Stepping into the batter’s box to face a barrage of 100 mph heaters from White Sox fireballer Garret Crochet this past summer might sound like some version of baseball hell.
But for Jake Burger, it was pure heaven.
“I felt comfortable again. I’m back to where I wanted to be,” Burger said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I’m just playing as hard as I can, because I know what it’s like to get it taken away from you for a couple years.”
Two years with no baseball — for someone who’s life was defined by it.
“You almost feel hopeless. You feel useless in the world,” said the White Sox 2017 first-round pick. “I was definitely at that point where I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ Baseball is not even a conversation. It’s like, ‘Why am I on this Earth? Why am I here?’ It got to that point.”
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Burger’s downward spiral began in 2018, when he tore his left Achilles tendon during a spring training game in Arizona. Three months later, he ruptured the Achilles again by simply walking in his backyard. That was followed by a heel injury that kept him off the field for all of 2019. All of this while being crippled with bouts of anxiety and depression, not knowing when or if he’d ever play baseball again.
“It feels like the world is kind of caving in on you. You don’t really know where it’s coming from, you don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s just there.”
In 2018 and 2019, while there were no signs of a pandemic, Burger was essentially living through one, stuck in a quarantined existence trying to heal his wounds.
“I was where I literally couldn’t do anything but go to the (training) facility and come home, because you can’t walk around, I can’t go on hikes, I can’t play golf, I can’t do all this fun stuff outside. Having a lower body injury is pretty comparable to this. It sucks. It does.”
He pushed away family and friends, many of those closest to him.
“I didn’t think they had my best interests in mind. I really don’t know why I was doing that,” Burger said. “When I was going through the worst parts of it, my days just felt gray and gloomy, terrible.”
But then, last January, Burger experienced two enormous breakthroughs, both physical and mental, almost at the same time.
“I balled my eyes out going to sleep,” Burger explained in an interview in March. “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if I’d be ready for spring training. I didn’t know what the White Sox were thinking, I didn’t know what I was thinking. I kind of faced those fears and cried myself to sleep.
“The next morning, it was brighter because I knew my identity, I knew what I wanted to be. It was kind of an overnight thing. You just got to stay in the fight against adversity and mental health. If you back out of the fight, that’s when those thoughts and feelings win.”
And when Burger got out of bed, the discomfort in his left foot that he’d been carrying for two years had disappeared. Almost magically.
“I walked to the bathroom for the first time without any tightness and weakness. It was incredible. It was such a relief to have that feeling.”
By the time spring training came, the storms had passed, the skies had cleared. Burger was finally back to feeling like himself again — and then the pandemic hit.
Having life get turned upside down might have been an enormous challenge, but not for Burger, who understood what it took to mentally and emotionally overcome a crisis like this.
“Right when this started, I’m like, ‘We don’t know how long this is going to go, but this is what I’ve dealt with for the last two years,’” Burger said. “I think for me, being able to take this Jake Burger, these emotions, it’s going to give more people hope. I don’t want to say I’m the poster child, but I know what people are going through right now. And I think that’s more important than anything, just being able to know people’s situation and to give people some positivity to people’s life, that’s kind of how I’ve been using it.
“What I say to anybody who’s dealing with what I dealt with is, ‘If you stay in the fight, ultimately things will turn around, things will get better.’
“If we can come together and be thankful for each other and be kind and show love to each other, we’re going to get through this no matter what.”
Burger arrived at spring training in February a changed person, ready to resume his baseball career with a spot at a White Sox affiliate.
But when the pandemic cancelled the minor league season, Burger’s plans got put on hold.
That could have been the end of Burger’s story for 2020. It turns out, it was only the beginning.
Not invited to the White Sox 60-man alternate site in Schaumburg, Burger had nowhere to play. Facing a third consecutive year without baseball, he found a lifeline in a league no one had ever heard of, the CarShield Collegiate League, which was formed after COVID-19 cancelled the Prospect League, a circuit made up of local college players in Burger’s home state of Missouri.
Originally, Burger was initially going to coach one of the teams, but when more professional players began signing up, Burger reached out to the White Sox asking for permission to play.
“I think me bringing it to the table to (the White Sox) showed, ‘Hey, this kid is wanting to play, he’s itching to play, he’s dealt with a lot. Let’s throw him a bone and see how he does,” Burger said. “That was incredible. Just to be able to play in games, just see live action again. It didn’t matter who it was against. I could have gone into a beer league, and I still would’ve had fun. Being out there and being able to be a part of a team again was huge.”
In 12 games playing for the Normal Cornbelters, Burger hit .297/.395/.405.
Soon after his last game, Burger sent a text to Chris Getz, the White Sox director of player development.
It read, “I can be up in Schaumburg in five hours.”
“Honestly,” Burger recalled. “I was scared to send the text just because you don’t really know how he’s going to react. I don’t want to be too pushy. My dad said, ‘What do you have to lose?’”
What did Getz think about Burger’s text?
“Jake’s excitement to participate in a league named ‘CarShield’ was more telling of his physical and mental health than the Schaumburg text. So I was not surprised to receive the text he could be there in five hours,” Getz said with a laugh.
But then came the moment that changed everything for Burger. All the pain and lost time from the past two years was wiped away in Getz’s text back to him.
“We want you to come up. We’ll make it happen,” Getz said.
Burger was on his way.
“In all seriousness,” Getz told NBC Sports Chicago. “After seeing him this summer and being around him more this fall, it’s clear that Jake is in a really good place and I believe he is back on track to becoming a major league player.”
So much so that last Thursday, Burger received even better news from Getz. He was added to the White Sox 40-man roster.
“Once he said the words ‘We’re adding you to the 40-man,’ I got chills all through my body. It was incredible. He said it was a testament to what you’ve come through,” Burger said. “Getzy and I have been honest with each other through this whole process. He was honest with me then saying, ‘Six months ago, we’re not having this conversation. Everything you’ve done, we know what type of player you are.’ It was incredible to have that kind of conversation.
“This was something I dreamed of since getting drafted.”
Which brings us back to the summer, when this first-round pick faced another first-round pick in Crochet. The White Sox hard-throwing rookie was pitching to minor league hitters like Burger at the Schaumburg training site, gearing up for his major league debut.
Burger had faced Crochet four times, and all four times he struck out.
In his fifth at-bat, Burger said to himself, “Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to try to win each pitch and put a good swing on the ball.”
A Crochet fastball leaked a little over the plate, Burger’s eyes lit up, and he crushed the ball off the top of the wall in right-center for a double.
No offense to Crochet, but players and coaches around the diamond immediately went nuts. White Sox minor league field coordinator Doug Sisson, who was standing in the outfield shouted, “Burgee! Let’s go!”
“I thought it was gone,” Burger said of his near-miss homer. “It hit the top of the wall and I was like, ‘Damn, I wish that got out.’ That would have been a cooler story to tell my kids.”
After the game, Burger went to his locker and texted his dad.
“I finally got him,” he told his dad about Crochet. “He’s been eating my lunch this entire time, but I finally got him.”
The best news of all? Jake Burger is finally back.
“Words can’t describe how I feel. I finally feel like my full self again. I finally feel like the makeup is back. I struggled with my mental health. I’m finally at that point where the momentum is picking up in the right direction. I feel incredible.”
What lies ahead in 2021?
“I know what I’ve put in over the last six months, and I know where it’s gotten me,” Burger said. “Give me another six months, who knows what will happen.”