Sean Burroughs focusing on the positive
Former first-round pick back in baseball after hitting rock bottom in his personal life
When Sean Burroughs was 12 years old, he not only threw two no-hitters while leading his Long Beach (Calif.) team to the Little League World Series championship, he also appeared on the David Letterman Show and had the wit to tell Dave and several million viewers that when he grew up, he wanted to be a gynecologist.
When Burroughs was 17, he was a first-round draft pick. When he was 20, he represented his country at the Olympics and wore a gold medal around his neck.
When Burroughs was 21, he was in the major leagues with Sports Illustrated touting him as the year's "can't miss'' prospect. "Life is about experiencing everything you can,'' he told the magazine. "I don't know how my baseball career will go, but I know I want my life to be an adventure.''
And by the time Burroughs was 29, he was out of baseball, checking in and out of the cheapest motels he could find, wandering the streets of Las Vegas at all hours and abusing every substance he could ingest. He says he was living a "Leaving Las Vegas'' existence, a reference to the Oscar-winning and thoroughly depressing Nicolas Cage movie about a man who commits lengthy suicide via alcohol abuse. There was no Academy Award for this lifestyle, though. Burroughs says he was so desperate and paranoid that if you picked a couple particularly bad days in 2010, you could find this Little League hero, this Olympic gold medalist, this former big leaguer eating cheeseburgers out of garbage cans. Yes, garbage cans.
Life certainly had been an experience.
Fortunately, that is not the amazing part of the Sean Burroughs story. No, the amazing and happy part of the story is that at age 30, Burroughs has put the wheels back on his life, returned to sobriety and is back in baseball, including a month in the majors.
"Last May, June, I kind of was getting things back together and thinking, 'I'd love to play baseball again,' but it was in the back of my mind because I didn't know how to do it,'' Burroughs said. "I knew it would be a long journey, but it shows when I put my mind to something and want it and persevere, it's possible. It really is. It's incredible I'm where I'm at. People are lucky to even have me alive, forget to see me play baseball and smiling every day. My worst day now is better than my best day then.''
Burroughs said this recently in the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse, one month into a big league callup. The Diamondbacks sent him to Triple-A Reno a few days later but given the journey he had made, few people could ever be so satisfied playing in the minor leagues.
"It's been an incredible journey. It really has,'' Burroughs said. "It was just a year ago I was eating cheeseburgers out of garbage cans and living in Motel 6. I'd be shuffling around from hotel to hotel. On the streets until 4 in the morning. These were rat motels, we called them, ones that weren't very nice. That was a year ago -- then fast forward and I've got everything back together.''
When he was younger, Burroughs indeed had everything together. Son of 1974 American League MVP Jeff Burroughs, he was the most famous Little Leaguer this side of Kelly Leak. With his dad coaching, his Long Beach team won the Little League World Series in 1993 (and also was awarded the 1992 title after a forfeit by a team from the Philippines).
Unlike many Little League stars, Burroughs continued to excel at the game. He was the San Diego Padres' first-round pick in 1998, a gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and in the majors in 2002. Baseball America named him the fourth-best prospect in the game that year. Burroughs hit .286 with seven home runs his first full season in the majors (2003) and Arizona general manager Kevin Towers, who was the general manager in San Diego at the time, says he remembers talk that Burroughs "was the next Tony Gwynn.''
Well, maybe not.
Burroughs had a sweet stroke and good eye at the plate, but he never developed the power desired in a third baseman. By 2005, he was back in the minors. The Padres traded him to Tampa Bay before the 2006 season, but the Rays released him that August. The Mariners signed him the following winter and assigned him to Triple-A Tacoma. He played exactly four games there in 2007, then walked away from the sport that had been a huge part of his family's life for two generations.
"I just didn't have the drive or the passion,'' Burroughs said. "I was spent physically and spent mentally. It just wasn't there. I was emotionally drained. I still loved the game and respected the game, but I didn't have the drive to go to the park every day. I kind of lost the desire.''
Far worse, Burroughs had developed a deep craving to over-indulge after games. "I was hanging out with some bad people and had done some bad things," Burroughs said. "That was more important my last couple years playing ball, and the last few years.
