Under a hazy late-spring sky, the Ben Franklin Bridge looming overhead, Brian Burgamy is standing on the infield grass of an empty Campbell’s Field—the waterfront home of the Camden Riversharks—still stewing a bit over the previous night’s disheartening ninth-inning loss to the division-leading Long Island Ducks.
The slugging, switch-hitting first baseman went a respectable 1-for-2 with three walks and a run scored. But as usual, he’s only thinking about missed opportunities, at-bats he maybe could have done more with.
“Really tough loss,” says Burgamy, a friendly if taciturn guy who’s in the middle of his fourth season with the Sharks. “I’m harder on myself than anyone else could be. But you gotta put it behind you. Today’s another day.”
It’s just past noon and the Sharks will get another crack at the Ducks in about seven hours. Like most game days, Burgamy—a team leader statistically and in the clubhouse—is one of the first to arrive at the stadium. There’s lots to do before tonight’s first pitch: an intense workout, fine-tuning his swing in the cages, practicing his footwork at first base, and studying the ways Ducks pitchers have tried to get him out in the past.
Factor in his diet and exercise regimen on off days, and it’s clear baseball is far more to Burgamy than merely a game.
“People always say, ‘I would give my left arm to do what you do,’ and yeah, it’s better than a lot of jobs I’ve had, but it’s still a job. There’s so much work that goes into it that people never see. It’s a business, and there’s always somebody else who wants your job. There’s lots of guys knockin’ on the door, trying to get in this league.”
The Riversharks play in the independent eight-team Atlantic League of Professional Baseball; an alternative to “affiliated baseball”—Major League Baseball’s farm system. The league’s a quirky mix of young players with raw talent drafted low (or not at all) and looking to establish themselves; former major leaguers who’ve gone through injuries or sub-par seasons and are trying to work their way back to the bigs; guys who’ve washed out of the majors after lengthy careers but still want to play professional ball; and guys who’ve kicked around the minors for years and are looking for a different path to the big show.
Burgamy’s in that last category. An Oklahoma native who just turned 31, Burgamy was drafted out of Wichita State—where he was the 2002 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year—by the San Diego Padres in the ninth round of the 2002 draft. Burgamy spent five years in the Padres system, playing for single- and double-A teams in Oregon, California, Indiana and Alabama. He moved on to two seasons in the Phillies’ system, playing at single-A Clearwater and double-A Reading, then part of a season in the Mets’ system before signing with the Riversharks in 2009.
“In affiliated ball, they basically give you a month and if you don’t start off hot they’ll find someone to replace you and you won’t get anywhere,” he says.
While grateful for his job with the Riversharks, and saying how much he loves the Philly area and the passion people have for baseball here, Burgamy admits the Atlantic League’s not quite where he envisioned himself winding up back in 2002. “Everything’s going in fast motion when you get drafted, you think the sky’s the limit, but before you know it, it hasn’t exactly panned out the way you wanted it to.”
Things work differently here. Unlike in the minors, there isn’t a gaggle of coaches overseeing your progress—players mostly have to make adjustments and learn on their own. If a player wants to study tape of opposing pitchers or batters, they have to obtain video themselves. The team doesn’t provide it.
And then there’s the money: Though Burgamy’s salary isn’t public info, the maximum monthly pay for Atlantic League players is $3,000, according to multiple sources. Most guys work regular jobs in the off-season—Burgamy’s done sales and telemarketing work to pay the bills. Or, they try to get winter ball jobs in other countries. Last winter, Burgamy played for the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League and tore it up, hitting .409 and winning the league’s Silver Slugger Award. “That helped a lot with my confidence, because I scuffled a little bit [during the Sharks’ 2011 season],” he says.
He’s carried over that success into this season, hitting well over .300, leading the Sharks in home runs and RBI, and keeping the team in striking distance of the first-place Ducks going into the All-Star break (though he’s mainly hitting third now, having relinquished the cleanup spot to recently inked Pedro Feliz—once the starting third baseman for the Phillies).
And Burgamy’s still holding on to his big-league dreams. “In baseball, being in your 30s is old, but I feel like I deserve a shot,” he says. “It would be great to have another opportunity to reach the level that everyone wants to get to. But whatever happens, happens. I’m pretty fortunate to be able to make a living playing ball. It’s a great job to have.”
Workin’ It is written by staff writer Michael Alan Goldberg, who peeks into the lives of working professionals each week.