Pirate clubhouse elders, Burnett, Grilli and Barmes, ready to lead
Now in their mid-30s, A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli and Clint Barmes have stepped into new roles both on and off the field for a Pirates team desperately still seeking that elusive first winning season in two decades.
March 31, 2013 8:00 AM
While A.J. Burnett and Jason Grilli might be more vocal leaders, Clint Barmes is more on the quiet side. "But when he speaks, he speaks wisely and he gets his point across and everybody listens," says Neil Walker.
Peter Diana/photo illustration
Jason Grilli and A.J. Burnett have settled into crucial roles both on and off the field heading into 2013.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It begins quietly, and on this day you probably won't be able to hear it.
Once A.J. Burnett leaves the dugout, the sellout crowd at PNC Park will roar. The chords won't poke through until he reaches the mound. The familiar cadence, repeated on a loop, da-dun-dun-dun-dun, da-dun-dun-dun-dun.
Burnett has taken the mound to Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People" since he was a Florida Marlin. Monday, though, he'll hear the song for the first time as an opening-day starter, the advice of his two sons ringing in his ears.
"Kick some [butt], dad," they tell him before each start.
"I'll try," he responds.
Burnett's affection for Marilyn Manson was prevalent enough to make Baseball America's 359-word write-up of Burnett in 1999, when he was the Marlins' No. 1 prospect. Fourteen years, 345 games and three organizations later, the music exists for the beat.
"I don't listen much anymore," Burnett said. "I'm too old for that."
We ask the question every fan is asking: How will the Pirates avoid a repeat of 2012?
The 36-year-old Burnett has changed during his major league career. With the Pirates, he adopted the role of clubhouse elder, along with Jason Grilli and Clint Barmes. Their 34 combined years of major league service grant them the cachet to impact the clubhouse. Their success ensures that the rest of the players listen.
"He is unafraid."
Those were the final words of the "Strengths" paragraph in that Baseball America write-up. Burnett's lack of fear remains. Last September, when Brandon Phillips and Jared Hughes exchanged pleasantries after a hit-by-pitch, Burnett left the dugout and walked halfway to the baseline, alone, as backup.
He tempered his personality over 14 major league seasons. As a younger pitcher, he hadn't. He'd yell at teammates after errors, according to reports at the time. He was asked to leave the Marlins in late 2005 after criticizing his coaches and teammates.
"A.J. Burnett is a flame-throwing freak show who has no plans for the next pitch or the next day," read a portion of an ESPN the Magazine story about Burnett during his Marlins days.
Not only does Burnett now have a plan for the next day, it starts at sunrise. "You get here at 6:30 and A.J.'s here already," Jeff Karstens said. James McDonald is often by his side. It's probably no coincidence. After leaving the Marlins, Burnett signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, bringing him into the orbit of the king of early mornings, Roy Halladay.
"I think being around Halladay helped a lot, as far as what my purpose is," Burnett said. "It's not just to go out and pitch the best I can, but just my all-around purpose in this game.
"It took a while for me to figure that out. If I'd have been like this 10 years ago, who knows what would have happened?"
Burnett's purpose with the Pirates is more than retiring batters, eating innings, winning games. He holds sway over the clubhouse. He's not the sole source of wisdom. Barmes and Grilli play a role, as do Andrew McCutchen and others.
"To pinpoint one or two guys, I don't think that's accurate," Neil Walker said. "But I don't think it's far off either."
Part of the reason the veterans earned that power so quickly was the absence of such people before their arrival.
"It's never been here before, that kind of leadership," said Karstens, who joined the organization in 2008. "If you walk in here and A.J. looks at you a certain way, you know, all right, should I be doing something?"
"When I got here, there were no set leaders," said McDonald, who joined the team at the 2010 trade deadline. "I didn't see a guy that would take charge."
Karstens, a former New York Yankee, saw how Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte affected their teammates. When Karstens arrived at the field at 6:45 in the morning, Pettitte would be finishing his run. Burnett pairs that work ethic with the vocal aspect.
"I totally respect Paul Maholm, but was he a leader that we needed here? No. He was a good pitcher," Karstens said. "It isn't anything about him as a baseball player, it's just the kind of personality in the clubhouse."
Burnett's subtle, but important, pronouncements exempt no one. Previously, the starters not pitching on a given night sometimes watched part of that night's game from the clubhouse. Burnett, according to Karstens, ended that, starting in spring training.
"The first day, I wasn't there, but he said it," Karstens said. "Did he say it to me directly? No, but I heard it. That's all I had to do, was hear it, and I went, all right, I need to be in the dugout."
In 2012, Burnett's first season with the Pirates after being traded there by the Yankees at the start of spring training, he spoke at team meetings, including one that became public knowledge and others that didn't. He tailored his message, according to players in attendance, to fit what he determined the team needed. At times he was serious, imploring his teammates to pick up the effort. Sometimes he told them to relax and lighten up. It required a keen sense of what his teammates needed to hear. Said one player, "He's got that."
