A.J. Burnett makes his mark

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A.J. Burnett sat on a black leather sofa in the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday night, processing what had just happened.

He understood the basics. His attempt to win his ninth start in a row had not gone well. He did not have his best stuff, and the Astros had dropped lightly hit balls in all the right places. He might have just cost his team a shot at first place in the National League Central, which stung him.

Past all of that, his night on the mound had been pretty hard to fathom -- especially the end of it. "I'm like, 'This crowd just cheered me off the field,' " Burnett said. "I gave up 12 hits and six runs. I'm like, 'That's crazy.' "

In almost 14 major-league seasons, in 323 starts spanning 2,047 innings, Burnett had never experienced such a thing. Unconditional love? From fans of a professional baseball franchise? He'd spent most of the last three years being booed out of Yankee Stadium and then having to answer for it to an unforgiving and unrelenting press corps. He was the $82.5 million man, signed by the Yankees for five seasons, and the perfection demanded was certainly not going to be met by a perfectionist like Burnett.

Now here he was, less than a year later, in Pittsburgh, questioning just how he could have been so lucky. The honeymoon phase with his new city had begun almost immediately, when he came here to have eye surgery in early March. He had taken a bunt to the eye in spring training -- "Perfect start," he sarcastically said -- but by the time he was riding in from the airport he was feeling much better.

The man who drove Burnett's limousine told him how excited he was to have him here. The nurses who helped with his surgery echoed that sentiment. The same vibe found him at a restaurant near the ballpark.

"They took me in before I threw one pitch here," Burnett said. "People were ecstatic, and I was like, 'Well, I haven't even pitched yet. You might want to hold on.'"

Burnett was right to warn them. He is not a Cy Young winner. He has never made an All-Star team. His career record entering the season was 121-111, a bit above average.

But, thus far, it has turned out those strangers were right about him. Entering today's start against the Giants, he has a 9-2 record and a 3.74 ERA, and he's one of the biggest reasons to believe that the Pirates cannot only be in first place in July but also stay there into October unlike last year.

The most important thing? The 35-year-old Burnett, surrounded by a bunch of relative kids in the Pirates clubhouse, is having fun being a mentor.

"My role is so different here," Burnett said. "It's allowing me to feel like I'm young again, too."

Pittsburgh, a fountain of youth. For the last 20 years, this town has been a place where baseball careers died quietly, with little fanfare. So, yes, when A.J. Burnett walked off that mound defeated Tuesday night, many of the 21,000 fans in attendance got on their feet and cheered the man.

"Me trying to tell you what that means ain't gonna work," Burnett said. "It's special. Very special."

A bumpy road

In mid-February, A.J. Burnett left his family at their Baltimore area home and hit the road for spring training. It was a long ride to Florida.

His residence in Tampa was waiting for him, and, despite knowing the Yankees were trying to trade him, he was mentally preparing for another season in the Bronx Zoo.

"I don't back down from any fight," Burnett said.

So far, this bout had been won by the Big Apple. The pitcher who went 38-26 with a 3.94 ERA in three seasons with the Blue Jays was 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA in New York. The fans, the media and -- it appeared -- the organization had thrown up their hands in frustration. Burnett was frustrated with himself, too.

He had chosen to sign with the Yankees in 2008 after his best season because he wanted to win a World Series, and, of course, because of the ridiculous money being thrown at him.

That season, the Yankees had not made the playoffs for the first time since 1994, and they were moving into the new and luxurious Yankee Stadium. New York general manager Brian Cashman needed to make a splash in free agency, and he targeted then-Indians ace C.C. Sabathia to be his No. 1 starter and Burnett, who had a 3-1 record against the Yankees that year, as his No. 2.

In making such huge financial decisions, Cashman always had to ask the question: Could a player handle the spotlight of New York? Problem was, there was no way to project an answer.

"We've seen players like Bobby Bonilla who grew up in New York, who comes to the Mets and it's the worst place he played," Cashman said. "Don Mattingly comes from Evansville, Indiana, and thrived in this environment. You've got Randy Johnson with that nasty scowl, one of the best left-handers of all time, and it just wasn't his cup of tea. Chuck Knoblauch was one of the fiercest competitors, and he developed the yips. You can't predict this stuff."

A.J. Burnett was a laid-back, free-spirit type from North Little Rock, Ark., with tattoos covering his 6-foot-4 frame, and the bet was that he was a guy who could handle it.

That first season, the gamble mostly paid off. Burnett went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA, and the Yankees advanced to the World Series. Facing a 1-0 series deficit against the Phillies in Yankee Stadium, Burnett took the ball in Game 2 and delivered a gem, giving up one run in seven innings in a 3-1 Yankees win. New York would go on to win the series, and Burnett deserved to have his fingerprints on that Commissioner's Trophy.

He would always have that moment, but it wouldn't take long into 2010 for him to be grasping for new ones. Burnett went 0-5 in the month of June -- a clear turning point for his time as a Yankee.

"It got to a point where one bad pitch, one bad inning or one bad at-bat, and people would pile on him," said Dave Eiland, then the Yankees pitching coach. "I'm not saying they were right or wrong, but it was like he became a real easy target."

