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Nationals contract brings joy, opportunity for Emmanuel Burriss

By Adam Kilgore Updated: December 27, 2013 at 3:39 pm

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Eric Young #1 of the Colorado Rockies steals second base as Emmanuel Burriss #2 of the San Francisco Giants keeps the throw from going into center field during an MLB baseball game at AT&T Park on September 28, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Emmanuel Burriss, pictured here in 2011, will try to make the Nationals on a minor league deal. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The signing happened a week before Christmas, garnering no press release or announcement from the Washington Nationals, just a blip on the team’s transaction page. But it meant so much to so many. Joy surged through the halls of Wilson High, through the playground at Friendship Rec Center in Northwest, through all the coaches and all scruffy diamonds across the District that taught Emmanuel Burris the game he loves.

“This is home,” said Allen Burriss, Emmanuel’s father. “This we where we watched a lot of baseball all my life. To see my son associated with the team I love and cheer for, for my son to be playing at home, it makes me full of pride.”

Burriss, the former Wilson shortstop who in 2008 snapped a 38-year drought without a D.C. public school product in the majors, agreed to a minor league contract with the Nationals on Dec. 19. Burriss tried to keep it quiet, but once word leaked out a deluge of calls and messages filled his phone. Burriss heard from coaches and teammates, teachers and friends, all of them as overjoyed as he was.

Between his debut and 2012, Burriss appeared in 282 big league games for the San Francisco Giants. He spent all of 2013 playing in Class AAA for the Cincinnati Reds, who granted him his release in November. Burriss and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports, sifted through rosters and depth charts, looking for his best fit. In early December, the Nationals called.

“It wasn’t even a second thought,” Burriss said. “We were both so excited. I didn’t know whether it was real or not. To play for your hometown, I don’t think anybody would run away from that opportunity. It means a lot.”

In 2006, as Burriss was coming out of Kent State, the Nationals showed interest in drafting him. But they chose first baseman Chris Marrero and pitcher Colton Willems with their two first-round picks before the Giants nabbed Burriss with the 33rd overall choice. When Balelo relayed the Nationals’ call this month, he told Burriss, “the Nationals finally made us an offer.”

Most players in Burriss’s situation, trying to return to the major leagues, search for their best opportunity to crack a roster. The Nationals’ current lack of depth in their infield could give Burriss, 28, a decent chance to play for the Nationals this season. Danny Espinosa and Zach Walters are the only two backups on their 40-man roster.

But none of that factored in Burriss’s decision.

“Honestly, it was just a chance to play for the hometown team,” Burriss said. “Any time you have an opportunity to play in front of your family and take of your career, you want to jump on it. My agent and I were looking at depth charts. But when the Nationals called, they could have had a superstar, stacked infield, and there’s a good chance I still would have signed.”

Burriss, to be sure, faces an uphill climb to make the Nationals’ opening day roster. Whether Burriss’s contract will include an invitation to major league spring training is “still being worked out right now,” he said. The Nationals may still sign another veteran infielder, too.

Burriss is a career .243 hitter in the majors, but his speed and versatility could give him a chance to contribute. He’s a switch-hitter who has 40 career stolen bases and has played every position except pitcher and catcher. Burriss has actually played before for new Manager Matt Williams; in the 2008 Arizona Fall League, Williams served as the third base coach for Burriss’s team.

If he reaches the majors, Burriss will again wear the “Curly W” logo on his cap, similar to the one he wore as a Wilson Tiger. Burriss has maintained close ties to D.C. He spent the holidays at his parents’ house in Logan Circle, and his son, Jamari, lives in Washington year-round.

During trips back to Washington with the Giants, more than 100 friends, family and former coaches poured into Nationals Park. He visited kids at D.C. Dynasty and Home Run Baseball Camp, two youth programs he participated in growing up.

“Manny’s a very gracious, humble young man who’s been a great role model for all of our campers,” said John McCarthy, a mentor for Burriss and a coach at Home Run Baseball Camp. “If he’s at the big league level he’s going to make time to do whatever he can in the community. I have no doubt he’ll do that.

“I think it’s awesome. It’s incredible. It’s a great accomplishment. I think it’s a good fit for him. I hope he gets a chance.”

Having already supported inner-city baseball programs from afar, Burriss wonders how much he can help if he plays for the Nationals. In a city starved for better ball fields and chock full of kids who gravitate toward basketball and football, what would his example mean?

“Everybody wants to play in the major league level,” Burriss said. “To be able to [support youth baseball in the District] at the same time would be amazing for the city. To be able to show them, to play in the city, to show them what it’s about and give them that hope and aspiration would be amazing.”

There is one young player Burriss especially has in mind. Last summer, Jamari Burris played on D.C. Dynasty’s 9-and-under squad. On the West Coast or in the minor leagues, Burriss rarely had a chance to watch his son. And Jamari rarely had a chance to see his father play. There is now a chance that could change, and a chance is all Burriss wanted.

“That was actually a Christmas present for him,” Burriss said. “There was a possibility I would be playing the whole summer here and he could come to all of my games. He was almost in tears, and so was I.”