"I was doing a lot of things that were morally not correct and physically not correct. I was knocking at death's door. I was flirting with going to jail and getting locked up someplace. It was scary. Some people kind of came to my rescue. It was pure insanity, but I got myself back together and I'm coming back out of the haze I was in for so many years.''
Asked what his substance of choice was, Burroughs replied, "A lot. Everything. I really haven't talked too much about what it was, but it was stuff that definitely wasn't healthy taking for a long, long time, that's for sure. I was kind of like a garbage can. Whatever I had or needed, I would find and take it. I wasn't an out-on-the-town type of guy. I would just try to fill myself with as much substances as I could, legally or illegally.''
He says his binges were an everyday thing. "I didn't have any brushes with the law or anything, fortunately," Burroughs said. "But it was inevitable. It was going to happen. It was just, 'Not yet.'''
Burroughs moved to Las Vegas and into a house that was party central. Each year he partied more. He missed a Christmas with his family, as well as weddings. He didn't return phone calls for months.
His mother, Debbie, says she and Jeff knew it was getting bad when Sean's friends told them they were worrying he was out of control. "That was the big tipoff because they were the ones partying with him," Debbie said. "It was terrible. We were terribly worried. Baseball is important, but I just want my children to be happy and healthy. As a mother, you're only as happy as your saddest child.''
It's been an incredible journey. It really has. It was just a year ago I was eating cheeseburgers out of garbage cans and living in Motel 6.” -- Sean Burroughs
Burroughs' agent, Joel Wolfe, says Sean would call once a year or so, threatening a comeback, but it never materialized. "I would be more in contact with his parents," Wolfe said. "That was more on the personal side, just trying to find him or see what we could do, if there was anything we could do to fish him out of Vegas. But he was just totally non-responsive. Every once in a while he would pop up. The closest I got to seeing him was the year the winter meetings were in Vegas. We traded some voice mails and texts about getting together but he never showed.
"We were all very worried. At some point, though, it becomes exhausting. How many times can you call a guy or text a guy and he doesn't call you back, before you give up?''
Burroughs says he is always one to argue, so when friends expressed concern, he would tell them he didn't know what they were talking about, that he was fine. But "fine," he says, was not even close to accurate. "I always wanted to put the blame on somebody else. I never was man enough to step up and put it on myself and say, 'You guys are probably right.' But after a while I thought, 'Why is everyone saying this? They might have a point.'''
One thing that helped turn Burroughs around was the day he looked in the mirror and didn't recognize his face -- or his body. "I didn't pick up a weight or walk into a gym for 2½ years," Burroughs said. "It was just one of those crazy kind of diets where I was drinking eight Slurpees a day and eating an In-N-Out burger whenever I could. I weighed 260 pounds or whatever [he weighs about 220 now]. I was out of shape with big, black bags under my eyes. Bad hair, hadn't shaved for weeks on end. Hadn't taken vitamins. Hadn't eaten anything other than french fries and Slurpees.
"It was that 'Leaving Las Vegas' scenario. Motel hopping. I was living in all these motels because I was scared to stay in my house. I was paranoid of people following me. It was totally crazy, insanity. The guy I was then was paranoid and out of synch with reality.''
Wolfe wonders whether the major league life just came too quickly for Sean to handle, that success had always come too easily until it suddenly did not. "As soon as he had to deal with repetitive failure, the wheels started to come off," Wolfe said.
Burroughs says the expectations placed on him had nothing to do with his life spiraling out of control, but Towers wonders whether they might have. "You have to think about it,'' Towers said. "He was a Little League hero. His dad was an All-Star. The Olympics. There were a lot of things and so there were huge expectations. Maybe alcohol and other things became something to alleviate that pressure that was on his shoulders.''
Eventually, Burroughs decided he had had enough and it was time to turn around his life. He left Las Vegas on two feet and moved back into his parents' house, back into his old bedroom, the one with the surf stickers on the door and the Little League photos on the walls. He received a curfew, a budget and love.
"I had to break down and become a kid again,'' he said. "But it was what I needed. I needed to, well, not be locked up, but be under the care and supervision of friends and family and be responsible for my actions. Left to my own devices, I'm a different type of guy.''
