THAT YEAR IS finally here. The 2008 season is upon us, the final one in a 6-year, $50 million contract Pat Burrell signed back in 2003, when he was deemed the face of a franchise in desperate need of a plastic surgeon. After this season, you never will have to see him again . . .

. . . Unless, of course, you would like to see him again.

Maybe you think the most intriguing part of this Phillies season will be how Brad Lidge closes out games, or how Brett Myers adjusts back to a starter's spot, or whether Shane Victorino can hold up as an everyday centerfielder, or even whether Ryan Howard's current salary stalemate with the team will seep into his on-field performance, the way it seemed to last year.

I think the most intriguing aspect of this season is Pat Burrell. For much of his 6-year, $50 million deal, he has been booed, blamed and bemoaned, the faults of his swing exacerbated by an icy demeanor that convinced even ex-ballplayers like John Kruk that he didn't care as much as you did.

But then came last season's pennant run, a chase that Burrell played a big part in, a chase in which he was, at times, front and fist-pumping center. Burrell's eighth-inning home run off Billy Wagner in that wild and pivotal, 11-10 victory over the Mets was as key as any of the countless Phillies moments last season, as was the warming of that icy, protective coating of his.

Burrell did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this column (of which I take no offense), but he did say in a recent blog on the Phillies' Web site that he would love to re-sign with the team. He lauded the city and its restaurants and called the best part of the city its "Ballpark and the fans."

He was not asked what the worst part was, thank God.

"The whole last series down the stretch, when we were fighting and the Mets were choking, the city was just awesome and rallied around us," he wrote. "It was exciting to be a part of."

It could not have occurred without Burrell's resurgence as a productive and feared power hitter. Let the record show that Burrell hit .295 in the second half of last season, starting every one of the last 75 games just when it seemed his days as the starting leftfielder were coming to an end. Let the record show that he hit 19 of his 30 home runs over the second half and drove in almost twice as many runs (60 to 37).

"He had a great second half of the season, driving the ball all over the field," Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson was saying after a hitting session with Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd yesterday. "When Chase went down, he stepped up."

Actually, Utley went on the disabled list in late July, a month in which Burrell hit .435. But with Utley missing, Pat's bat was more needed and thus more noticeable, as was his power. Ten of his 30 home runs were hit in August, and he recorded a .650 slugging percentage.

And yet, when it was over, his 2007 statistics were nearly identical to his statistics in 2006 - when "Outta here" was not a phrase used to describe one of his home runs.

For Burrell, it's never been just about the numbers. It's been about the spots, about the moments, about the intangibles. Fair or not, and partly due to his longevity in a Phillies uniform, he had been in too many failed situations before last season's late-season run, been involved in too many sad stories of how it all went wrong.

It bothered you, it bothered me, and it infuriated those who wanted him to somehow convey that he was suffering, too. Instead, there was that look, a look that conveyed indifference, even if, as we know now, that perception might have been dead wrong.

Burrell played hurt last year. He played hard. He jumped up and down at times, pumped his fist at times, and when Brett Myers recorded that final out on that final fan-frenzied day, Pat Burrell, bad hoof and all, ran from the dugout and got to him first.

By then, of course, fans had warmed a little to the leftfielder and he to them. No one's suggesting it's red-hot on either side yet, or that an April slump wouldn't test this rocky marriage. But just the idea that he wants to stay beyond this season, and that you might like to see that . . . well, it's going to be an intriguing little story line this summer, that's for sure. *

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