearly as much as the foot injury for not too many seasons ago, Schmidt and Burrell and their careers seemed almost as kindred spirits.

Indeed, it was Schmidt who had often counseled Burrell in the past when the young slugger struggled and they certainly appeared to have played in parallel universes at the early end of their careers if not after that. Schmidt, too, struggled with the boos and strikeouts that accompanied the failed expectations of an often unsatisfied phan base before overcoming them and finishing with a storied and successful career.

Upon Schmidt's arrival in Clearwater last week he had to answer for his criticism and found the press anxious for answers and Burrell eager to avoid him. Although Mike Schmidt tried to apologize, it clearly came upon deaf ears and even the press felt he had been much too harsh on the beleaguered left fielder. Then came the reports from his doctor about the nature of his surgery and best of all, Pat Burrell reported to camp completely healthy, equally wealthy and surprisingly wise.

Not only did he look and sound like a brand new Mr. Pat Burrell but also reported that a brand new Mrs. Pat Burrell was on the horizon. Yes, after 30 years as a well-known bachelor in Philadelphia, Pat Burrell announced that he was getting married. Be it fact or fancy, and one can never be sure, but this announcement alone seemed to give Burrell added credibility with the suddenly friendly press.

Now, as a brand new season beckons with the swashbuckling Philadelphia Phillies clearly at the top of their game, Pat Burrell could once again soon become the darling of the city. No longer is he counted on to lead the way; that is now the job of younger sorts like Howard, Utley and Rollins. No more will he be critiqued for every dancing slider that he flails unsuccessfully at regardless of the times he swings and misses. And no longer will he play on a foot that probably belonged more on a lounge chair than on the grasses of Citizens Bank Park.

If there is any justice left in the baseball world, and logic tells me there still is, then Pat Burrell will this season have the last laugh after far too many nights of outcry. Watch for him to have that long anticipated breakout season, one that could ultimately lead to an Octoberfest of baseball being played in Philadelphia the likes of which we have not seen since 1993. It is well overdue, as is his rebirth as a star.

Should this happen, the now rampant Philadelphia disease will finally have been put to rest and Mike Schmidt, along with far too many others, will have cured themselves of their dreaded but ultimately short term outbreak of...foot in mouth disease.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Also check out PhilliesTalk for the latest in Phillie conversation! Thank you! CD from the Left Coast



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