By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO -- How long is 38 years in baseball? Long enough to take you from Jackie Robinson's final season to Alex Rodriguez's first. Long enough for Major League Baseball to desert the District of Columbia for a second time, then finally come crawling back a third. Long enough for ballfields across the District to become overgrown with weeds and broken bottles, or blacktopped over and turned into basketball courts. Long enough for young men who once played ball on those fields to grow old, and for old men to pass away and take their memories with them.
We've had good ballplayers come out of the District, the old-timers on their stoops would say. There was Maury Wills, the great Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop out of Cardozo High. He broke into the majors in '59. And then there was. . .
And then there was almost nothing. Bubba Morton, out of Armstrong, broke in two years after Wills. Charlie Vinson, who played 13 games for the California Angels in '66, came out of Phelps High. And there was Vince Colbert, out of Eastern, who pitched three seasons for the Cleveland Indians beginning in 1970.
And then, by all accounts, there was nothing.
From 1970 on, according to the best recollections of dozens of D.C. baseball insiders and what meager records exist on this topic, District public schools failed to produce another big leaguer--not a single representative to carry the flag for the city that Walter Johnson made his adopted home, where Josh Gibson and Frank Howard hit some of the most breathtaking homers you'll ever see, where baseball-loving presidents scanned box scores every morning in the White House before they even read page one.
There was nothing, that is, until now. Until April 19, when the San Francisco Giants called up another handsome young shortstop from Washington, Emmanuel Burriss, the former pride of Wilson High, and stuck him in a game in St. Louis the next day. Forty-nine years after Wills's debut, and 38 years after the pipeline dried up, the District--its people, not its team -- was finally back in the big leagues.
The good news made it down the California coast to Los Angeles, where Wills still lives.
"It's disgusting," Wills said on the phone, contemplating the talent drought in the city he once represented proudly. "Man, that's [a lot of] years of great athletes withering away."
They didn't all wither away, of course, all these youngsters who once might have filled a talent pipeline forged by Wills. Some of them moved to the suburbs to play on good fields. Some followed their friends to basketball and football, and never returned. A handful even got drafted by baseball teams, but saw their careers stall in the minors. And some, indeed, withered away, victims of the any of the hundreds of social ills that plague our cities.
The story of Emmanuel Burriss, then, is a story of a kid who, against all those long odds, didn't wither away, who -- yes, in fact -- rode out to the suburbs with his parents to play on the good fields but always returned to the District at the end of the day, who may have played (and excelled at) other sports but who never strayed too far from his first love, which was and is and always will be baseball.
* * *
'A Tremendous Work Ethic'
The uniform pants hanging off the waist of 10-year-old Emmanuel Burriss had been bleached and pressed, his cleats buffed and shined, his ball cap straightened just so. He was still in the city, still in the District -- but Friendship, out in upper Northwest, seemed as far away from Burriss's Logan Circle neighborhood as the moon.
He was there, among all those white kids, on this pristine field, at the invitation of John McCarthy, a onetime college and minor league pitcher turned inner-city youth-baseball guru, who had discovered young Emmanuel at an after-school clinic he put on a couple of weeks earlier at Garrison Elementary, practically across the street from the Burriss's house. There weren't many kids at that clinic who were any good, but Emmanuel was different. This kid knew the game. He felt the game.
And by the end of the day, McCarthy was sitting at the kitchen table in the Burriss home, asking Allen and Denise Burriss if they wanted to bring Emmanuel up to Friendship, where he could play Little League with players and coaches who loved the game the way he did.
"Emmanuel was very unusual," McCarthy said. "His 'baseball IQ,' as I call it, was exceptional, but what separated him from others with that same baseball IQ was his talent. He was just a gifted kid who was highly coachable and had a tremendous work ethic."
Hearing that his boy had big-time talent filled Allen Burriss with pride. The former starting catcher at Roosevelt High back in the early '60s, he had tried to instill a love of baseball in young Emmanuel, all the while knowing it was probably a losing battle -- because kids simply weren't into baseball anymore in the inner city, the way they were in his own day.
"I loved the game. It was my heart and soul," Allen Burriss said. "Back in the '50s and '60s, we had these Walter Johnson leagues that the rec department ran, and there was so much pride and prestige if you made one of those teams. There'd be hundreds of kids -- and I'm not exaggerating -- trying to make a squad of no more than 15 [players] a year."
In the part of the city where Emmanuel and his family lived, there were few baseball fields to speak of, and the ones that did exist were not fit for kids to play upon.
