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Marcus Hayes: Pat Burrell: Not just a pretty face

TONIGHT, Pat Burrell will throw out the first pitch in San Francisco. On May 19, he will sign a 1-day minor league contract so he can retire a Phillie.

Pat Burrell's 251 home runs are fourth in Phillies history, and his 827 RBI are eighth all-time. (Jerry Lodriguss/Staff file photo)
Pat Burrell's 251 home runs are fourth in Phillies history, and his 827 RBI are eighth all-time. (Jerry Lodriguss/Staff file photo)Read more

TONIGHT, Pat Burrell will throw out the first pitch in San Francisco.

On May 19, he will sign a 1-day minor league contract so he can retire a Phillie.

For years, Burrell's influence on the organization will be felt.

Around Burrell, the Phillies constructed a ballclub that won the last five National League East titles; a club that won the World Series in 2008 and went to another Series in 2009, after Burrell left for Tampa Bay.

He was not the best player on any of his Phillies teams. Just once was he the most valuable player on a Phillies team, in 2002, when he teased the baseball world with a breakout season.

Still, Burrell's influence rests less with his 251 home runs, fourth in team history; his 827 RBI, eighth all-time; or his 1,273 strikeouts, an ignominious second-place stat.

Burrell always was the biggest star. For better or worse, Burrell taught a generation of Phillies the way to act as a big-league player . . . and how to best survive in a demanding, sometimes vicious city.

He was born to the role.

After a princely high school career in California and a Ruthian stint in college at Miami, Burrell landed in Philadelphia in 1998 the No. 1 overall pick - and the antidote to a poisonous courtship with J.D. Drew, who spurned the Phillies after they took him second overall in 1997.

The Phillies were fortunate, because Burrell was a better fit. Drew, strait-laced and sensitive, would have drowned in the acidic waters of the Phillies franchise. Standing 6-4, movie-star gorgeous and often without scruple, "Pat the Bat" thrived.

He rocketed through the minors. After two seasons in the majors, by 2002 it didn't matter who else was in the clubhouse: Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard.

The corner locker belonged to Burrell. He radiated charisma, with his Ray Liotta eyes and his Rat Pack exploits.

"He handled his business," says Howard, grinning. "If you're going to go out and party or whatever, you have to come in the next day to handle your business . . . I know it's hard to believe, but he was very professional.

"He was a big-leaguer."

"He was the guy," says Shane Victorino. "He was a cornerstone piece on this team, But, when you think about Pat Burrell, and what he was in this city, not just from a baseball standpoint, he was an iconic person.

"He was everybody's dream. Every girl's dream," Victorino says.

Every player watched how Pat dressed, what Pat drove, where Pat lived, how Pat tipped clubhouse attendants and barkeeps, says Victorino: "He was similar to a godfather."

Blessed with heavenly looks, Burrell proved mortal most of his 11-year career. A foot injury has ended his run. Incredibly, Burrell is only 35.

Only twice did he reach his production potential. In 2002 and '05, he drove in more than 100 runs and hit at least .280, the only times he hit those marks. As his career waned, the 6-year, $50 million contract extension he signed after the 2002 season seemed less wise, especially since he proceeded to hit .209 in 2003.

"We made that contract a success," insists Charlie Manuel, who took over as manager in 2005. "He was more of a producer than people realize. He was a better player than what he got credit for."

Indeed, even as Burrell fought routine slumps, even as Rollins and Utley and Howard took over the team, Burrell never was a bad investment. He averaged 31 homers and 93 RBI over the last three seasons of the deal, which cost the Phillies just over $37 million.

In the same span, Alex Rodriguez averaged 41 homers and 127 RBI . . . but then, Burrell made about half as much money. And, despite shining in the Steroid Era, Burrell never was tainted by a scandal involving performance enhancers.

"He was one of the hardest-working guys I've ever been around," says Jim Thome, the centerpiece of the Phillies' thrust that began in 2003. "Showed up at noon, 12:30, which a lot of people don't see."

