December 22, 2008

Why Pat Burrell Matters

When it comes to Pat Burrell, it’s not your first memory of the man but the last that counts.

That memory, for most, is his seventh-inning shot off the center field wall of Citizens Bank Park in Game 5 of the World Series. It’s been said recently that Pat took a long look around the field after he got to second base, knowing that this could be both his final moment of the World Series and final moment as a Philadelphia Phillie. Implied there is that each Phillies fan also took their one last look at Pat, and as well they should. There may never be another like him in this city.

His ups and downs, strikes and gutters have been recapped in words both written and spoken too many times to count. His virtues have been extolled, his faults exemplified, and the debate over the proper superlative to brand upon Pat Burrell probably won’t end until his career does. Did he spend his entire time in Philadelphia underachieving, or were the successes at the end enough to justify countless years, dollars and brain synapses spent analyzing, teaching and pondering Pat Burrell?

Short of Brian Dawkins, Jimmy Rollins and Simon Gagne, there’s been no longer tenured athlete in recent Philadelphia sports, and short of Donovan McNabb, there’s been no one more lustily debated about. He came in as the number one pick in the 1998 draft and left haggling over a multi-year contract at age 32, but these are just numbers, dates. These are facts, and they do not make the man. His on-base percentage isn’t what made him special, and neither is his lead-footedness on the base paths.

It is not about the redemption of Pat Burrell. It is not about how he went from victim of incessant booing to grand marshal of a victory parade better than our wildest dreams. The boos can turn to cheers quickly in any town, Philadelphia including. No, it is not about surprise at his late-career popularity, but the change, in everything, that made it possible.

What it is about is that, somehow, he got this city. For all those like Allen Iverson who know how to play to the crowd, for those like Brian Dawkins who feed off its energy, Pat Burrell understood it. He had to, or else those boos would have driven him mad. He slumped as much as a professional baseball player can slump without losing his job, and he participated on some of the worst, and then some of the most underachieving, Philadelphia sports teams of the last 15 years.

But he rejected every opportunity to leave town, and he denied every opportunity to strike back at the fans – almost as if he knew why they responded to successes and failures with such zeal. His only partial rebellion was requesting “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley as his at-bat music, a shot at the media’s propensity to ‘kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down.’ Funny, and apt. For most players, it would imply that one foot is already out of the door.

But Pat kept at it, and he fought to get healthy, and he stayed. And he seemed to come to terms with himself and limitations, too. When it came time for glory to finally be bestowed upon Pat Burrell, it was to be a cog in the machine, not as the machine itself. Inflating salaries had made his previously bloated contract reasonable, and the arrival of true superstars like Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, combined with increasing years of familiarity, meant less pressure on Pat to be something he simply could not be.

And, surprisingly, this worked. For a prospect who had been touted since high school as the second coming of Jesus Christ on a baseball diamond, this kind of accepted regression, accompanied by mutual fan understanding, is not a typical turn of events. But it made sense, and it was a long time coming, and Pat seemed OK with it. And it worked.

In the end, our last true on-field memory of Pat Burrell is not his big hit but his removal for a pinch-runner, and that is how he should be remembered. He is not the idol that some people are now making him out to be; he was a complimentary piece, a slugging right-handed bat, a prodding outfielder prone to hair-pulling slumps.

He was a letdown, he was wasted talent, he was tenacious, he was integral. But he stuck around long enough to mash all that together into something different, to make his removal from the game, his exclusion from scoring the game-winning run a justified, acceptable part of his legacy. That wasn’t what everyone had in mind back in 1998, but for this city, for that man, it’s more than most will ever get.

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