"They were just crummy -- rocks all in the infield. I always say they had more glass than grass," Allen Burriss said. "The city had just stopped taking care of the fields. It was cheaper to put a basketball court there. Even now, the rec fields are all just nothing -- destroyed."
Unlike many of the kids Emmanuel grew up with, who gravitated toward football and basketball, his first love was baseball. He remembers being riveted by the 1993 World Series, the one that ended on a walk-off home run by Toronto's Joe Carter, and he constantly watched the baseball videotapes his dad kept stacked next the television -- one of which, called "Greatest Shortstops in Baseball History" or some such, featured a segment on Wills.
"Look at that, son," Allen Burriss would say, "that's Maury Wills. He's from the District."
With McCarthy as his mentor, and with two parents willing to drive him to the farthest reaches of the city -- and out beyond the city line, out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs -- young Emmanuel discovered a wonderful new world that revolved around baseball. And he noticed something else: Almost no one he played with, or against, looked like him.
* * *'Just a Black Kid From D.C.'
One day in high school, Burriss was feeling cocky. He knew he was a better player than just about anybody he played with or against. So he asked Antoine Williams, a youth coach who, like McCarthy, had become a mentor to him: "What are my chances of making it to the big leagues?" He figured he'd get a standard answer: "I'd say they're pretty good, Manny. You've got serious talent."
Instead, this was the answer Williams gave him: "I'd say one in a million."
"He wasn't saying it to make me feel bad -- just to let me know what I was up against," Burriss said. "He said, 'One, you're from the inner city, and no scouts come around here. And two, you're a black kid from D.C. No one's going to believe in you. You can make it, but you're going to have to work harder than anyone else.' "
So that's what he did. At McCarthy's prodding, he learned to switch-hit, taking thousands of swings from the left side, where he would be a couple of steps closer to first base. But his biggest mission was to get faster.
"I thought I was fast, and for the group of guys I was around, I was," he said. "But my dad knew. He grew up watching [Willie] Mays and [Roberto] Clemente, so he knew what real speed looked like."
Together, father and son would wake before sunrise and go to the hill at Cardozo High, which Emmanuel would ascend while wearing ankle-weights, or with a rope tied to his waist with a tire at the other end.
"To this day," Emmanuel said, "I can't stand driving up Cardozo Hill."
For high school, Emmanuel chose Wilson, even though it required a 30-minute Metro ride, because a combination of mediocre grades and family finances made it impossible to consider private schools, and because Wilson, under Coach Eddie Saah, had the best baseball program in the city school system.
"I remember one time we were playing DeMatha," Saah recalled, "and it was a 2-2 game, runners on first and third. Manny was the runner on third. And we put on one of those rinky-dink high school [double] steal plays, where the runner on first runs early. And before I could yell at Manny to go, he was already gone. He did a backdoor hook-slide and was safe. That's not something we do in practice. He was just a natural."
Playing ball at Wilson meant making sacrifices. The team played its home games on a football field, which meant the basepaths were grass, not dirt, and the right field fence was a mere 180 feet away. A ball over the fence? That would be a ground-rule single. At least it was better than the field Coolidge High used, which was a regulation field -- for Little League, that is, complete with bases spaced 60 feet apart (which were moved back into the outfield for the high schoolers) and a flat mound.
"The best fields we played on," Burriss said, "would have been considered sub-par anywhere else."
And playing at Wilson also meant Burriss would never play a high school game with a professional scout present. Still, he had his hopes up that he'd be drafted from high school -- which only made him bitter when he wasn't.
"I was so upset," he said. "I knew I was good enough. I'm not saying I was major league-ready, but I was ready to go play rookie ball. I would have been happy being a 50th-rounder."
By that time, Burriss had played on travel teams that competed in tournaments in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania -- some of which had scouts present. Not that it mattered. He doesn't recall a single one speaking to him, even though by then it was clear he was the best player on most of his teams.
"But I'm sure they just looked at my profile and said, 'Oh, he's just a black kid from D.C., just a fast kid -- a one-tool player. He doesn't know. He's just running. Oh, yeah, he made that play at shortstop, but he doesn't really know what he's doing,' " Burriss said. "It was a combination of race and where I'm from."
* * *
'I'm a Baseball Guy'
Last year, the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball dropped to 8.2 percent, down from 19 percent as recently as 1995, and -- despite MLB's efforts, with its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program -- no one seems quite sure how to halt the decline, the roots of which are tangled up in the country's larger economic and societal problems. Washington's failure to produce big leaguers is not unique; they aren't coming out of inner-city Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or Detroit either.
"Kids aren't stupid," Burriss said. "They don't want to play on a bad field with bad equipment, when it's so easy to go play basketball on a blacktop. How hard is it to keep a blacktop in good shape? All you need is a broom."
