Former Wilson star and All-Met Emmanuel Burriss has made the roster of the… (Joel Richardson for The…)
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.
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'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.