Earl Burl III is pursuing a pro baseball career in Canada this summer as the leadoff hitter for the Vancouver Canadians of the Class A Short Season Northwest League. But, as the 21-year-old outfielder with the lyrical name told the team's trainer recently, his heart remains in his hometown, New Orleans. The food (étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya), the culture, the music, the heat ... well, everything that makes the city so distinct and special. Burl misses it so much.
"There's no place like it,'' Burl said. "There will never be another city that can take its place in my heart. That city means everything to me.''
He was 11 years old and in middle school when Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago, and Burl, his parents and his two brothers were forced to flee their home in Marrero and move in with relatives in Dallas. He vividly remembers watching his father, Earl, a volunteer deputy sheriff for Plaquemines Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina, tremble as he watched news reports about the devastation back home.
"Every update and all the news coverage was ripping a piece of my heart out,'' Burl said. "It was overwhelming to see this happening to my home, the place I grew up.''
Burl, his two brothers and his mother, Tanjala, remained in Dallas, but his father went back to help with the evacuations in New Orleans, making the eight-hour commute between the two cities on a weekly basis. Seeing the hardship his father -- and, to a greater degree, friends and family back home in New Orleans -- endured instilled a sense of resilience in the younger Burl.
"Because of what I've been through and seen, nothing throws me off my game too much," Burl said. "My dad traveling back and forth every week helped me understand the hard work and sacrifice it takes to be an all-around good man.
"It also made me hungrier to be successful.''
After starring in two sports at Sachse High School in suburban Dallas, Burl signed to play baseball at Alcorn State in Lorman, Mississippi. He battled several injuries during his career at Alcorn, but that resilience was particularly tested last March, when Burl took a pitch in the face. He got up, dusted himself off and jogged to first base, then promptly stole second and played the rest of the game.
It wasn't until two days later that Burl learned his jaw was broken and needed to be wired shut. He lost 15 pounds and missed two weeks of action, but hit a homer run in his first game back and ended up batting .298 with 5 home runs, 37 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 51 games for Alcorn State.
In June, the Toronto Blue Jays selected Burl in the 30th round of the MLB draft, making him the first product of the New Orleans Urban Youth Academy to be drafted. The academy, which Major League Baseball established in 2012 as part of its efforts to revitalize baseball in inner cities, is located in Wesley Barrow Stadium in the Pontchartrain Park area of New Orleans. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but has been refurbished and features indoor and outdoor batting cages in addition to its three fields. Since opening its doors, the academy has provided Burl, who frequently returns to the area to visit relatives, and more than 1,300 other New Orleans-area kids with free baseball and softball instruction.
"It's been growing,'' Burl said. "A lot of college kids who live in the area come back and work out there in the offseason. They also have two or three youth teams playing there year-round. There's a pretty big crowd there.''
Burl put on a show for the crowd at the facility's Urban Invitational -- an annual, round-robin collegiate baseball tournament that features historically black colleges -- this past spring. In Alcorn State's 15-10 win over Grambling State, Burl went 5-for-5 and hit for the cycle.
"That was awesome; that was one of the best days of my life,'' he said. "To be able to do that on that stage and in front of my hometown crowd? That was a great experience.''
New Orleans native and former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington was one of the champions of the academy, along with Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development.
"I think Major League Baseball has done a tremendous job [with the academy] because we certainly needed baseball back in that area,'' said Washington, who was hired earlier this week by the Oakland Athletics to be their third-base coach. "I spent three full days a week at that academy helping those young kids, and I enjoyed every minute of it.''
A handful of players who've come through the program have earned scholarships to play baseball in college, but Burl is the first product to be drafted. Burl, who still had a year of eligibility left at Alcorn State but had already earned his degree in business administration, signed with Toronto soon after the draft and joined the Canadians for the start of the season a few weeks later. He's batting .222 with 14 RBIs and nine stolen bases for Vancouver. As a late-round selection -- he was the 902nd pick -- he's a long shot to make the big leagues, but a little adversity has never daunted Earl Burl III.
"I think Burl is pretty good little player,'' Washington said. "He still has some learning to do, but he has many talents. He can run, he can hit, he can throw, and he can run it down in the outfield.''
And although Burl still misses New Orleans, he's finding that Vancouver, British Columbia, is a pretty nice place to live too. "I don't know any other city where you can lay on the beach and stare at the snow-capped mountains,'' Burl said. "It's unreal. You can go hiking. You can go kayaking. It's a cool city.''
And, of course, if those pro baseball dreams pan out, Toronto wouldn't be a bad place to live, either.