But McCarthy, who operates three youth-oriented baseball outreach programs, thinks the issue is more complex. One of his programs, Béisbol y Libros, transports Washington area coaches and players each summer to the Dominican Republic to conduct camps, and there he encounters kids with equipment and facilities that are far worse than what is available in the District.
"And yet, their desire and determination overcomes that," McCarthy said. "In Washington, most kids play other sports -- and that's great. Kids should play what they want to play. But there's also the fact Washington, like other cities, is battling serious social problems, and producing great athletes is not always a priority for families. Nine percent of D.C. public high school kids go on to graduate from college. So we're not producing big league talent in academics, either."
Wills, who still returns to the District occasionally to teach baseball clinics, said: "If you don't start playing when you're 5 years old, for some reason it's too late. I'm not smart enough to explain it. But when I go back I can see they don't have that natural ability. When I was [with the Dodgers], I used to beg our scouts to go to D.C. -- because there was talent there."
But professional scouts were not the only people who ignored Burriss at Wilson High. He also received exactly zero scholarship offers from any of the colleges and universities in the area.
"If you're one of our local colleges, you've got to be saying to yourselves, 'How did we miss this young man?' " McCarthy said. "It was probably an indictment of their lack of effort. No college within a 200-mile radius wanted to offer him a scholarship? That seems kind of weak."
After a prolific high school career in which he starred in both baseball and basketball, Burriss wound up at Kent State, a Division I school in Ohio that maintained a prolific pipeline of Washington area football players. Saah sent him away with one piece of advice: Watch out for the basketball coach; he's going to want you to be his point guard.
Sure enough, Burriss found himself in a pickup game with some members of Kent State's hoops team. Within days, he was fighting off not only the basketball coach, but the football coach as well.
"The football coach was like, 'Come return kicks for me,' and the basketball coach was like, 'Come play point guard for me,' " Burriss said. "I thought about playing hoops. But with my grades, I needed to choose one sport and stick with it, and for me that was baseball. And also, as a kid from D.C., if a [baseball] scout sees that I'm also playing basketball, he's going to automatically assume I'm just a basketball player who plays baseball in his spare time. I wanted people to know I'm a baseball guy."
After three years at Kent State, and a pivotal summer season in the prestigious Cape Cod League following his sophomore year, Burriss was taken in the supplemental first round of the 2006 draft, 33rd overall, by the San Francisco Giants, and he signed within two weeks.
* * *
'We've Got a Special Kid'
The Giants figured Burriss's arrival date in the majors might be around Opening Day 2009, but that timetable was hastened by his performance this spring in his first big league camp, and two weeks into his season at Class AAA Fresno, Burriss, 23, was called up to the majors. And while playing time has been sparse, the 6-foot, 190-pound switch-hitter is a perfect 4 for 4 in stolen base attempts and already has one indelible moment, a leadoff double in the top of the 13th that led to the winning run against the San Diego Padres on April 23.
"We think we've got a special kid here who can help us at the big league level," Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said. "He has all the tools to be a real nice major league player."
Few if any of Burriss's teammates know his back story, about D.C. and Wills and the 38-year gap, or the 180-foot fence at Wilson High, or the white coaches he encountered along the way who thought they needed to teach him the game's rudimentary concepts because he was black -- or how, back in D.C. during Thanksgiving break his sophomore year at Kent State, his best friend and former Wilson teammate, DeLoren Young, was killed by a bullet to the head that was meant for someone else.
"They have no idea," Burriss said. "They really have no idea."
Occupying that perilous territory between the minor leagues and an established spot on the big league roster, Burriss knows he is a couple of botched grounders or a handful of overmatched at-bats -- or a return to health of veteran shortstop Omar Vizquel -- from being sent back down to Fresno.
His only wish is to be on the Giants' roster the first weekend in June, when the team travels to Washington for four games. If he had 25 friends and family members watching him in Philadelphia this weekend, where the Giants are playing the Phillies, he would have a hundred or more here in the District.
And there's one other thing he wants to do that weekend.
Ever since Young's death, Burriss has always said he would take the ball from his first major league hit -- which, at present, resides for safekeeping in the office of the Giants' equipment manager in San Francisco -- and take it with him to D.C., where he would bury it at his best friend's gravesite. And that's what he intends to do.
The symbolism may be unintentional, but would be apt nonetheless: There, in the deep brown dirt of the District of Columbia, Burriss will plant this baseball like a seed. And if it never bears any fruit -- well, the city will be no more starved for big leaguers than it has been for most of the last half-century.