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 Hazel-wood 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."