Over the course of his three seasons as a professional baseball
player, San Diego Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs--like most
young phenoms--has endured countless comparisons. At first it
was said that he could be a clone of his father, former big
league slugger Jeff Burroughs. Then, as he continued to smoke
line-drive doubles into the gaps, he was likened to George
Brett, the onetime .390-hitting Kansas City Royals third
baseman. Now, as a can't-miss major league rookie at San Diego's
spring training base in Peoria, Ariz., Burroughs, 21, conjures
up memories of Robin Yount, who debuted as the Milwaukee
Brewers' 18-year-old shortstop in 1974 and went on to a Hall of
No matter which former All-Star's name pops up next, the one
thing we can be certain of is that Sean Burroughs is not a young
That was established in 1991. Sean, then 10 and living in Long
Beach, Calif., was doing monthly work as a Hollywood extra,
receiving calls from productions including Dallas, Knots
Landing, Saved by the Bell and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
whenever there was an urgent need for, say, "boy in red sweater"
to appear in the background of a shot. That year Universal
Pictures announced that it was looking for a younger version of
John Goodman to play a young Babe Ruth in its forthcoming movie
The Babe. Deborah Burroughs, Sean's mother, thought the middle
of her three children might have a shot. Heck, he had the fleshy
cheeks and watermelon stomach one imagines a prepubescent
Bambino might have possessed. More important, he was the Long
Beach Little League's Sultan of Swat, blasting Ruthian home runs
over the fences of nearby Stearns Park.
At the audition Sean was asked to read from a script, then act
as if he were throwing and hitting a baseball. Sean pulled it
off with aplomb; like the Babe, he even batted lefthanded. But
the job went to Andy Voils, an 11-year-old chubster from
Columbus, Ind. When he didn't get the part, young Sean heard
from the studio what must go down as one of the world's great
compliments: "Son, you're fine. But you don't look enough like
A decade later Burroughs can laugh off his Hollywood failure
because his own charmed life makes The Babe seem, well, like the
insipid grade-B flick it was.
Take a close look at Sean Burroughs's face. Study the anvil chin
and the thick eyebrows, the crooked smile and the Bubblicious
cheeks. You've seen this face before, haven't you? Was it in
1974, when some guy with the same last name won the American
League MVP award by batting .301 with 25 home runs and 118 RBIs?
Nah--that Burroughs was an outfielder for the Texas Rangers;
besides, Sean hadn't been born yet. (But, gosh, father and son
sure look alike.) Perhaps it was 19 years later, when little
Sean led a group of California beach rats to their unprecedented
second straight Little League World Series triumph. Or what
about two years ago, when he was the youngest member of a U.S.
Olympic baseball team that produced one of the dramatic upsets
of the Sydney Games by winning the gold medal? Didn't you see
him at the podium, with tears running down his cheeks as The
Star-Spangled Banner blared?
When the Padres and their rookie third baseman open the season at
Arizona's Bank One Ballpark on April 1, it will mark Burroughs's
first appearance in a major league game. Asked about the risks of
starting a 21-year-old at the hot corner, Padres manager Bruce
Bochy shrugs. "We don't have any concern," he says. "Sean has
this thing figured out. He is as prepared to make this jump as
one could be."
Burroughs's early exhibition outings justified Bochy's
confidence: In seven games he was 8 for 20 with five RBIs. As
Opening Day approaches, though, the self-assured Burroughs
admits to some anxiety. "It's definitely a little overwhelming
being in this position," he says. "I mean, getting up in front
of 50,000 people.... If you're not nervous, you're Superman. But
I've been playing baseball my whole life. If I just stay relaxed
and calm, my ability will take over."
During the winter, when Bochy called Phil Nevin, his fiery
All-Star third baseman, to tell him Burroughs would be taking
over the position, the reaction was not good. "The move pissed
me off," says Nevin. Then, this spring, he saw Burroughs up
close: The rocket arm. The perfect footwork. The explosive bat.
Saw that he was the first to arrive in the morning, the last to
leave at night. Saw the cut 6'2", 200-pounder winning the team's
300-yard shuttle run and the mile (in 5:24, no less). "I have no
problem anymore," says Nevin, who was moved to first. "As a
teammate, what you look for first is, does he appreciate the
game? Does he love being out there? Sean does both. Bottom line:
With him we're a better team."
Last year, with the Triple A Portland Beavers, Burroughs batted
.322, 10th best in the Pacific Coast League. In his three minor
league seasons he hit a combined .327, with just 161 strikeouts
in 1,235 at bats. Padres hitting coach Duane Espy tells the story
of the first time he watched Burroughs swing. It was in 1999,
when, as a roving minor league instructor, Espy paid a visit to
the Class A Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards.
In his first at bat Burroughs, 18 years old, fought off an inside
pitch and blooped a ball over the shortstop. "That was a pretty
good piece of hitting," Espy told the youngster between innings.
"Aw," said Burroughs, "I can do that anytime I want."
The brashness stunned Espy. "If it's so easy," he said, "do it
Three innings later Burroughs dumped another ball behind
shortstop. "See, I can do that anytime I want," he said. "What I
really want to learn is how to drive the ball."
"I'll tell you what," Espy said. "If you can do that one more
time, we'll start working on driving the ball ASAP."
