November 16, 2011
Pat Burrell(notes) recently announced that he is likely done playing baseball, hobbled by a foot injury that hampered him all year. The man nicknamed "Pat the Bat" — a nickname that he disliked all the way back to college — disappointed fans in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay who expected a superstar, but had a far better career than most ever gave him credit for.
With Burrell, the problem was always the lofty expectations he carried into the league. He was the Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series as a freshman at the University of Miami, and won the Golden Spikes award as a junior in the year before he turned pro. During his three years of college, he hit .442 with 61 homers and 187 RBIs.
Burrell was elected into the University of Miami Hall of Fame in 2008 and was followed two seasons later by Aubrey Huff(notes) and Jason Michaels(notes). Huff later credited Pat with helping him overcome his shyness by saying "I broke out of my shell at the University of Miami when I got around guys like Burrell."
How did Burrell help? Well, here's one story Huff has told:
"After two weeks at Miami, I wanted to go home [...] So my mom flies out, trying to convince me to stay. I was living with two seniors and they ragged me, too. I just didn't understand all this baseball ragging nonsense. She's in my room one night and I'm sitting on my bed and she's telling me to give it another two weeks.
"Anyway, there's a knock on the door, and before I can even get off the bed, Pat comes barging in with a six-pack in his hand, dripping wet, buck naked."
Burrell was selected with the first overall pick in the 1998 draft, a pick that the Phillies only received because they failed to sign J.D. Drew(notes), their top draft choice the previous year. Stung by their inability to sign Drew, the Phillies offered Burrell a major-league contract worth $8 million for five years, and Burrell announced that he was donating $75,000 of it to baseball-related causes: $25,000 to baseball programs at his high school and college, and $50,000 to youth baseball parks around the Philadelphia area. (Drew's agent was holdout specialist Scott Boras; Burrell's agent was Jeff Moorad, current owner of the San Diego Padres and part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.)
It was the first time that the Phillies had ever had the first overall pick in the amateur draft, and Burrell's physique and eye-popping stats at the University of Miami quickly had Philadelphians gawking. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin could barely contain himself, writing: "If you had to commission a sports sculptor to render a statue of a power hitter, it would wind up looking something like Burrell. Tall, but not gawky. Large, but not bulky."
Conlin wasn't the only person to take note of Burrell's dreamy body. "He has a chance to be a stud," said hitting coach Richie Hebner. During a famous Penthouse interview in which he ruffled feathers in 2001, Burrell explained that he "never" wears underwear. His Phillie teammates used to refer to him as "bait," as in "Pat the Bait," according to a story from the Philly Inquirer:
During Burrell's first few years with the club, before he was married, the older players used to command him to make appearances at the bar while the Phillies were on the road. They dangled him as "bait" to attract women.
Burrell tore through the minors in a year and a half, being named to the Eastern League All-Star team in 1999 and making the majors for good in May 2000 at the age of 23. Over the next nine seasons in a Phillie uniform, Burrell averaged 145 games a year, batting .257/.367/.485 with 28 homers, 92 RBIs, and an .852 OPS, 19 percent better than league average. Fine numbers, but not sensational. He never made a single All-Star team in his career, and while his OPS figures were always good due to his excellent walk rate, his batting average always looked awfully low for a player nicknamed "The Bat." Thing is, the nickname had bugged him for years, going back to college. "I don't really like it," he said after being drafted in 1998. "I guess it rhymes." That nickname, with all its implications of superstardom and grandiosity, helped set Burrell up for disappointment.
So did his terrific 2002, when he hit .282/.376/.544 with 37 homers and 116 RBIs at the age of 25. It was just his third season in the big leagues, but that season wound up providing his career highs in nearly everything: plate appearances, hits, runs, doubles, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS. As it turned out, the average Pat Burrell season looked a lot more like 2001, when he hit .258/.346/.469 with 27 homers and 89 RBIs. Burrell is curious for having essentially peaked at 25, not 27 as most power hitters are generally presumed to do, and that abnormal age curve may have added to fans' frustrated expectations, hoping that Burrell would turn into a superstar rather than being content with the hitter that he already was. (Bobby Abreu(notes), a superior player, had similar struggles with Philadelphians' fickle affections.)
After the expiration of his big payday, a six-year, $50 million contract that carried him from 2003 to 2008 with the Phillies, the 32-year-old Burrell signed a modest two-year deal for $16 million with Tampa Bay, and his career seemed to fall apart immediately. Burrell was mediocre at best as a fielder and frequently outright bad, so the Rays slotted him as their designated hitter — but losing his glove seemed to rob him of his ability to hit. He hit .218/.311/.361 in a little over a year with the Rays, who first sent him to the minor leagues and then jettisoned him; the San Francisco Giants picked him up in 2010 and his bat immediately woke back up, as he hit 18 homers in just 96 games with the eventual World Champions.
His overall playoff numbers were unremarkable, as he batted .186/.307/.381 through 31 playoff games with the Phillies and Giants in 2007, 2008 and 2010. He was spectacular in the 2008 NLDS and NLCS, hitting a combined .300/.364/.600 in those two series as the Phillies made their first trip to the World Series since their heartbreaking loss in Toronto in 1993. But the Phillies won the 2008 World Series with hardly a peep from Burrell, who hit .071 in that World Series. The same was true of the 2010 Giants, who won the Series despite an 0-for-13 from Burrell.
After the 2010 championship, he signed a sweetheart deal, a one-year, $1 million contract to return to the Giants this year. But the afterglow was brief. He was basically done as a starting player by mid-May: He spent 43 games on the DL and was forced to spend much of the year as a pinch hitter. After starting 25 games in April, he only started 25 games the rest of the year.
Burrell's 251 homers in a Philadelphia uniform are fourth-most in the history of the franchise, his 827 RBIs are eighth, and his 785 walks are fifth. He's one of the best sluggers in Philadelphia history. As WholeCamels at the Good Phight writes:
Burrell's strengths were often ignored by his critics, who felt that he didn't apply himself and that he could have been better than he was, based in large part on his first-overall draft selection, and insinuating that his notorious Philadelphia nightlife presence was diverting his focus from the baseball field. Not every first overall pick turns into Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), Alex Rodriguez(notes), or Chipper Jones(notes). Sometimes they turn into Shawn Abner, or Brien Taylor. Pat Burrell turned into Pat Burrell, a very good player on some very good and memorable Phillies teams.
So long, Pat. Enjoy the nightlife.