MIGHTY CASEY STRIKES BACK : Shoulder Sound, USC's Burrill Is a Prospect Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His phone line is not jammed by calls from adoring fans. He leaves no messages about fast cars and tape-measure home runs. But USC baseball player Casey Burrill has his own 900 telephone number.

And the line has been busy.

The special toll number was a gift of sorts from the Trojan sports information staff, which is touting the senior catcher from Hart High for college player-of-the-year honors. Now Burrill backers can ring up votes for him, dialing a number that's tied into a national poll.

1-900-976-VOTE.

Ninety-nine cents per call.

The USC sports information office reported Burrill was a leading vote-getter in the early balloting for the Smith Award, which goes to college baseball's top player. A vote for All-American honors also is tabulated with each call.

Burrill has made a strong case, batting better than .400, belting 11 home runs and driving in 40 runs and carrying a .682 slugging percentage. Burrill, at 6 feet 3, 231 pounds, has even stolen six bases.

"It's been a huge merry-go-round," Burrill said of the attention. "It's taken me by surprise. It's funny to me that awards are even being mentioned."

Burrill used to dream of such honors. An injury forced him to let that dream go. But now, quite unexpectedly, the dream has returned.

1-900-976-VOTE. Burrill for All-American. Burrill for player of the year.

Three years ago, he was unable to throw a baseball. His right shoulder was wrecked. It needed reconstructive surgery--almost the same operation Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser underwent about six months earlier.

After the surgery, there was no guarantee Burrill would ever throw a baseball again with any strength or precision. And if he were fortunate enough to play for USC again, his approach would have to change.

Good fortune has come to Burrill, along with a new attitude.

"For me, it's a joy just to play catch in warm-ups," he said.

He takes baseball only one throw at a time, so you can excuse him if the word "preposterous" pops into his head every time he sees a family member or friend grab the phone and dial 1-900-976-VOTE.

For Burrill, the ability to throw a baseball again--along with the perspective he gained through the highs and lows of a lengthy rehabilitation--is better than any award he might receive this year.

In 1990, he was a promising USC freshman with a strong throwing arm. By the end of that year, a major ligament supporting his shoulder was severely stretched.

So bad was his condition that Burrill's arm would nearly pop out of joint when he uncoiled a throw. Just wrapping his fingers around the laces of the ball brought severe pain. Burrill saw the dream of playing pro baseball slipping through his hands.

"I'm a person who hates needles . . . can't stand the doctor," Burrill said. "But I knew when my shoulder was shot, I had to find a doctor. I had to find the best doctor."

On Oct. 31, 1990--roughly six months after Dr. Frank Jobe used an innovative procedure to rebuild Hershiser's shoulder--Burrill had a nearly identical operation.

The injury was similar, the suture pattern was almost the same and the surgery was being performed by Dr. Ralph Gambardella, a specialist employed by Jobe at the Kerlan and Jobe Orthopedic Clinic.

The rehabilitation plan would be the same as Hershiser's: 12 to 18 months of arduous range-of-motion exercises and light throwing. The prognosis would also be the same: "wait and see."

The Kerlan and Jobe clinic previously used this procedure on only a few college athletes and minor league baseball players. Hershiser was, in essence, Jobe's major league guinea pig.

"We're doing a lot more of these now," Gambardella said. "Not everybody turns out a success."

Burrill immediately refocused his priorities.

"All of a sudden I became the best student USC had ever seen," he said.

He increased his academic load, was married and started gearing toward a career in marketing.

"I started thinking about a family," he said. "The game wasn't fun the last two years. It was a job that paid for my education.

"But I also told myself that I don't want to be sitting around in a rocking chair when I'm old thinking, 'What if . . . . ' "

The Trojans were excited about Burrill after his freshman year. Though he had only 37 varsity at-bats, he batted .270 and Coach Mike Gillespie liked what he saw: a powerful and compact batting stroke, and a strong, accurate throwing arm.

The catcher's position was his for next year.

Burrill joined the Anchorage Glacier Pilots of the Alaska Central League that summer and batted .370, driving balls over fences and into power alleys. It looked as if Burrill would come out with a bang for the Trojans in his sophomore year of 1991.

But it was in Anchorage where Burrill's shoulder started sliding and popping. He ignored it at first. The pain wasn't bad, but it worsened, until it became agonizing just to toss the ball back to the pitcher.

Finally during fall workouts, Burrill was escorted off Dedeaux Field and into the training room. Next thing he knew, he was placing his baseball future in Gambardella's hands.

The shoulder joint is covered and held in place by a layer of fibrous tissue known as the shoulder capsule. The thickness of the tissue varies from front to back, top to bottom. Stretching across the front of the joint is a band of capsule tissue so dense, it looks like a rope. Doctors call it the inferial glenohumeral ligament.