It didn't help that Burnett was being harder on himself than anybody else. In July, during a start against Tampa Bay, he went into the clubhouse between innings and cut up both of his hands by connecting with a hard plastic lineup card holder. He had to leave the game in the third inning, and the Yankees lost 10-5.

"It just seemed like every start turned into Game 7 of the World Series," Cashman said.

Burnett was simply not the same guy, and everybody who'd been around him in the past could see it.

"Our A.J. and the Yankee A.J. were two different guys," said J.P. Ricciardi, who signed Burnett as general manager of the Blue Jays.

Pirates catcher Rod Barajas was Burnett's catcher in Toronto in 2008. They would keep in touch by text message, and Barajas would try to rebuild Burnett's confidence.

"I'd shoot him some texts and just kind of reassure him, let him know how good he is, how great he is," Barajas said. "He didn't get that kind of contract for being a slouch."

Cashman said Burnett never stopped working to get better and that he behaved like a professional with the media even though he could have easily snapped, given the constant scrutiny. Still, Cashman couldn't deny that the winds of change were blowing too intensely.

"It's tough to fight city hall," Cashman said.

So he got on the phone and put out feelers to teams that he thought would be a good match for Burnett. One team would emerge as the most aggressive.

The Pirates had been watching Burnett at the end of the 2011 season, and general manager Neal Huntington was willing to take a risk. He saw a power fastball, a power breaking ball and the makings of a change-up, and he thought a change of scenery could be the difference. All Huntington had to do was trade two low-level prospects and pick up $13 million of Burnett's Yankee contract.

It felt like a bargain, and, sometime during that drive to Florida, A.J. Burnett's phone rang. His agent gave him the news: He'd better head a little further south to Bradenton.

A budding marriage

How would A.J. Burnett fit in with the Pirates?

The first thing they'd need to know is that Allan James Burnett has never cared too much about what people think.

He grew up in a conservative home, and when he got his first tattoo in 1996 -- a 4-inch drawing of his pitching motion near his left calf -- he tried to hide it from his father. But one day, he forgot to wear socks to cover it up, and Bill Burnett saw it.

"Burnetts don't get tattoos!" Bill steamed.

"I'm sorry, I got one," A.J. muttered back.

Once he got started, he couldn't stop. He admits he probably overdid it a bit during his first big-league spring training with the Florida Marlins, when he showed up with nipple rings -- although it only took one head-first slide into home plate for him to realize they just weren't very practical for a ballplayer.

With the Yankees, he had to go the opposite direction. A franchise mandate bans facial hair.

"My face was clean, and, believe me, the absolute best thing about not being a Yankee is that I have facial hair now," Burnett said. "Because I look ugly as heck without my facial hair."

He walked into the Pirates clubhouse that first day with a blonde scruffy beard and a body covered in so much ink that he's had to get new tattoos on top of old ones. He felt comfortable being greeted by Barajas, and he'd already decided on the drive down that the Pirates were a team on the rise.

The good signs kept coming. Pitcher James McDonald had fishing poles at his locker, and Burnett loved to fish. Soon, Burnett went on the boat with McDonald and pitcher Kevin Correia, and he'd continue taking out his other teammates as often as possible.

"I really haven't come across a veteran who likes to have fun as much as he does," McDonald said.

Burnett took an immediate interest in McDonald, a 27-year-old who entered this season as a still-untapped talent. In spring training, Burnett tried to watch McDonald's catch and bullpen sessions to be able to help him out.

By the time the Pirates made their way back to Pittsburgh for Opening Day, Burnett had earned the trust of the clubhouse, and he wasn't done setting the tone. Early in the season, Burnett decided to make workout T-shirts for the team that stated his motto, "Preparation for Domination." They are yellow and sleeveless with intimidating black lettering and his No. 34 on the back, and, from the moment he handed them out, they were a hit.

"I was proud to get one," Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes said.

In the clubhouse, Burnett's imprint is everywhere. At McDonald's locker, you'll see a picture hanging from the top of Burnett and McDonald holding a smallmouth bass they recently caught here in Pittsburgh. At Burnett's locker, you'll see Nerf guns and water guns, ready for him to put a shock into somebody. And, of course, you'll see players wearing the shirt.

On the field, you'll see what some call the "Old A.J.," but maybe it's the New A.J.

Eiland is now the pitching coach for Kansas City, and he loved what he saw from Burnett in June when he shut down the Royals for two runs in 71/3 innings.

"Just the look on his face," Eiland said. "He looked so much better, so relaxed. From a personal standpoint, I was very, very happy for A.J."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle calls Burnett and the Pirates a marriage that is working for both sides. He sees the budding relationship between Burnett and the fans as a key.

"Hey, who doesn't like to be rooted for?" Hurdle said. "You know, Norm always perked up when he walked into Cheers."

Tuesday night's cheers helped Burnett initially, and his teammates ended up making it a downright magical evening on the North Shore.

Burnett watched as the Pirates came back to win 8-7 on a walk-off home run by Drew Sutton. As Sutton rounded the bases, Burnett ran into the bathroom and made a shaving cream pie. Then he darted into the dugout and up the steps to the field, catching Sutton from behind.

Later, Burnett would find the right word to describe it.

"Goosebumps," he said.

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published July 8, 2012 4:00 AM


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