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I TRIED TO be crafty with my son Jack the other day, which almost always backfires, but can you blame me? It's not often that a major leaguer stops by the neighborhood, much less one who played for the same coach as Jack, who chased balls on the same field and waited in a crooked line for the same creaky ice cream truck. Emmanuel Burriss was coming. In April the San Francisco Giants called up the 23-year-old shortstop and Washington, D.C., native; when the team came to the nation's capital in June, the city proclaimed a day in his honor and Northwest Washington Little League set up a small canopy off rightfield for his appearance before the championship game. Everything was teed up for what the experts call "a teachable moment": today's lesson in long odds.
Jack's like a lot of 12-year-olds: oiling his glove and shoving it under his mattress, mood dictated by the hit he did or didn't get, responding "major league baseball player" when anyone asks what he wants to be someday. And I'm like a lot of dads: Mr. Reality Check. Playing Carnegie Hall, writing a best-selling novel, making it to the bigs—all qualify as one-in-a-million chances, which in Burriss's case seemed about right. D.C. hadn't produced a major leaguer who stuck since 1970. The chances of two rising from the same infield dirt? Think lotteries and lightning strikes.
Burriss's testimonial could only reinforce this; he could give a master class in being overlooked. Neither his starring for perennial public school champ Wilson High nor hitting .487 with 16 stolen bases as a junior could entice a pro scout to see him play. College recruiters? Nearby Maryland showed no interest, and Burriss ended up at Kent State, where he probably would have faded into obscurity if he hadn't capitalized on the slimmest of opportunities in 2005: Given a shot as a fill-in player in the Cape Cod summer league, he stole 37 bases in 44 games to earn his team's MVP award. Almost by mistake, he arrived on the MLB radar screen.
Who could imagine retracing such a path? D.C. was still D.C. Wilson High still played its games on a football field.
When Jack and I pulled up, kids about to play in the title game were running about in their uniforms waiting for Burriss. Even after he arrived, Jack seemed more interested in scarfing pizza and deviously shaking Coke cans to hand to friends than in milling around the baseball star. This was good. I figured Burriss would deliver the standard "Don't count on lucky breaks, stay in school" message, and then I could get on with pushing the kid into accounting or plumbing or some other industry with a guaranteed future.
But no matter how long I waited, the subject of Burriss's long, hard road never came up. His parents, Allen and Denise, kept bumping into people they hadn't seen since Little League days—teammates grown up and coaches grown old and parents they had sat with—and falling into teary hugs. The dozens of faces around him smiled in a way you rarely see around a baseball diamond, because they all knew at least part of the Burrisses' story: How Allen, a former city player himself, had wanted to get his son off the drug- and hooker-infected streets of his Logan Circle neighborhood and so shuttled him crosstown for practices and games. How, on Thanksgiving weekend 2004, Emmanuel heard that 19-year-old DeLoren Young, his best friend and longtime teammate, the one who shared his dream of becoming a pro athlete, had been killed by a bullet meant for another. And how Burriss planned, after the next day's game, to drive to Young's grave with a spade and the baseball he tagged earlier this season for his first hit (the one on which he had circled the words MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL), dig a hole and bury it there.
Jack didn't know any of that, though. He just felt the sweet vibe in the crowd and the emotion in Burriss's voice when he finally spoke; the laughter when he told all the kids that they had to "practice, practice, drive your parents crazy"; and the husky sincerity when he said, "It's more than just my name on the big screen. You guys are all a big part of my life." Jack kept edging closer to him, eyes wide, and I knew my teachable moment had vanished.
We left soon after, and yes, the kid drove me crazy; summer ball was coming, and he needed work. So I lofted dozens of pop-ups, and Jack ran and dived until he collapsed and my arm hurt ... but what the hell. I thought of Burriss digging that hole and dropping the ball and tamping dirt in the fading light. Reality could wait. Twelve happens once in a life, and sometimes million-to-one shots actually do come home.