Burrill's inferial glenohumeral ligament was stretched like an old bungee cord.

Gambardella knew that for Burrill to have a chance to make it back as a catcher, the standard procedure wouldn't do. As with Hershiser, Burrill's shoulder would have to retain maximum flexibility and a minimum amount of scar tissue.

For years, specialists repaired such injuries by drilling holes into two bones--the humerus (the ball of the joint) and the glenoid (the cup). The ligament was cut and laced through the holes, then sutured.

Gambardella didn't drill the holes. Instead, he stapled hooks to Burrill's humerus and glenoid--just as Jobe had done to Hershiser--and the reconstructed ligament was threaded through the hooks.

To get to the joint, Gambardella sliced through Burrill's right deltoid muscle, as well as the subscapularis muscle and tendon underneath the deltoid. This procedure, however, was much cleaner than the one that required drills: fewer cuts and less scar tissue, which tends to slow the healing process and create more problems later.

"Instead of blasting through the door, we opened it up with a key," Gambardella said.

Burrill, however, was blasting through unseen barriers barely three months after his operation. He was back on the baseball field, lightly tossing the ball on the side and producing big offensive numbers as USC's designated hitter: a .355 average, 55 RBIs, 32 runs, 12 doubles and four home runs, including a grand slam.

"Dr. Gambardella said I was the fastest player to come back and throw after that surgery," Burrill said. "They were surprised."

Interest grew among pro scouts, who were not allowed to draft him for another year.

Was it a stunning comeback in the making?

Or an illusion?

What would Burrill's 1992 junior season bring after 15 months of rehabilitation?

A flop.

Burrill, his strength returning in his throwing arm, was moved to first base. But the arm was untrained, erratic, a distraction--and Burrill realized that, like tying a shoe or riding a bicycle, he had learn how to throw again.

His offensive numbers plummeted: a .260 average, 30 fewer RBIs, 33 fewer hits.

He couldn't concentrate. He battled with his composure. And he tried to hide his frustration in front of Pac-10 crowds.

"I tried to show (the scouts) the arm was back," Burrill said. "I had days when my arm felt so strong I thought I was the next Roger Clemens. But then there were days where the arm was very painful and very hard to move.

"It played some real mind games with me, and I gave the trainers a real hard time. Every day I was asking them, 'Why is it doing this? Why that? Why, why, why?' I think (the scouts) thought I was done, and I was starting to believe that myself."

But Burrill already was preparing for such failures. He had a contingency plan in place. He is on target to graduate with a degree in business in December. And for the first time in 15 years, his summer schedule did not include baseball games.

Instead, he married longtime girlfriend Kristin Choate, and the two purchased a condominium in Newhall. They spent their honeymoon at a place where there are no baseball fields: Mackinac Island, a Lake Michigan resort.

"I think last summer was relaxing for him," Kristin said. "I think he needed the rest."

The turning point in Burrill's 1993 comeback took place Feb. 2, opening day for the Trojans. For the first time in three seasons, Burrill strapped on a chest protector and shin guards. And as he squatted at the point of the Trojan defense and snapped off a throw to second base to conclude pregame warm-ups, Burrill made a promise to himself:

"Regardless of what happens this year, let's have fun."

A week later, he went on a four-game offensive tear, collecting seven hits in 11 at-bats, three home runs and eight RBIs. Three of those games were against defending national champion Pepperdine. The Pac-10 named him player of the week. Mizuno named him national player of the week.

One month later, he was Pac-10 player of the week again, this time after going nine for 15 with two home runs, two doubles, six RBIs and seven runs in a four-game stretch that included three against first-place Arizona State.

Twenty-five games into the season, Burrill was batting better than .500. The 900 number, talk of postseason awards and packs of pro scouts soon materialized.

Burrill's right arm still is not as strong as it once was, and from time to time his throws take wild flights of fancy--his tightened ligament expanding and contracting like a rubber band on fish hooks. But the arm is finally free of pain.

"It feels fantastic," he said. "I can't be more pleased. And I think I've proven to myself that I can still play the game."

Burrill is considered a lock for the June draft. Bill Hughes, associate scout for the Florida Marlins, said Burrill could get picked high, which is not normal for a college senior who has used up his eligibility.

"If the kid is a quality player who had a quality year, you might not afford to wait," Hughes said. "You can't ignore offense. Casey's always been a good offensive player. He's attractive from that side. And catcher is what you call a premium position. It's a little quicker way to the big leagues. Especially if you have a little power.

"You need strength, durability, leadership and an aptitude for the game. Casey has all that stuff."

And if Hughes were to appeal to Burrill's doctor about the risk factor of an old injury?

"We would basically let his shoulder speak for itself," Gambardella said. "His shoulder is solid and secure again, and I'd say the numbers speak for themselves."

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