Burroughs making most of second chance
Having survived dark journey, one-time phenom humbled, driven
PITTSBURGH -- Joel Wolfe had heard identical words out of Sean Burroughs' mouth before. Enough times, in fact, that Wolfe had every reason to be skeptical and no reason to suspect Burroughs was actually going to follow through.
It mattered little that Burroughs was insistent. His agent was neither convinced -- nor ready to sell other teams on the idea -- that a once-top prospect was ready to return to baseball after almost a four-year layoff.
Not unless Burroughs could first sell himself.
The pitch came when the two met in a small café last November. There was no grandiose speech from Burroughs, no plea or presentation. Wolfe didn't want any of that, anyway. He had come merely seeking a look.
"I needed him to come in and look me in the eye," Wolfe said. "And when I saw him, there was no doubt."
A rendezvous in a café turned into supervised workouts, which brought upon formal tryouts, which led to a Minor League deal. Five months later, the 30-year-old was back in the Majors, penning a comeback tale that ranks him among the rarest in his sport.
Burroughs' story bears eerie similarities to the well-documented one of Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton -- drinking, drugs, bad decisions and acquaintances all derailing the promising career of a first-round Draft pick.
Only Burroughs is convinced his rock bottom was even lower.
"We can tell war stories, and I'd probably win," Burroughs said near the end of a lengthy discussion about his climb back. "I have to stay humble on this."
Hamilton and Burroughs have never sat down to compare notes, though if they did, they'd no doubt dwell on the fact that they are the lucky ones. Burroughs doesn't delve into specifics, but the descriptions he provides paint a plenty clear picture.
|"I could remember sometimes thinking, 'Let's get this over with. I've got people to meet up with and places to go.' That's disrespectful of the game. That's not how I was raised to play this game. That's not how I came up through the Minor Leagues, or how it was my first couple years in the big leagues."|
|-- Sean Burroughs|
There were late nights and parties. Vegas and substances. Concerns that he'd be in jail, or homeless or dead. Family and friends became afterthoughts. Even further behind them was the desire to play baseball.
It began sometime in 2005, his fourth season with the Padres, Burroughs recalled, when he became more concerned with postgame plans than actually succeeding under the lights at PETCO Park. Burroughs struggled to pin down the reason he took the path he did, though one wrong turn was all it took to get stuck.
"I was looking to just have fun," Burroughs said. "Have a good game and celebrate. Have a bad game and numb out. Once you start, you can't stop."
Burroughs did a pretty good job hiding the extracurricular activities from his teammates, though the sudden dip in results suggested something was not right for a guy who was supposed to be a star.
The son of longtime Major Leaguer Jeff Burroughs, success had always come naturally for Sean. He was the stud pitcher on the teams that won the Little League World Series in 1992 and '93 and had won Olympic gold before he was legally old enough to drink. Two years before that, San Diego used the ninth overall pick of the First-Year Player Draft to snag the third baseman out of high school.
The Padres believed they had a franchise cornerstone on their hands.
"He was supposed to be the golden child," said Xavier Nady, Burroughs' roommate for years in San Diego and now his teammate in Arizona. "I think they wanted so much out of him that he was never going to be good enough. That's hard to deal with at that age when you're trying to figure things out."
A pileup of injuries only further exasperated Burroughs after he hit .286 with 27 doubles, seven homers and 58 RBIs in 2003, his first full season with the Padres. A push for him to hit for power didn't allow Burroughs to be himself, either.
Nightlife provided the escape to it all. The self-indulgent lifestyle didn't entirely sap Burroughs' desire to work hard -- he insists he truly always wanted to succeed -- but it limited what he could offer. There were times Burroughs came to the plate with a mind so clouded he had no shot at making contact.
Things got worse as a member of the Rays organization in 2006. Burroughs appeared in four Minor League games in '07 before calling it quits.
"I was just at such a disadvantage because I was partaking in everything that wasn't good for your body," Burroughs said. "I wasn't interested, really. I would be in the hole with one out and I wouldn't want to hit. Sometimes I think you get so down on yourself that you'd rather not even participate in the game. I'd want to slip by.
"I could remember sometimes thinking, 'Let's get this over with. I've got people to meet up with and places to go.' That's disrespectful of the game. That's not how I was raised to play this game. That's not how I came up through the Minor Leagues, or how it was my first couple years in the big leagues."
