“Those injuries are well behind me and I’m back to playing baseball and belong there,” Burger said.
TEMPE, Ariz. — Name your favorite spring training story:
Once highly touted prospect comes to camp attempting comeback from devastating series of injuries.
Player comes to camp in the best shape of his life.
Player shares his struggle, and now everyone is rooting for him.
Third baseman Jake Burger’s touches them all, and it’s as warm as the Arizona sun.
The “best shape” angle was displayed in pictures at the White Sox spring training complex the last few days. One showed Burger taking ground balls at third, unrecognizable to many after a massive weight loss.
The other was Burger’s massive mug shot on the Camelback Ranch scoreboard during the Sox’ Cactus League opener against the Brewers Sunday, a puffier-faced version of one of the nicest guys around.
And a terribly outdated one that prompted Burger, 24, playing third base, to tell shortstop Tim Anderson, ‘I need to get that picture changed.’ I’m 40 pounds down from that picture. I really want a new picture.”
Anderson told Burger to ‘ask me any question you got. I got you.’
“It’s three years out of the game,” Burger said, “so he’s going to kind of help me speed it back up. It’s awesome playing next to him.”
Everyone wants to help. Three years ago on the same field, as a rookie, Burger was digging hard down the first-base line after hitting a routine ground ball. Minutes later, he was leaving the field on a cart, his left Achilles ruptured.
He would rupture it again – in the backyard, no less — suffer a bruised heel as well and during his rehab sink into states of depression and anxiety. He openly shared them, endearing fans and teammates to him even more.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about life itself over these two seasons,” Burger, 24, posted on social media last March. “I’ve battled depression and anxiety. But I’ve realized that opening up and talking about everything has helped me get through it. If anyone that sees this needs help or wants to talk, my DMs [direct messages] are always open.”
Today, he is in a much better place, mentally and physically. When Burger drove to camp for the first time this year, he couldn’t hold back tears.
Within days, manager Tony La Russa threw his name out there as a candidate to push Andrew Vaughn in the designated hitter competition. And then La Russa started him at third base in Sunday’s first game.
“It was one of those things where it kind of told me that I belonged,” Burger said. “Those injuries are well behind me and I’m back to playing baseball and belong there.”
A first-round draft choice out of Southwest Missouri, Burger was a Cardinals fan who attended Game 6 of the 2011 World Series when David Freese hit a walkoff homer. The Cardinals manager? Tony La Russa, in his last season before his first retirement.
“He’s a winner,” Burger said. “That’s the type of manager I want to play for.”
Burger went 0-for-3 Sunday but said his timing was crisp, so he came away feeling OK about his first game. No one expects Burger to make the team out of camp, but La Russa likes what he sees.
“In the infield drills he’s really been agile and he’s shown a very strong, accurate arm,” La Russa said. “And he’s had good at-bats. He’s healthy, you can tell he’s determined and he’s really pleased. I don’t know that he ever took for granted the game of baseball but he certainly is excited, happy to be playing and he hasn’t had a bad day yet.”
Hearing from fans in the stands was the cherry on top.
“It was incredible,” he said. “It’s awesome hearing ‘glad you’re back’ and saying ‘what’s up’ to me. It was unbelievable and then same on Twitter. That’s the support I had throughout this entire journey. Having a big day for myself but also for the people that supported me through it.”