The work ethic trickled down. When Manuel took the reins, Burrell began in earnest his mentorship of Utley. Thome witnessed that.

"Once you get one guy on board, you get other guys. Like Chase Utley," Thome says.

Still, as Burrell stood in leftfield night after night, abuse rained on him. Fans were maddened by his tendency to watch third strikes as he raised his arms and locked his left knee; incensed at his compulsion to swing at tight sliders from righthanders; and fed up with his legendary evening jaunts into Center City, which could turn boorish.

Still, weren't these Burrell's people? Where was the love?

"I've been everywhere: New York, Boston, you name it," Manuel says. "As far as [self-]abuse, Philadelphia is No. 1."

Burrell never reacted. But it affected him.

Eroded by years of derision, dealing with Burrell meant a snarl one day; thoughtful perspective the next; an up-yours walkoff with the third. He created a culture of dismissiveness that often resurfaces in the Phillies' clubhouse, like a foul odor.

When new general manager Pat Gillick deconstructed the Phillies in 2006, Burrell and Rollins were the only tenured stars left untouched. Aaron Rowand was part of that team, a mercenary trade product of the Thome deal. Howard, Utley and Cole Hamels were the new cornerstones, untouchable. Burrell was, by contrast, untradable, with a no-trade clause and that burdensome contract.

His time was nearly past, but Burrell remained.

"He was very dedicated to the game . . . more than people think. Always the first guy to the ballpark," Manuel says.

Manuel never minded that Burrell sometimes was the last guy to return to the team hotel.

"There are people who can stay out until 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning and still do their job," Manuel says. "With Pat, that might not be all that bad. The less he could think about his performance, the better he hit."

Burrell wasn't just showing up early to drink coffee and soak in the hot tub. Placido Polanco arrived in 2002, part of the Rolen trade, and immediately was struck with Burrell's professionalism.

"I remember him doing exercises in the training room to keep him strong all year," says Polanco, who has played with star-studded clubs in St. Louis and Detroit. "He was a great teammate. He treated everybody the same: American, white, black. Didn't matter."

Burrell could have been a clubhouse bully, but he wasn't.

Burrell could have been a clubhouse cancer, as he became more and more marginalized with the ascension of Rollins, Howard and Utley. But he wasn't.

"He bought in with the fact that we were changing the face of our team. He let those guys do their thing," Manuel says, appreciatively. "There was never a bitch."

Burrell could have benched himself, too. Instead, he played though chronic pain for 8 years.

Burrell developed a degenerative condition in his right foot in 2004. Surgery after the 2005 season did not fix the problem. By 2007, he hobbled to leftfield every night. He usually was replaced for a better runner or a better defender in the game's latter stages; speedy Michael Bourn was a late-game replacement 90 times in 2007, mainly for Burrell.

Fittingly, Burrell's biggest moment as a Phillie - and his last - played out that way. Tied at 3 in Game 5 of the World Series against Tampa, Burrell led off the seventh with a double and immediately was replaced by Eric Bruntlett. Burrell watched from the dugout as Bruntlett scored the run that won the Series.

It was his only hit in 14 at-bats in the Series.

It was his last at-bat as a Phillie.

During the victory parade and the culminating series of speeches at Citizens Bank Park, Burrell was treated as a dignitary headed for an amicable exile.

He somehow convinced Tampa Bay, of all teams, to give him $16 million for the next two seasons.

After a season-and-a-half of dismal DHing, the Rays traded him to San Francisco. There, he rejoined Rowand, by then also a bit player, on a Giants team that beat the Phillies en route to a title . . . and a second ring for Burrell. The Giants then re-signed him for $1 million last season.

It has been 3 years of pain and of failure. Since he doubled off J.P. Howell in his last at-bat as a Phillie, Burrell has averaged 111 games, 14 homers, 50 RBI and hit .235.

Really, his career ended that night against the Rays.

In Philadelphia, his impact will be felt for years.