It didn't take long for Burroughs' path to take him to Las Vegas. There, his life went into a potentially deadly spiral.
Nady, among others, tried to check up on Burroughs, who had no interest in returning calls. Attending family holiday gatherings were trumped by the opportunity to engage in all Sin City had to offer.
"I always say I went out to Vegas to become a rock star," Burroughs said.
It didn't matter that Burroughs couldn't play any instruments because, as he put it, he could "party with the best of them."
What spurred the first real look in the mirror escapes Burroughs. Not that the means to that end really matters.
But in May 2010, for the first time in a long time, he was disgusted with what he saw staring back at him. Those pleas from family and friends finally made it past his stubbornness, and a period of critical self-evaluation followed.
|"I'm so blessed to have been able to make a 180-degree turn. I have no crutches that are holding me back."|
|-- Sean Burroughs|
Burroughs recalls that the transformation occurred on a sunny Vegas day. Maybe it really was sunny. Or maybe that's just how Burroughs prefers to remember it given what has followed.
He felt a calling to return to California, which had, for so many years, been home. And it wasn't long before baseball re-entered the picture.
"I was really longing for the game again," Burroughs said. "I started getting out of the haze."
Burroughs began watching baseball on TV and picked up the sports section of the paper for the first time in years. When he did, Burroughs didn't know who was playing or what had happened since he left.
All he knew was that he wanted back in.
Burroughs began shedding the weight he had gained, spent hours at a gym and worked out with members of the UCLA baseball team. He made that call to Wolfe, which prompted his longtime agent to set up tryouts with five Major League teams.
The D-backs were among the teams that came to watch, and they offered Burroughs a Minor League deal without an invitation to Major League Spring Training. Burroughs, who had surprised himself with how quickly he had regained his swing, unhesitatingly took it.
"I've never seen a guy so excited," Wolfe said. "He was so fired up to have this opportunity."
A fit with Arizona was natural. Kevin Towers, who drafted Burroughs when he was the Padres' general manager, had been named the D-backs' GM in September. When Wolfe called to let Towers know Burroughs desired a second chance, Towers took Wolfe at his word.
"I knew the way his career had come to an abrupt halt that Kevin Towers had always felt something special about Sean," Wolfe said. "He was saddened by the way Sean had gone out. He gets invested in these guys. I knew if I made the case that Sean looked like he was back, that he would give him a fair shake. He did."
Burroughs worked out even more incessantly once he signed. He joined Chase Utley, Mike Stanton, Brendan Ryan and other current Major Leaguers in the gym. It was like being back in a clubhouse. He was, once again, a ballplayer.
During the process, Burroughs made an important promise, too. He vowed he'd never go back to where he'd been.
The ending to Burrough's tale is far from being scribed. But from a new beginning has bloomed potential and hope.
On the personal side, Burroughs is proud to be clean and clear of the lifestyle that brought him down. He's living with the Nady family, and Nady's son, Xavier VII, has taken quite the liking to the household's new guest.
"It's nice having him with us," Nady said. "He's, in my eyes, matured a lot as a man. He's a little more mellow, though I can still see the goofiness in him."
Professionally, things could hardly be going better. Burroughs' contract was purchased from Triple-A on May 18 and made his second Major League debut as a pinch-hitter the next day. It came 1,842 days after his last big league at-bat.
Burroughs has stuck, too. Though he's made just one start at third base, Burroughs has been an asset off the bench, recording five hits in 17 pinch-hit at-bats.
He now knows no other way to approach baseball but one day at a time. His stay in the Majors could last all year, but Burroughs also realizes he could be back in the Minors tomorrow. Nothing is being taken for granted.
Maybe Burroughs becomes a starter again one day. Or perhaps he never does, having missed out on that chance when he squandered away those years during what should have been the prime of his career.
But for a change, Burroughs is at least giving himself a chance.
"Fourteen months ago, I was living hotel to hotel and talking to strangers and associating with people that were doing highly illegal things," Burroughs said. "I was running from people who weren't even real. Literally.
"Now everything is so simple. I eat, breathe and sleep baseball. All I'm focused on is helping this team. All I have to worry about is, 'What is this guy throwing?' It's pretty easy compared to what it was. It really is.
"I'm so blessed to have been able to make a 180-degree turn. I have no crutches that are holding me back."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.