High Heat

For the modern athlete, it’s a good indication that you’ve arrived on the map when footage of your high school games makes its way onto YouTube. So when highlights of slugger Michael Burgess’ early March showdown with crosstown flamethrower Nevin Griffith began popping up on the popular Website, it was further evidence that Burgess has people buzzing.

Though just a few games into his senior season at Tampa’s Hillsborough High, the 18-year-old’s power exploits are already legendary. Those who have followed his career anxiously retell the account of his blast last year in the Florida 5-A playoffs, when Burgess joined Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas as the only players to clear the 60-foot high wall in center field at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. He added to his aura in the home run derby at the Aflac All-American Classic when he delivered a pair of tape-measure blasts that wound up on the roof of a building adjacent to Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego–with a cracked bat, no less.

“My bat was already cracked (entering the contest), but it was my favorite wood bat so I just taped it and kept hitting with it,” Burgess said.

Thanks to memorable moments like those as well as a stellar amateur career at Hillsborough High and with his summer travel team, the Midland (Ohio) Redskins, Burgess distinguished himself as the best power prospect in the 2007 draft class entering his senior season.

Honorary Influence

Burgess’ status was a long time in the making, and began at the age of 5 when his grandfather pushed him toward baseball for a very practical reason.

“I wanted him to play something where he would not be getting a major injury,” said Michael’s paternal grandfather, Sylvester Burgess. “And that is why we were always scared of football because of major injuries that can come from playing football.”

Burgess, at a compact 6 feet, 200 pounds, looks better suited for shoulder pads than stirrups and he eventually convinced his grandfather to let him try football. But it became clear quickly that his future was on the diamond.

“When he was 6 we saw it because every time you tried to teach him something he already knew it,” Sylvester said.

Michael’s parents never married, and though he lives with his mother and still sees his father frequently, his grandfather has been the biggest influence in his baseball career. Sylvester retired from his job at an aluminum manufacturing plant six years ago and devoted much of his time to Michael and his burgeoning baseball career. When discussing Michael’s exploits with scouts and coaches, there is always reference to the influence his grandfather has on his life.

“His grandfather is a great guy; I think he definitely keeps him humble,” Hillsborough High coach Kenny White said. “When you have a guy with that much talent to also be pretty humble, it is a great combination. I think his grandfather definitely has a lot of influence in that.”

For the typical teen, grandparents are the antithesis of hip, but that is of no matter to Michael.

“Me and my Granddad, it’s not quite like having a girlfriend but he is the most important person in my life besides my mom,” Michael said.

His grandfather attends every one of Burgess’ practices and games. He is part mentor, coach, cheerleader and chauffeur, escorting “Mike,” as he refers to him, wherever he needs to go. The only thing that has made him miss some of Michael’s games is his fear of flying.

“I was hoping it was going to be (a team) somewhere close (that drafts him) so I can catch a lot of games,” said Sylvester, 65. “I’m a Dodgers fan but I don’t want the Dodgers to pick him because that is too far.”

Hillsborough History

Come June, Michael is poised to join a litany of Hillsborough High alums that have had their names called early on draft day. The illustrious list counts seven first-rounders (including Gary Sheffield, Dwight Gooden and Carl Everett) as well as 1982 second-rounder Floyd Youmans and 2003 third-rounder Elijah Dukes.

While all those names made their names for performance on the field, they have all had misadventures off the field that undermined their talent. Michael doesn’t appear to be in any danger of repeating their missteps and has even received personal advice from Gooden, Sheffield, Everett and Youmans about avoiding the wrong path. Nonetheless, a team that is considering spending seven figures on him has to at least consider the track record of the school’s alumni. This is where the area scouts ability to familiarize himself with a player is paramount.

“Like any other kid, if you’re going to take him in the first five rounds you have to do your homework, and you have to do the right homework,” said a scout with an American League club who also scouted Everett, Sheffield and Dukes during their amateur days in Tampa. “Every kid is an individual case and you can’t say this guy is going to be great because a great player went there, and you can’t say he’s going to be a problem because another guy from this school was a problem.”

A month into his senior season, scouts were more concerned with Burgess’ hitting mechanics than his makeup. A player that torched the summer wood bat tournament and showcase circuit in 2006 hasn’t looked as fluid at the plate this spring. He’s widened and closed his stance, perhaps in an effort to cover more of the plate, but the adjustments have limited his leverage and left him with a hole on the inner half.

Of course, because Burgess’ reputation precedes him, he hasn’t had to worry about too many pitches on the inside corner–or anywhere close to the plate lately. Coach White has been batting the preseason All-American in the leadoff spot to try to force teams to pitch to him, but in Hillsborough’s first three games, Burgess was walked to lead off every game.

“It’s hard,” White said. “You’ve got scouts out there and he wants to hit but you have to throw to him. He has been pretty patient for the most part. It would be pretty easy to try and go out of your zone and try and do something with a pitch you really can’t handle.

“But I think as the year goes on they will settle down and start throwing to him.”

Of course, thanks to YouTube, all of the world got to see Burgess’ matchup with Griffith, whose Middleton High handled Burgess and Hillsborough 6-1 in a game that was attended by more than 40 scouts and televised locally. Burgess saw plenty to hit that night, and went home disappointed following a single in four at-bats.

But it isn’t difficult to envision his grandfather encouraging him on the way home from the ballpark, which also made it no surprise Michael was back, hard at work, the next day.


• Across the country in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., junior outfielder Isaac Galloway is creating his own legacy. The No. 1 ranked junior in the country by BA’s Prospects Plus, Galloway was a home run shy of the cycle in four at-bats with three stolen bases and four runs in an early season victory for Los Osos High. “He’s a gift, a really special player,” said coach Anthony Vasquez, who also coached big leaguer Mike Sweeney at Ontario (Calif.) High. “He’s actually a lot better (than Sweeney was) at the same age.”

• Early-season tournaments across the country produced plenty of highlights, including Benton (Ark.) High righthander Andy Ferguson’s 15-strikeout, six-inning shutout win during the Evangel Challenge in Louisiana. The senior has committed to Arkansas State.

• Oklahoma signee Blake Beavan, BA’s reigning Youth Player of the Year, pitched his first perfect game and struck out a career-best 18 in Irving (Texas) High’s seven-inning 6-0 victory over district foe MacArthur High. Beavan threw just 81 pitches in the effort, and struck out 14 in a row at one point. “I felt like I pretty much owned it out there. Everything was in a groove,” Beavan told the Dallas Morning News. The 6-foot-7 senior righthander had not allowed a walk or earned run in 19 innings pitched with 46 strikeouts.

• Washington’s Jackson High was one of last year’s feel-good stories, as it went undefeated, won the 4-A state title, finished with a No. 2 national ranking and watched its star player, outfielder Travis Snider, sign with the Blue Jays in the first round. Jackson’s best returning position player, senior catcher Kawika Emsley-Pai, was lost for the season because of a stress fracture in a vertebra in his back. Emsley-Pai, who has committed to Texas, is wearing a cast on his torso and expects to be out until July. “High school ball is not where my career is at right now,” Emsley-Pai told the Everett (Wash.) Daily Herald. “It’s about playing (at Texas). For my long-term goal, this means a lot.”

Compiled by Alan Matthews