As he straightened out his life, Burroughs helped his mother teach first grade in Long Beach, using the Spanish he learned in baseball to help in a classroom where that was the first language for many of the students. Debbie says Sean is a natural teacher, and having him home was just like the old days again. "He and Jeff talked baseball every day.''
"My life in baseball started coming back,'' Sean said. "I started to read the newspaper again. I hadn't read the sports page or gone on the Internet for years. I started to pick that up again to see what was happening. I started working out. Playing baseball again was in the back of my mind, but I knew it was going to be tough.
"I didn't know how I was going to do it so I just kept it simple. I got myself back in baseball shape. I called my agent and had him set up some tryouts. I was just hoping for an invitation anywhere, be it an independent league or what. I just wanted to play baseball again. It was something I loved for so long and wasn't doing it. It just seemed like it was missing from my life.''
When Burroughs contacted Wolfe about a comeback last fall, the agent was initially skeptical. "I needed to see him,'' he said. "After five years or however long he was out of the game, you would be skeptical that it would even be realistic that someone would make a comeback. I thought, maybe he'll have to play independent ball. But he showed up and he was a completely different person. He was a man now. His body had completely changed, his body language had completely changed. He was calm and he looked you right in the eye. It was clear that whatever had gone on in his life was behind him.''
Burroughs worked out over the winter at UCLA with several players including Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, who goes back to Little League days with Sean. "I knew he had been through some tough times. But in the time I was with him this offseason, he worked extremely hard,'' Utley said. "I was pretty proud of how he worked in the gym and in the batting cage. You could tell he was definitely motivated. He was always early. It seemed like he was driven.''
Towers said he had lost track of Burroughs until Wolfe called and told him Sean wanted to make a comeback and that the Diamondbacks should take a look at him. Towers and Wolfe have a good relationship, so when the agent told him Burroughs had a good look in his eye, he figured why not. Burroughs signed a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks and went to spring training. He played well enough to get assigned to Reno out of spring training. Barely a month later, he was in the majors.
Burroughs broke down and cried when he got the callup.
"Yes, I was worried but he is such a good kid so I'm always positive that something great would happen for him, whether it was teaching or baseball or whatever, something great would happen, and something great did happen,'' Debbie said. "I was talking to someone in Vegas and they said if they were placing odds, it would be 2 million to one. But if anyone could do it, it would be Sean. I'm just so happy and so thrilled. Just delighted.''
Diamondbacks utility player Xavier Nady was Burroughs' former roommate with the Padres and when Sean was called up, Nady offered to have him live with his family in their house.
"We're just happy we could have him around and provide, to be there,'' Nady said. "I thought that would be a little better situation than sitting in a hotel on a nightly basis. I thought that having him there would be a little better.''
Towers says Burroughs does not undergo any drug tests beyond the standard testing to which all players are subject.
"I trust him," Towers said. "I trust he knows this is probably his last chance. And he's not going to spoil it. The last thing we want to do is say, 'Yeah, let's play at the big league level but we're going to test you individually once a week to make sure.' I think he realizes what's at stake. He's a lot more mature than he was when he was at San Diego. He's going to take advantage of this opportunity and I don't see him screwing up.''
Burroughs hit .250 in a mostly pinch-hit role for the Diamondbacks, but again showed a lack of power as he only had one double and no RBIs in 24 at-bats. Arizona outrighted him to Reno last week. Reno may be minor league compared to its more glamorous Nevada sibling, but given where Burroughs was in Las Vegas just over a year ago, it still represents an impressive and promising leap back to his life. As he said, even his worst day now is better than his best day then.
"It was still great, I'm just grateful to be playing,'' Burroughs said of the demotion to Triple-A. "The callup was only supposed to last a week and it lasted a month. I'm just approaching this as a chance to play every day again. I'm with real good people and a good coaching staff.
"Right now, I'm living in the present. Live for today. Get myself ready to play ball again, be a good son, be a good brother, a good friend, a good teammate. Try to focus on the positive, I don't want to focus on the negative, that already took up too much of my life.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple
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