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 Fame career.
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 Babe Ruth.
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 John Goodman."
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.