On the first pitch of his third at bat, Burroughs lined the ball
over shortstop. Upon reaching first base, he smiled at Espy, who
sat, mouth agape, in the Wizards' dugout. The next day they had
an early-morning meeting at the batting cage.
What Espy witnessed--the Cool Whip-smooth swing, the nonstop
adjustments, the quick thinking, the superb hand-eye
coordination--is evidence of the athleticism Burroughs has
displayed since he was a toddler. When Sean was a chunky
two-year-old (his nickname, to this day, is Burly), he issued
his first warning to the sporting world, lifting a baby shoe
from the floor and launching it several feet, breaking the
kitchen window. "He always had the gift," says Deborah,
laughing. "He just didn't always use it for good."
By the time Sean turned five, Jeff was about to retire from his
16-year big league career. He immediately became one of the most
fun-loving Little League coaches in Long Beach history. "My dad
was perfect," says Sean. "He never yelled, and he never made the
kids feel bad. Just, 'Try your best!'"
In 1992, 11-year-old Sean was selected to pitch and play
shortstop for the Long Beach Little League All-Stars. Jeff
served as a coach. The team made it to the World Series in
Williamsport, Pa. Although they lost in the finals to a team
from the Philippines, the Californians were later declared
champions when the Filipino team was disqualified for using
ineligible players. The next year, with four players returning,
Long Beach won again. This time the 5'5", 171-pound Sean
established himself as one of the best World Series players
ever. He batted .562 for the tournament, threw a pair of
16-strikeout no-hitters (Sean's fastball was clocked at an
Almonte-like 77 mph) and was at shortstop for the last out of
Long Beach's 3-2 win over Panama in the finals. Nine days later
12-year-old Sean Burroughs appeared on Letterman, playing catch
with the host on a New York City street. His face was flashed on
TVs and in newspapers worldwide. He signed hundreds of
autographs. "People ask how Sean has so much poise for someone
so young," says Padres general manager Kevin Towers. "Think
about what he's already experienced."
Burroughs went on to star at Wilson High (his father's alma
mater) as a baseball player (he hit .528 with seven homers and
38 RBIs in 29 games as a senior) and as a student (he graduated
with a 3.85 GPA and scored 1,200 on the SATs). He was the
Padres' first-round pick in the 1998 amateur draft and was
offered a $2.1 million signing bonus. Even though he had already
arrived at USC, he finally decided to follow his father's career
path and accepted San Diego's offer.
Two years later Sean experienced what he considers the high point
of his life after he was selected for the U.S. Olympic team as a
backup infielder. He went 3 for 8 in Sydney, gleefully storming
the field when his team beat Cuba in the gold medal clincher. In
the stands Jeff and Deborah cried. "Along with the Little League
World Series, that was the proudest moment of my life," says
Jeff. "Sean didn't play too much, but he is an Olympic gold medal
winner. How many major leaguers can say that?"
There is a knock on Sean Burroughs, and it is this: He has no
power. It's a funny thing, really. For a guy with his
musculature, he does not hit many baseballs over the fence. His
career minor league high? Nine, at Portland last year. While
Bochy insists this does not bother him, he offers one concern.
"Hearing 'You need more power! You need more power! You need more
power!' can play with a young hitter's mind and his swing," says
Bochy, who will protect Burroughs by batting him sixth or seventh
"I want to hit more home runs," says Burroughs. "But, hey, if
I'm a .300 hitter for my career with a lot of RBIs, I'll be very
As dazzled as the Padres are by Burroughs the player, they are
even more impressed by Burroughs the person. He converses with
Latin players in the Spanish he learned in high school. In the
minors he intentionally roomed with teammates from different
cultures. He can be deadly serious about hitting, then as goofy
as a six-year-old. When he drives, Burroughs likes to wave and
honk to strangers. He's a regular snowboarder and bodyboarder
and considers both to be keys to staying in shape.
This past off-season, on a whim, he underwent his first
acupuncture session, "just to see what it feels like." And? "It
feels like 200 pins are in your skin. Weird." The previous
winter he took a yoga class. Twenty-five women (including
Deborah) and him.
"Life," says Burroughs, "is about experiencing everything you
can. I don't know how my baseball career will go, but I know I
want my life to be an adventure."
Spoken like the real Babe.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO
B/W PHOTO: RICK RICKMAN/TIMEPIX THE SWINGS OF THE FATHER Under the relaxed tutelage of his coach--and father--Jeff, Sean flourished as a Little Leaguer.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER GOLDEN BOYS After the U.S beat Cuba in Sydney, Burroughs (middle row, third from right, mouth open) and mates whooped it up.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO BACKWARD, MARCH A spring phenom like his dad, Sean is a lock to get more than the 12 at bats Jeff had with the '70 Senators.
B/W PHOTO: JIM MCNAMARA/THE WASHINGTON POST [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO THE THIRD MAN Even Nevin, the player he supplanted, has been wowed by Burroughs's arm and instincts at the hot corner.
"SEAN IS AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER," says Jeff. "How many
major leaguers can say that?"
"I've been playing baseball my whole life," Burroughs says. "If
I just stay relaxed, MY ABILITY WILL TAKE OVER."