Morgan Burkhart has two stories to tell. The first is quick:
Five years ago he worked construction in a Kansas City
warehouse, 10 hours a day in brutal heat. "Just misery," he
says. The second tale is a bit longer and a lot stranger. While
playing winter ball in Colombia three years ago, Burkhart was at
bat when, suddenly, all the outfielders dropped to the ground.
Then the infielders and the pitcher. The catcher grabbed
Burkhart's arm and tugged him down. Seconds later a cloud of
killer bees swarmed through the stadium. "Nobody spoke English,
and my Spanish wasn't good," he says. "But if I'd stayed
standing, I might be dead."
The point of each story is clear: 1) There are worse things than
playing minor league baseball; 2) Morgan Burkhart is a survivor.
On June 21, Burkhart, 27, a switch-hitting first baseman-DH, was
called up to the Red Sox's Double A affiliate, the Trenton
(N.J.) Thunder--quite an accomplishment for someone who had
spent the four previous seasons with the Richmond (Ind.)
Roosters of the Frontier League. An independent league based
largely in the Midwest, the Frontier is home to many a future
warehouse worker. No player who has passed through the Frontier
League has made it to the majors. Burkhart, though, may have the
goods. "The best hitter I have ever seen," raves Roosters
manager John Cate. "There are some good players here, but Morgan
was in a world of his own."
As a pitcher-first baseman at St. Louis's Hazelwood West High,
however, Burkhart was short, slow and didn't throw hard.
Unrecruited at any level, he enrolled at Crowder College, a J.C.
in Neosho, Mo., where he was given a tryout and earned a
scholarship. In his two years there as a first
baseman-outfielder-pitcher Burkhart showed enough at the plate
(a .481 average in his second season) to earn a partial ride to
Division I Southwest Texas State. He was there for a season,
then transferred to Division II Central Missouri State, where he
went 7-1 as a pitcher and hit .394 with 70 RBIs in 60 games to
lead the Mules to a national title. After his senior year
Burkhart took the warehouse gig, hoping to use his physical
education degree to teach and coach in high school. "Nobody even
considered drafting me," says Burkhart. "My career was over."
A coach at Central Missouri, however, urged Cate in 1995 to take
a look at Burkhart. Burkhart was invited to try out with the
Roosters, a first-year club. In four seasons of Frontier ball,
Burkhart won three league MVP awards and was Baseball America's
1998 Independent Player of the Year. Last year, his final season
of eligibility in the 26-and-younger league, he won the triple
crown, hitting .404 with 36 homers and 98 RBIs in 80 games. "For
two and a half years we tried everything to get Morgan Burkhart
a shot with a big league organization," Cate says. "Nobody
listened." Finally, last October, the Red Sox did. Boston signed
Burkhart to a minor league contract, sent him to play winter
ball with the Navojoa Mayos of the Mexican Pacific League (he
hit .280 with seven homers in 38 games), then assigned him to
Class A Sarasota (Fla.). In 68 games he hit .363 with 23 home
runs and 67 RBIs. Through Sunday, in 22 games with Trenton, he
was batting .297 with four homers and 13 RBIs.
"He's 27, and he has very little experience [against top
competition]," says Ray Fagnant, a Boston scout. "Those are the
negatives. But within a year he has gone from the Frontier
League to Double A, and he keeps on hitting. As long as a kid
can swing the bat, he's a prospect. This guy can swing the bat."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO