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Burrell focused on forgetting the past

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It would all be so much easier if there was just a store in every mall that sold some kind of handy dandy road map to stardom.

It would all be so much easier if a guy like Pat Burrell could even visit Mapquest and click for directions to that destination on baseball's mountain top where we've all been expecting him since the day he became the first name called in the 1998 draft.

But in baseball, the highways aren't always straight. So that place where Pat Burrell found himself last year is a place we can all relate to in our own way.

The road, the neighborhood, everything around him -- he'd never seen it before. He'd never been there before. And once he knew he was officially lost, every turn was the wrong turn.

We find out a lot about people after they've been where Pat Burrell has been. We find out how strong they are. We find out how good they are.

Some guys live out that Springsteen line: They take a wrong turn and they just keep going. ... Joe Charboneau ... Ben Grieve ... Bob Hamelin.

And then there are the others, the men who just won't let that happen to them. ... Mark McGwire ... Reggie Jackson ... Mike Schmidt.

So for Pat Burrell, once and (theoretically) future Phillies masher, these eight weeks beneath the Florida palms are more than just spring training. How can they represent anything other than the defining moment of his career?

Well, maybe it tells you something about this guy that the thought of meeting that moment doesn't seem to intimidate to him one iota.

"I'm exactly where I want to be," he says. "Now it's up to me to go out there and do it."

That plunge Burrell took between 2002 and 2003 -- from a .282 batting average to .209, from 116 RBI to 64, from 37 homers to 21 -- is a cliff dive, you could argue, that nobody in history has ever taken.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four other players have ever hurtled through drops of 52 RBI, 16 homers and 73 points in batting average in back-to-back seasons of at least 400 plate appearances.

Suffice it to say you've heard of those four. Every one was a Hall of Famer:

Babe Ruth (from 1924 to '25), Hack Wilson (1930-31), Roy Campanella (1953-54) and Reginald M. Jackson (1982-83).

But Ruth had illness as an excuse (that mysterious "belly ache"). Campanella chipped a bone in his hand. Wilson was coming off his fabled 191-RBI season, so he had nowhere to go but down. And Reggie turned 37 that spring.

So the fact is, no one else in history ever went through a crash like Pat Burrell.

No one else on this list made a plunge like this in his 20s (and Burrell is still only 27 years old). No one else ever did it in back-to-back seasons of at least 500 trips to the plate (and Burrell made it up there 599 times last year).

So think about what it must be like to experience a year like that -- at age 26, in only your third full season in the big leagues, in a city like Philadelphia, for a guy who seemed to be on such a clear-cut path to glory.

"It humbled him," says Phillies outfielder Jason Michaels, Burrell's friend and teammate dating back to college, "because this is a guy who never struggled."

Like anybody who gets lost, Burrell asked everyone he met for directions. Until the day the season ended. Then he boarded an airplane and escaped. To a new home in Arizona. To a vacation in Hawaii. To a place in his mind where only he could travel.

"You've got to get away," he said this week. "Sometimes, you just can't wait to be able to say, 'Bye.' "

For four months, not much was seen of him. Not much was heard from him. And that was OK with the men he worked for.

"After a year like that, I always go back to something (former Phillies GM) Paul Owens used to tell me," says the man who drafted Burrell, assistant GM Mike Arbuckle. "Sometimes, a player just needs to go home and have a meeting with himself."

Over those four months, only one Phillies official had any extended face-to-face contact with Burrell. In mid-November, right before Thanksgiving, special assistant Charlie Manuel, the former Indians hitting guru, paid a visit to Burrell in Arizona.

"Mostly, we just played golf, and I listened to him," Manuel says. "And when I started listening to Pat talk, I found out he knew more about hitting than I realized. He knew what he was doing."

What Burrell understood he had to do, once his brainwaves cleared, was go back to being the kind of hitter he was way back in time, in college, when he just missed batting .500 at the University of Miami -- as a freshman.

He had a million voices in his head this winter, telling him just what he needed to do. Turned out the most important voice was his own.

"Really, where it started," he says, "is when I was getting ready to come down here and I started working in Arizona to just bring back the simple things. All I'm trying to do, really, is keep it simple -- just stay in the middle of the field."

* * * * * *

"Everything feels a lot different than it did last year."

These words are coming out of Pat Burrell's mouth on a spring-training day that is about to prove his point.

At the end of it, his box-score line will read: 0 for 4. But three of those outs would travel a combined 1,100 feet, every one a line drive, not one of them to left field.

A couple of days before that, he'd strung together a pair of two-strike RBI hits -- one to left-center, one to right-center.

"That one to right-center -- that's a ball he probably would have swung and missed (at) last year," says hitting coach Greg Gross.

"Last year," says Arbuckle, "if he'd hit a ball that way, it wasn't driven. It was just served out there -- because everything (in his body) was going left, except for a flick of the hands. Now you see him driving that ball to right-center field. ... As a hitter now, he looks like the guy I saw back at Miami."

