Wilson's Burriss: An Urban Legend
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Wilson High School baseball coach Eddie Saah said his team, which plays its home games on a football field, "would be the last place" major league scouts look for prospects, and he appears to be correct. Although the Tigers have won 13 consecutive D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association titles, none of Saah's players -- or any from the league rivals they routinely beat -- has ever gotten a sniff from a big league team.
That's about to change. When Emmanuel Burriss is selected in today's amateur draft, he will become what is believed to be the first player selected from a D.C. public school since 1989.
"Pick the longest odds you care to pick," said one major league scout who has followed the Washington area for more than 20 years. "Those kids don't get seen. I defy you to find someone who saw him in high school."
While most of his peers fantasized about being pro basketball or football players, Burriss dreamed of making it big on the baseball diamond. Today, he is expected to be chosen in the first few rounds of the two-day draft that stretches for more than 50 rounds.
"It's one of those things you always remember," said Burriss, who has worked out for several major league teams recently, trying to make good final impressions. "I know there aren't too many guys coming from [a District] public school who get this opportunity to go this far.
"I like that I played at Wilson, on the football field. It gives me a sense of where I come from. It lets me know that if I didn't put in the work when I was in high school, I wouldn't be able to play on major league fields. I wouldn't be able to do those pre-draft workouts. Every time I get on a nice field, I think it could be worse. Nobody ever hears me complain about fields. I never complained about playing at Wilson because I was having the opportunity to play and be out there."
Major League Baseball does not keep records of players' high schools, but it is believed the most recent D.C. public school player drafted was H.D. Woodson's Henderson Mosley in 1989. Taken in the 54th round by the Orioles, Mosley did not sign and instead went on to play football at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Dunbar High's Almonzo Banks signed as a free agent with the Angels in 1999 and played four seasons in the minor leagues before turning to college football; he is a wide receiver for Youngstown State.
The District's top players often attend private schools, where the competition is stronger. Saah hopes 2002 Wilson graduate Joe Vladeck, now a senior pitcher at Amherst College, also will be taken in this year's draft.
Burriss was the second-leading scorer on the Wilson basketball team as a senior, but he never strayed from his favorite sport. In high school, he played on suburban traveling teams in the summer and fall, catching the eye of an assistant coach at George Washington. When Jeff Waggoner moved to Kent State as an assistant and needed to find a shortstop, he had Burriss in mind.
Once at Kent State, Burriss was recruited by members of the basketball team to come out for their team. But Burriss did not want to do anything that might interfere with his dedication to baseball.
In addition to playing year-round, Burriss trained year-round. To work on his speed, he often would sprint up hills, usually up 13th Street, N.W., near his family's house, or Fessenden Street, behind Wilson. Once he got to college, he would run the stairs in his dorm or put some weights on a sled and pull it across a field. This past year, Burriss and roommate Will Vazquez, the team's catcher, set up some nets, bought some wiffle balls and had a makeshift batting cage in their apartment.
All of the work paid off. In three seasons, Burriss stole 92 bases and was thrown out just 12 times; he holds team season and career records for steals and has a career .325 batting average. As a junior this past season, he batted .360, was 42 of 44 on attempted steals and was named Mid-American Conference player of the year.
"I don't know much about baseball in the D.C. school district," said Scott Stricklin, a former Georgia Tech assistant who was hired as Kent State's coach after Burriss's freshman year. "The only thing I know about it is Emmanuel Burriss came out of it, and he's as good a player as you'll find anywhere."
In addition to his speed, Burriss believes his assets are defensive play and instincts for the game. A switch-hitting shortstop who is considered a natural leadoff batter, Burriss emerged as a top prospect last summer. Signed as a temporary player in the Cape Cod League -- the equivalent of a 10-day contract in the NBA -- Burriss thrived in the top summer league and eventually earned team most valuable player honors.
When Burriss returned to Kent State, he was a known commodity. Today, the hometown Nationals are interested and Burriss would enjoy playing for the city's new team; he attended several games last summer.
"Of course, I would love to play for the Nationals, I would love that," Burriss said. "But if it doesn't work out, I definitely won't be disappointed. As long as I'm drafted, [what team] really doesn't matter to me.
"It's exciting. A lot of people have been coming to me asking if I'm nervous. But I really don't have anything to be nervous about. It's supposed to be an exciting time, be able to go out and play and have fun. It's kind of nerve-wracking for the people around me, but for me, it's fine."