Sean Burroughs moved across the country early last year to continue his baseball career. He did this even though it meant living with a family he didn't know in a town he had never visited, and playing in a league he never imagined he'd play in. He could have just stayed home and avoided all this, but he didn't.
Burroughs, 35, was a former child prodigy, a two-time Little League World Series champion, a former MLB first-round pick, an Olympic gold medalist, and a big league veteran who had retired before turning 30 in large part because of his struggle with addiction. Today, he's in recovery and once again in love with the game. After all that, no number of rejections or minor league bus trips could turn him away from a comeback.
Burroughs didn't get an invite to spring training in 2014 after hitting .220/.325/.292 in 57 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers' Double-A affiliate two years ago. Finally, he received a call in mid-March from the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, an independent minor league known for its population of recognizable ex-MLB names. With no other options available, Burroughs decided to leave his home in Long Beach and head to Connecticut.
To save money, Burroughs lived with a married couple and their young daughter, who are Bluefish season ticket holders and serve as a host family for Bridgeport players. Such arrangements are not rare in the low minors, but it was an experience Burroughs had skipped in his ascent to the bigs. "They were great, awesome people," he said. "You've just got to be cordial and respect them and make sure the fridge is stocked for them."
It was a sacrifice Burroughs willingly accepted, and enjoyed. He recently moved out of the house, albeit not by his own volition. On August 10, the Bluefish traded Burroughs to the Long Island Ducks. He is now living with four teammates near the Ducks' ballpark and is not about to give up his dream of playing in the bigs again. There has always been an element of destiny to Sean Burroughs' life in baseball, and he's convinced that he's finally ready to seize it.
Sean Burroughs, son of 1974 American League MVP Jeff Burroughs, received acclaim for his talent before he could even drive. In 1992 and 1993, he was the star pitcher and hitter on Long Beach teams that won consecutive Little League World Series championships. Soon after the second title, he appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman." A People magazine story noted that a signed Burroughs baseball reportedly sold for $35. Nearly everyone predicted big things for the tall, pudgy kid who threw no-hitters and hit towering home runs.
When Burroughs led off the fourth inning of the 1993 U.S. championship game with his second homer of the afternoon, ABC analysts John Saunders and Jim Palmer marveled at the young phenom.
"You may be right," Saunders told Palmer. "He may be drafted this year."
"Why not take a shot?" Palmer said.
For a while, it appeared as if Burroughs would live up to the expectations. The Padres selected him out of high school with the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft, and he was rated among Baseball America's top seven prospects in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He was the Padres' everyday third baseman in 2003 and '04, and while he didn't hit for much power, Burroughs graded out as an above-average regular and solid defender. After getting off to a slow start in 2005, he was demoted to Triple-A. He was called up later that summer, but the Padres, who had lost confidence in him, traded Burroughs to Tampa in December of 2005. Burroughs appeared in just eight games with the Rays, and retired in 2007 after spending four games with Seattle's Triple-A affiliate. He was 27, and that appeared to be that.
For the next three years, Burroughs abused drugs and alcohol while living in a series of seedy Las Vegas motels. In time, he lost touch with family and friends. "I was knocking at death's door," Burroughs told ESPN's Jim Caple in 2011.
"Everyone has regrets," Burroughs recently told me in the Ducks clubhouse. "Everyone makes probably bad decisions in their lives. You go through some ups and downs and peaks and valleys. That was kind of a valley for a couple years there. I was mentally and physically just drained from baseball."
By 2011, Burroughs had turned his life around and wanted back in the game. That spring, he signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose general manager, Kevin Towers, had made Burroughs the ninth pick of the draft while he was with the Padres. Burroughs hit .273/.289/.336 in 78 games with the Diamondbacks, and played his usual fine defense. The Minnesota Twins picked him up after the season. But he spent just 10 games in April 2012 with the Twins, and he hasn't been back to the big leagues since.
Burroughs said he was close to signing minor league deals with several organizations in each of the last two summers until shoulder and oblique injuries derailed his chances. When healthy, Burroughs can still hit, at least on the independent league level. He hit .344/.401/.430 in 73 games with Bridgeport last season, and sits at .342/.402/.412 between Bridgeport and Long Island this season, while switching between first, third, and designated hitter.
"He still loves to play," Ducks manager Kevin Baez said. "I tell guys at the beginning of the year, 'If you don't enjoy playing, go home and get a real job. If you enjoy playing, keep playing and keep that uniform.' You're not here making money."
On the night we spoke, Burroughs went 3-for-5 with two RBIs and scored a run in Long Island's 5-1 victory; he's hitting .410 over 19 games with the team. It was "Mascot Day" at Bethpage Ballpark, and mascots mixed it up in a dodgeball game before the first pitch, and danced on top of the Ducks' dugout in the seventh inning stretch and took photos with fans. In the clubhouse, the televisions were tuned to the Little League World Series games on ESPN. Conversation inevitably turns to Burroughs's exploits from more than two decades ago.
"The guys in the locker room always kind of jab you a little bit and mess around with you," he said. "It was a great time."
Burroughs is not living in the past; he is not done with baseball, and believes the game is not yet done with him. He hopes for an invite to spring training next year, and one more shot at making a major league club. No matter the outcome, he is planning on remaining in the game as a coach once his playing days are done. Even now, he observes how managers use their bullpens and decide when to rest players.
Burroughs's earliest baseball memories date back to attending his father's old-timers games in Texas and Toronto and hanging around major league clubhouses. His old love and awe for the game dissipated, and vanished in his post-retirement spiral. Now, after nearly losing everything, Sean Burroughs wants to get it all back. He has realized, decades after the rest of the world decided that it was his destiny, that he was meant to be in baseball.
"It's just part of the story," Burroughs said. "Now I kind of relish every day. You never know what can happen in this game."