GOODYEAR, Ariz. – It is a rare high school-aged athlete who can take a good look at himself in the mirror and decide a change is in order. High school kids love pizza and pasta, greasy fries and nachos, and cookies and cakes and calories that in most cases don’t stick to their bones for more than a minute or two.
Willie Burger was an exception to that rule. A talented corner-infielder and catcher from Maytown, Pa., who soon will start his senior year at Lancaster (Pa.) Catholic High School, Burger let his weight get out of control in a manner usually not seen until a young person becomes less active.
Finally, about a year-and-a-half ago, Burger took that look in the mirror, assessed how he felt both physically and mentally, and decided he wanted to do whatever it took to become the best baseball player he could become. At the time, he was wearing about 245 pounds on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame and that was no longer acceptable.
Over the past 16 to 17 months, Burger has lost about 50 pounds, going from a high of 245 down to his present weight of 195 – and it’s a solid 195. All of the feedback Burger has received from the people who matter – scouts and college recruiters, in particular – has been nothing but positive. And, as he said on Saturday from the Goodyear Park Complex, “There is no downside to being in shape.”
“It was really just a lifestyle change, making sure I was eating right and eating the proper proportions and also getting my butt in the gym and working really hard; running a lot with multiple layers on, trying to sweat out as much as I can,” he said.
“That’s been huge for me being able to take off that weight; I feel like a completely different player on the field. My bat feels quicker, I’m moving better in the field and I just feel better overall.”
Burger was in the west Phoenix suburbs Saturday afternoon with his New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal teammates competing at the prestigious 3rd annual 17u Perfect Game World Series, which features 20 of the best 17-and-under teams/programs from across the United States.
Highly ranked prospects from the national classes of 2015 and 2016 share oversized space on the rosters of those 20 teams and Burger is not only fitting in nicely while wading into the elite talent pool, he’s also fitting nicely into his uniform. And while the late afternoon temperature in the Valley of the Sun reached about 106 degrees on Saturday, Burger knew he was right where he needed to be – and feeling pretty darn good to boot.
“I’ve been out here the last two years with the Arsenal and it’s beautiful out here; great views, great fields, great competition – it really can’t get much better than this,” he said. “The biggest thing is definitely the competition because you always want to play against the best competition and see where you stack up.
“You want to get the reps against the great pitching that’s down here and that’s kind of the biggest thing is making sure you’re playing the best competition around.”
Things couldn’t have gone any worse for the Arsenal on Saturday as they pretty much assured themselves of being eliminated from the tournament by the end of play Sunday. They lost their opener to the Houston Banditos by a 9-0 count and then got drilled by CBA Marucci, 14-1. They have two more pool-play games on Sunday and wins in both are essential to even entertain a thought of playing another game. Not that the results will mess up the team chemistry all that much.
“We’re just out here having fun; everybody gets along, a lot of joking around,” Burger said. “But at the same time when we step on the field, we’re here to win. Obviously, the odds are against us being a team from up north trying to come down here and compete with the other great programs in the country but we think we definitely belong here.”
The Tri-State Arsenal, one of the country’s elite travel ball organizations run by Bob and Joe Barth, is making its third straight appearance at the 17u PGWS and the experience has been one the prospects that fill the Arsenal roster will never forget.
“It’s been tremendous for me, coming from the Northeast,” Burger said of of his relationship with Tri-State. “There are very few travel programs that get you great exposure and the Arsenal are one of them up north that can get you that kind of exposure. It goes beyond the baseball field; obviously they get you in front of the right people and give you every opportunity to be seen, but at the same time we’re a family.”
The 17u PG World Series is all about exposure under the blistering desert sun and dozens of recruiters and scouts were braving the heat late Saturday afternoon. Six members of the Tri-State Arsenal have already made commitments to NCAA Division I schools, including Wake Forest commits John Aiello and Jimmy Webb, and Notre Dame recruit Jack Connolly.
Burger and the shortstop Aiello – the nation’s No. 11-ranked 2015 prospect – have been playing together on Arsenal teams since they were 13 years old and are the best of friends. They seem inseparable and even warm-up their arms by playing catch with one another during the pregame routine. Their PG Prospect Page Profile ID numbers are 277214 (Aiello) and 277217 (Burger).
“Willie is awesome,” Aiello said. “He’s always pushing me to get better and he’s a leader on the field and off the field. We’ve been best friends since we were 13 and me and him we kind of do everything together; he’s a great teammate.”
Burger, ranked 132nd nationally in the class of 2015, is one of many prospects on the roster that hasn’t made a college commitment. On his Perfect Game player profile page, Burger lists Duke, Florida, North Carolina and Vanderbilt as “schools of interest” but so far hasn’t made a commitment.
Those are lofty destinations – both academically and athletically – and it’s an important enough life decision that Burger has decided to take it slow.
“I’m not in any rush whatsoever, and I just have to make sure I find the right fit for me,” he said. “When I was younger and schools started recruiting me it was one of those things that I wanted to rush to make a decision and I just wanted to get the commitment out of the way, but as more time passed I’ve slowed down and realized that I have to make the right decision.”
Burger is not lacking for exposure. Counting no fewer than three PG Super25 tournaments he has attended in the last 12 months, Burger has now been at more than 30 PG events since he and Aiello first played together back in 2010, sending a boulder rolling down a mountainside that is still gaining steam.
He attended the PG Junior National Showcase three times (2011, ’12 and ’13) and was at the 2014 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-June. It was at the National that scouts were able to enjoy their first real look at the slim-downed Burger; he didn’t disappoint.
Burger recorded personal-bests in the in the 60-yard dash (7.30 seconds), throw across the infield (88 mph), catcher’s throw from behind home plate (79 mph) and Pop time (1.85-seconds). Those bests are noteworthy because Burger has not been a slouch at any of his previous appearances – he was included on the Top Prospect List at four of the PG showcases he attended and was named to the all-tournament team at five PG tournament events.
“Each one is kind of different in its own way,” he said of his PG experiences. “It’s different going to team events and individual showcase events because the individual events are great; you get to meet all these new kids and build relationships that will last for a really long time with kids that you would otherwise never had met.
“But with the team events, you get to bond with you team all summer and come out here and compete and play the game we love.”
Burger has played baseball for as long as he can remember and also pursued football and basketball up until his sophomore year in high school. His association with Bob and Joe Barth and the Tri-State Arsenal has unquestionably had a big impact on is baseball career, but he also credits the support he’s received from his father, Tom Burger, through the years. Tom attended Duke University and played football and Willie’s mother, Elizabeth, is also a Duke grad.
“My dad has had a big impact on me and he’s always traveled with me to all this stuff,” Burger said. “It helps us and brings us closer and he loves doing it as much as I do.”
A slim-downed Willie Burger and an always slender Aiello have enjoyed a tremendous relationship over the past four or five years, first becoming teammates and friends at the age of 13 and remaining extremely close teammates and friends as 17-year-olds. It really is the stuff dreams are made of, and if it took a 50-pound weight loss for Burger to reach this stage, that makes it all the more special.
“I look back a lot and it’s pretty cool, and through the Perfect Game tournaments my first tournament was when I was 13,” Aiello said. “It’s pretty amazing to think just how much I’ve grown as a player and all my teammates, like Willie, how much they’ve grown. We’ve had a core group of guys that have stayed together since that age, so it’s pretty cool to see how we’ve all changed.”