Rising from the Ashes: A Conversation with Jake Burger
With Jake Burger making his MLB debut this weekend, we look back at his road to recovery in a conversation with Patrick Flowers from this past winter.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in November of 2020, and is being re-published today to share Jake Burger’s story of recovery and redemption with everyone as he prepares to make his MLB debut this weekend in Detroit.
“In order to rise from its own ashes; a Phoenix must first burn.”
That quote from American science fiction author Octavia E. Butler is what you’ll find atop Jake Burger’s Twitter profile. A quote that he used to caption a White Sox press release this afternoon noting the organization had purchased his contract and added him to the 40-man roster, providing him protection from next month’s Rule 5 Draft.
After a tumultuous few years, Burger described it as “a dark time,” which included two Achilles injuries following him being selected in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox.
During a Cactus League contest in 2018, Burger fell to the ground while running the bases against the Oakland Athletics, grabbing his left leg in agony along the baseline. To make matters worse, while rehabbing that initial injury, Burger suffered another Achilles injury at home, which made his reality at the time even harder to come to terms with.
“It sucked,” Burger said to me in a Zoom call on Friday afternoon. “The first time you do it on the field, so your mind correlates it with playing baseball. The second time it happens at home, and that correlates to daily life. I think that’s where the depression started kicking in because it’s like, ‘I can’t go anywhere, I can’t walk to the movie theater, I can’t do anything without having this thought that maybe something’s going to happen.
“It was hard to look at the end of the tunnel and kind of look at the bigger picture and realize that you know, ‘this is only two years, not my entire life.’ But, once I started to realize that everything changed for me.”
Through those dark times in the recovery and rehab process, Jake turned to his family to help him get through the process and stay focused on the road ahead.
“I think the main thing for me was having the circle around me,” Burger said. “When you’re going through those dark times, you need that love and support.”
In fact, if it wasn’t for Burger’s parents, he said that he wouldn’t be sitting here today having this conversation, as the thought of calling it a career was one that nearly came to action.
“It happened every other day,” Burger said. “I think it got to a point really bad where I actually sat my Mom and Dad down and was like, ‘hey, I’m thinking about quitting, I can’t do this.’ If I didn’t have those two, I would be out of baseball right now, and I wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
Burger’s parents urged their son to keep on fighting for his dream, to fight through the dark times he was stuck in the middle of. Burger took their advice and stayed in the fight, and he developed a new mindset and outlook. That’s where the quote in his Twitter bio comes into play.
“I think it’s just like a coming to self and realizing that I had to take this step back to punch through the ceiling,” Burger said. “Yeah, it sucks that I missed two years, it sucks that I didn’t get the at-bats and reps, but ultimately I became a better person from both a mental standpoint, a relationship standpoint, and then from a baseball standpoint.
“I’ve grown in all those areas, I’ve learned and become wiser, and I think you have to go through those trials and tribulations to get to where I’m at and be on the path that I’m heading down now.”
Burger took that matured mindset and outlook on life and his future and continued to work. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for everyone, but the cancellation of collegiate leagues across the country created an unlikely opportunity for Burger this summer.
Burger got a call from the director of baseball operations at Missouri State — who spearheaded the league’s existence in a pandemic state — asking him if he wanted to coach one of the six teams participating in the “bubble” style summer league in O’Fallon, Missouri.
“I was going to coach one of the teams, just because it was some good money for coaching 30 games; why not?”
After thinking about the coaching gig some more, Burger decided that he would give playing in the league a shot, so he called White Sox Director of Player Development Chris Getz to run the idea by him.
With the approval of Getz and the White Sox, Burger was set to play for the Normal Cornbelters in the CarShield Collegiate Summer League. But this wasn’t just about getting some reps in for Burger, but rather a milestone moment in his comeback trail.
Burger said that the phone call with Getz was huge for him as it showed him that the White Sox had confidence in him, and more importantly, it showed him that he was ready to get on the field after years of rehab.
“That was a big step in this whole process this summer,” Burger said. “Just proving to myself that I can actually play again was more important than anything else.
“Knowing that I could be out there on my feet for seven innings and be alright was huge. There was no pressure, there was no, ‘this is going to go on the back of your baseball card.’ It was just having fun playing baseball, and I’m really fortunate that I had that opportunity.”
After wrapping up in O’Fallon, Burger was added to the White Sox’s 60-man player pool and assigned to their alternate training site in Schaumburg, Illinois. Every reporter and player that saw Burger at Wintrust Field this summer had nothing but good things to say.
Burger was feeling good again, feeling confident about his prospects in baseball and using the opportunity in Schaumburg to refine his approach in the batter box against some of the best arms in the White Sox organization.
Due to the number of players they had in that camp, there was a certain degree of creativeness to the process of scrimmaging and getting live at-bats that would often include lineups of just four or five guys facing the opposing team’s pitcher with a defense behind him.
When asked who the toughest arm he faced this summer was, Burger complimented all of the pitchers in camp but singled out 2020 first-rounder Garrett Crochet.
“Garrett Crochet was gross!” Burger said with a chuckle. “I think I went one-for-five with four strikeouts and a double off of the wall.”
In Burger’s eyes, taking Crochet off the wall in Schaumburg was a success, and when you consider what Crochet did to opposing hitters after being called up in September, he’s got a good point. Even so, watching Crochet zip a 100 mph fastball by him in his first at-bat of the day wasn’t fun.
With a summer packed with imperative moments now behind Burger, the future is where his focus is. That future became a little clearer on Friday when the White Sox once again reaffirmed their confidence in Burger by protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft and ensuring that he doesn’t leave the organization.
“I think it’s starting to hit me a little bit,” Burger said. “I’m feeling really good about it. The White Sox showed me a lot of faith over the last couple of years, going through some mental health difficulties and physical health along with that. They’ve shown me a lot of trusts. I couldn’t have asked to be a part of a better organization. But, to be honest, it’s awesome.”
Burger is extremely grateful to be in the White Sox organization and credited them with remaining by his side throughout this journey and providing him with a support system when he questioned his future in professional baseball.
“They were incredible,” Burger said. “Just the energy and support of Chris Getz and Scott Takao [White Sox minor league medical coordinator], for the two of them to understand what I’m going through physically, but also mentally, spoke leaps and bounds about anything I could ever say about the White Sox.
“Getzy and I had a lot of heart-to-heart talks, and he let me lay it all on the line. He played, so he understands the challenges that come with everyday life as a baseball player.”
Like many of us, the next step for Burger is unclear at this point. As the novel Coronavirus pandemic continues to cast a cloud of uncertainty on the 2021 minor league season, Burger isn’t sure what the immediate future holds. Still, he’s sure that he’s finally heading in the right direction.
When I asked him what he would like White Sox fans to know, he said that he’s grateful for their support and confidence over the past couple of years and that he’s pumped for what the future holds for him as a player and for the fan base in terms of the major league team’s talent and potential.
Life has a funny way of working out sometimes, and for Jake Burger, it dealt him a path less traveled to get to where he is today, but that path helped him become a better person above everything else.
Now, after being added to the 40-man roster, he can enjoy his holiday season knowing that he has, in fact, risen from the ashes.
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