The difference in Burrell this spring doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet (where he was hitting .280 through Tuesday, with a team-leading six RBI in nine games). But that difference is real. It isn't club propaganda. And it isn't wishful thinking.

A National League advance scout brought it up, struck by how much Burrell had changed from the pull-conscious strikeout machine he'd seen the year before.

Yankees reliever Gabe White brought it up after he'd given up a Burrell double to the center-field track earlier this spring -- on a turned over outside fastball that Burrell couldn't even have reached, let alone pounded to the track, last year.

But the difference in Pat Burrell isn't just measured by the pitches he hits. It's measured by the pitches he takes.

"I see him take balls now that he knows are outside," Gross says. "And that's what he lost last year. ... He's not chasing those breaking balls early in the count.

"Everybody chases with two strikes, against somebody with a decent breaking ball," Gross says. "But it's that first and second strike you chase that gets you in trouble. Those are the balls he didn't chase the year before. He fell into that last year, but he's gotten that feel for the strike zone back. Any time you're laying off breaking balls, it's a pretty good indication you're seeing the ball better."

And it's those two-strike hits that excite Burrell, because last year, with two strikes, he batted .167, with 94 more strikeouts (142) than hits (48).

"There were a lot of times last year," he admits, "where I'd get behind in the count like that, and it was a battle just to stay alive -- instead of being able to relax and say, 'OK, shorten up a little. See the ball a little longer.' This year, I've been able to do that in those kinds of counts. I've had a more consistent approach to the ball."

Last spring, Phillies officials were already getting concerned by the sight of Burrell stepping into the cage after Jim Thome, trying to see how many balls he could make disappear into the palm trees behind the left-field fence. But this spring, even his BP sessions seem more disciplined, more purposeful.

"The funny thing is," Burrell says, "I haven't hit a ball good -- really good -- even in batting practice this year. I've hit some homers in BP. But even when I've done it, it's been good, because I'm not trying to hit them. That's the last thing on my mind."

Burrell did crush one towering home run, off the roof of the left-field Tiki Bar, in an intrasquad game -- but says now he was "shocked" it went out. And he has relentlessly tried to think, "Line drive," and "left-center to right-center," in batting practice.

"Greg Gross and I have told him the same thing," Manuel says. "If you're going to hit the ball out of the ballpark, hit it through the fence."

And for a guy who seemed to try to yank every pitch off the left-field foul pole last year, it's striking how clearly Burrell has bought into that.

"Nobody wants to see you hit every pitch in batting practice out of sight," he says. "And even if they do, it doesn't count."

There have been some mechanical changes -- lowered hands, shortened stride, setup slightly closer to the plate. But that tells just part of the story. For Pat Burrell, the movement he needed was on his shoulders.

He has dealt with the mind games by locking last year in a file cabinet in his brain. He did hold a long news conference on the first day of camp, answering a thousand questions about last year. But he has answered almost no questions about it since.

"I understand people have the right to ask questions," he says. "That's part of it. ... But last year's over. There's nothing you can do about yesterday."

"We don't even talk about last year," Gross says. "Obviously, there has to be some reference to last year. But we stay away from, in every conversation, saying, 'You did this last year,' or, 'You did that last year.' There's no reason to talk about it. It happened. It wasn't a bad dream. But now it's over."

And it is. Except for one thing:

It's never over.

When you've been where Pat Burrell has been, you live in a world that won't let you forget. So what happens the first time he goes 3 for 20? Or if, on May 1, his line on the stat sheet isn't filled with photogenic numbers?

It won't take much, in our universe, for last year to come roaring right back into minds and conversations and videotape machines everywhere he goes.

"It's easy to feel good about yourself in the offseason," Gross says. "It's easy to feel good about yourself in spring training -- because what you do isn't going on your season stats. So it's easy to work and focus on the good things and build on that. But once the season starts, I don't care who you are or how hard you work. If you don't see results, you can start doubting yourself."

"That's the test that I think any player runs into," says Arbuckle. "Whether you're coming off a good year or a bad year, if you have any extended time of failure, doubts start to creep in. I know, and I think Pat knows, he'll hit a little rut at some point. But I really think the difference this year is that when it happened last year, he'd never been through it before and he didn't know how to make adjustments. Now that he's been through it ... I feel very confident we'll see the same guy we saw two years ago."

For the Phillies to fulfill all the expectations being unloaded on them, he'd better be right. If Burrell isn't the most important comeback story in baseball this spring, he's sure in the top three. And maybe it tells you all you need to know that manager Larry Bowa has written his name in the cleanup hole in every game this spring -- after a season in which Burrell had the lowest batting average by any Phillies regular since 1907.

"The truth is," Burrell says, "there needs to be a right-handed bat in this lineup between Bobby (Abreu) and Jim (Thome) if we're going to be as good as we can be. And I've been given the opportunity to do that.

"Now," says Pat Burrell, "I've got to prove I deserve it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.