Bill Conlin | Burrell's revitalized swing best thing

Posted: August 10, 2007

A YEAR AGO, you might have bet the mortgage money that none of the following would happen:

* A return to $1-a-gallon gasoline.

* Bill Clinton becoming The First Man.

* Pat Burrell emerging as Charlie Manuel's No. 3 hitter.

Well, two out of three ain't bad . . .

I find myself wondering if Burrell's amazing, second-half turnaround could project the team's highest salaried and least appreciated player into the hunt for National League Comeback

Player of 2007. But that required me to buy into

the misconception that Pat is

rebounding off a horrible season.

That would be wrong, of course, despite the late season slump on which the premise is based. Batting .258 with 29 homers and 95 RBI doesn't qualify

as a comeback launching pad. But the popular notion that Burrell's 2006 was a bust endures because it was his turn to be the lightning rod. And if I was ever a marcher in the "Pat Must Go" lynch mob, may Zeus strike me with a bolt of celestial fire . . .

ZAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hey, who can remember who said or wrote what so long ago?

Here's what I can tell you about a Burrell swing I have followed since his fabulous 1996 freshman year at the University of Miami: It is back.

A lot of Hurricanes games are on the Sunshine Network in Florida. One night during spring training in Clearwater, I watched Pat dismantle

Florida State with a colossal home run and several lesser aluminum bat tracers. Even as a freshman, he was a man playing against boys. And one of the boys in the Seminoles outfield was a sophomore named J.D. Drew.

Pat's numbers that year would have been ridiculous

at the Little League level. They were so off the charts they read like slo-pitch softball stats: He became the first freshman

in Division I history to lead the nation in batting (.484) and left Miami as one of the most honored college players of all time.

Scouts I respect projected

Burrell as a major leaguer

capable of hitting .300 to .325

a year with an average of 40

homers. In other words, a

first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Nobody paid a lot of attention to his defense at third base because nobody believed Pat would ever play a professional inning anywhere but first base or designated hitter. But he was not a butcher at third. He had two of the top three things a third baseman requires - a strong, accurate arm and soft hands. What he didn't have and never will have at any position is range.

He should be honorary chairman of the WMDF - White Man's Disease Foundation.

In retrospect, the third base option should have been explored after Scott Rolen lobbied his way to Baseball Heaven. More than one Phillies coach told me (off the record) they

felt he could have been adequate there. Helmsed it, in other words.

Milt Thompson and Manuel deserve coachly props for Burrell's turnaround. But the swing he has rediscovered is the same one I saw on TV 11 years ago. His balance is excellent once more. The lunge is gone, as is the collapsing back leg and accompanying genuflection that made him look like a drunk trying to hook an umbrella handle around a signpost.

I offer a simple explanation:

Pat is healthy, or at least relatively so.

He has never used the two

significant injuries that have

impacted his career off and on as a crutch. Burrell goes out and plays when his name is on the lineup card. But it became obvious last season that he was

unable to load up on his back leg the way today's power hitters do. It was like the space shuttle falling out of its launch pad on

ignition - spectacular fizzle.

Pat has battled right foot problems since the 2005 season and finally opted for surgery in October 2005 to remove a bone spur. I didn't know what Pat still goes through with the foot until I stepped off a high curb last summer in the Dominican Republic and landed awkwardly on my right heel. It was the beginning of a plantar fasciitis condition that has put a painful hitch in my giddyup. On a good day, I barely limp, but time really does wound all heels and I owe my soul to Dr. Scholl . . .

Pat played through considerable pain.

Before that, his swing was

impacted by a nasty left wrist condition that began in 2004 when an ulnar tendon began

popping out of its capsule. Checked swings were torture. Burrell was about to have season-ending surgery in August, but feared the procedure would rob the wrist of strength and flexibility. He opted for therapy instead.

Despite being a very large and well-compensated target, this is where Burrell wants to play and he is wed to his no-trade. He shows up early, works hard and is considered a good teammate in what is obviously a tightly knit clubhouse.

Now, to get buy cheap gasoline in this hemisphere, you'll have

to vacation in Venezuela, where a gallon costs about 25 cents.

Bill Clinton has a puncher's chance to become the First Man.

And Pat Burrell really is the Phillies' No. 3 hitter pro tem. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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