Much has been made in recent weeks concerning the fan experience versus the analytic experience of baseball. My friends over at The Platoon Advantage have written several good pieces lately on the topic and that site’s, Bill, expanded those thoughts with his first piece over at Baseball Prospectus. All those thoughts crystallize with the news that Pat Burrell has retired after twelve seasons. After writing the thousands of posts in my writing career, the first thought at the news was writing about Pat Burrell from an analytic standpoint. That is what we do now, right? Where does Pat Burrell fit in history and blah, blah, blah. But most baseball writers start life as baseball fans. And as a fan of the game, Pat Burrell has a much larger story for me than what his baseball-reference.com page says.
And that story goes way back to my childhood. The greatest memories of my childhood, which was not always filled with rosiness, was going to spend three weeks every summer at the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. My working-class mom always found a way to scrimp and save for us to be able to rent an apartment within walking distance to the beach and those three weeks every summer were heaven. I saved all year long as well to be able to have a few bucks of spending money during those weeks as well. One of the budget items was for two newspapers a day.
I always woke up before anyone else and would be down with a blanket and an umbrella to the beach while early-morning joggers ran the shoreline and the Wildwood City crews were sweeping the beach of debris. The New York Daily News boys would start walking the beach around nine o’clock announcing their ware in a sing-song, “New York Daily News, Daily News here.” I always called one of them over and read the entire paper from back to front. I read all the early scores and stats and read the latest news on the Yankees. But since the paper was an early morning edition, it never had the late scores. And of course, in those years, the Internet was just the twinkling of some nerd’s eye and years away from the common people.
I needed a source for the late scores. That’s where the Philadelphia Daily News came in. Sometime around noon, the paperboys would again be singing about their wares with the same exact song: “Philadelphia Daily News, Daily News here.” Again, I always called them over and read that paper’s sports pages with interest.
From that childhood experience, though the Yankees were always the bomb, the Phillies became more than a passing interest. Their players were always noted in the box scores as the years went by. This interest followed well into the information age that made being a fan the delight that it is now. That’s where Pat Burrell enters this story.
I noted with much interest his rookie season in 2000. Burrell came in fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. He was a good looking kid with marquee features. He seemed to be the heartthrob heir of Mike Piazza. And he had a good career. Let’s face it, he’s not a Hall of Fame player. His closest comparable on baseball-reference.com is Jeremy Burnitz. Burrell had a useful career. He got on base well. He had good power. He had two outstanding seasons where he finished in the top fifteen in MVP voting. But he wasn’t spectacular. But he was Pat Burrell.
Scott Brosius wasn’t a HOF player. Neither was Billy Martin, Terry Steinbach, Gene Tenace, Hideki Matsui or Joe Rudi. They were all useful players who had big moments at big times that fans will never forget. Pat Burrell had those moments. In 2008, the Phillies made their improbable run at the end of the season and finished the regular season 12-3 to catch and pass the stunned New York Mets. Pat Burrell wasn’t a big part of that finish. Burrell had an OPS of 1.004 as last as July 22 of that season but he fell off the apple cart the rest of the season. While heroics were happening all over the Phillies’ line up and pitching staff down the stretch, Burrell was silent. And he was a huge question mark heading into the opening playoff series with the Milwaukee Brewers. Many wondered if he should even play in the series.
And then Burrell had his moment. The Phillies had the Brewers on the ropes, two games to one. But the series was back to Milwaukee. Brewers fans hoped the home crowd could make a difference. Pat Burrell silenced those fans in Game Four and he did it early. The Phillies were up in the top of the third inning and led the game, 1-0. Jeff Suppan was on the mound for the Brewers and with two outs, Shane Victorino was on third. The Brewers decided to walk Ryan Howard to face Pat Burrell. The count went to two balls and two strikes and if Suppan made a quality pitch, he could have gotten Burrell out to end the threat. After all, Burrell had been quiet during the series’ first three games just like he was for all of August and September. Philadelphia fans probably had reason to think that Burrell was going to end the threat. He didn’t. Instead he ended the Brewers’ season with a blast to left. Suppan made a bad pitch and the Phillies would never look back. Burrell added a solo shot in the eighth in that game to put the final nail in the Brewers’ coffin. The Phillies would go on the blow out the Dodgers in the NLCS and then the Bay Rays in the World Series.
That post season would prove to be Pat Burrell’s swan song in Philadelphia. A free agent, he signed with the same Tampa Bay Rays the Phillies had beaten in the 2008 World Series. Burrell suffered terribly in St. Pete. In a park that is not as friendly as Philadelphia’s park, Burrell’s career seemed to die in 2009. The 2010 season started even worse. After 24 games with the Bay Rays, Burrell was batting .202 with a .625 OPS. The Rays cut him on May 19, 2010. Ten days later, he was signed by the San Francisco Giants. Most of the baseball world laughed.
Much like Pat Burrell was part of a serendipitous season for the Phillies in 2008, the same thing happened in San Francisco in 2010. When Burrell joined the Giants on May 29, they were a third place club. By July 22, 2010, they were one game over .500 and seven and a half games behind the division leader. But Pat Burrell was hitting, something the weak-hitting Giants desperately needed. In just 94 games with the Giants, Burrell hit 18 homers and added 16 doubles good for a .504 slugging percentage. Burrell, along with the call up of Buster Posey and a great season by Aubrey Huff provided just enough offense to propel that great pitching staff to the post season. And in one of the most improbable of all World Series winners (that is until the Cardinals last season), the Giants were World Series champs.
Pat Burrell’s fortunes sunk in 2011 after the big championship much like the entire Giants team did. Burrell fought with a chronic foot injury that has apparently ended his career. His season was sub par. And now that his career is apparently over, let others talk about his lack of HOF numbers. Let others say he was useful and usually earned somewhere close near his paycheck. But forget the stats for a moment, as much as I love them. From a fan’s perspective, Pat Burrell was a favorite player who provided some memorable moments that have enriched a lifetime of fan memories. He wasn’t a superstar. But he was a good player. And those memories are invaluable. Thanks for all of them, Mr. Burrell, and much health and happiness to you from here on out.