Recently Burnett's wife, Karen, found a postcard A.J. sent to his older son, A.J. Jr., about a decade ago. Technology has made keeping in touch with Karen, 12-year-old A.J. and 9-year-old Ashton easier -- Ashton loves FaceTime -- but that wasn't always an option, so Burnett sent postcards. The postcard Karen found had a picture of PNC Park on it. He had sent it from Pittsburgh while on a road trip.
"I happened to pick a card with Pittsburgh's stadium on it writing to my kid, and now I'm playing there and I'm with them," Burnett said. "It's kind of neat."
Because Burnett shared a rotation with Josh Beckett with the Marlins, Halladay in Toronto and CC Sabathia with the Yankees, he'll start on opening day for the first time in the park on the postcard.
What's it like?
If proceedings unfold as the opening-day crowd hopes, another song will play about three hours after Burnett takes the mound. When Grilli, at 36 a full-time closer for the first time in his career, enters from the bullpen, Pearl Jam will accompany him. He's mum on the specifics for now.
"There's no reason to go to a movie if you know the ending," Grilli said.
Grilli, like Burnett, joined the Pirates relatively recently, signing on in the summer of 2011. He spent the early portion of the season playing for Class AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Class AAA at age 34 wasn't in Grilli's initial plans.
The San Francisco Giants drafted Grilli fourth overall in 1997, and like Burnett, Grilli was the No. 1 prospect in his organization in 1998. Like Burnett, he was traded to the Marlins for a big-name pitcher -- Grilli for Livan Hernandez, Burnett for Al Leiter. He and Burnett overlapped in the Marlins organization from 1999 to 2003, shortly before Burnett broke out in 2002. During that time, Grilli made six of his 16 career major league starts.
Excepting one start for Class AA Frisco in 2009, Grilli wouldn't start another professional game after 2005 and was a part of nine different organizations.
During spring training in 2010 with the Cleveland Indians, Grilli shredded part of his quadriceps and missed the season. His comeback started in Lehigh Valley.
"When I came over here, I went from being in a triple-A situation with the IronPigs and these guys were in first place," Grilli said. "I was not going to be a part of something that they worked so hard to get to that point, and not contribute. I walked into a great situation. I was giving my all from the day I got over here because I wanted to get that respect of the guys that worked so hard to be in that situation. You want to earn the respect of your peers."
Some of the respect afforded the trio resulted from their postseason experience. Grilli played for the 2006 Detroit Tigers, who lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Burnett won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009. Barmes played for the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who turned on the afterburners in September and blasted their way into the World Series.
"We want it so bad, we're willing to do anything," Jared Hughes said. "I'm looking at Grilli saying, 'Hey man, what's it like? What's it like in October?' "
Grilli and Burnett deliver their messages in different fashions, players said. Grilli is more talkative. Burnett can be quick with a joke, but waits for teammates to seek information.
"A.J.'s kind of the guy who speaks when he needs to speak," Pedro Alvarez said. "Jason is a little bit of a chatterbox. It's a good balance of the two."
Grilli's career included more obstacles than those of Burnett or Barmes. Before his two-year, $6.75 million contract for 2013-14, Grilli's $1,875,000 million signing bonus in 1997 represented the largest payday of his career.
"If he didn't love it, there's no chance he would have stuck through it and battled through what he had to battle through," said Barmes, Grilli's roommate in Pittsburgh last season.
After he arrived, Grilli sidled up to Jeff Locke while shagging balls in the outfield, easing the nerves of the young pitcher who had yet to make his major league debut. He draws on his experience to advise younger relievers how to handle injuries or poor performance.
"We need the guys that are raw and maybe getting called up for the first time," Grilli said. "We need them just as badly as they lean on us."
As a younger player, Grilli said, he listened attentively when the veterans spoke. He kept quiet. Now he picks his spots. After the departure of Joel Hanrahan, Grilli assumed the role of the bullpen's general in addition to its elder statesman. He returned after mulling offers from the Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays offering a similar salary.
"There's a great core thing going on here, and that's a big reason why I came back," Grilli said. "That's hard to come by."
Choosing their words
Burnett won 16 games, pitched more than 200 innings and had a 3.51 ERA in 2012. Grilli struck out 90 batters in 582/3 innings last season as a rock-solid setup man.
Barmes did not enjoy the same success in his first season with the Pirates after signing a two-year, $10.5 million contract before the 2012 season.
The Colorado Rockies drafted Barmes in the 10th round in 2000. He succeeded early, first in small pockets of at-bats in 2003-04 and later by hitting .289 with 10 home runs in 377 plate appearances in 2005, when he finished eighth in National League rookie of the year voting.
In 574 major league plate appearances between 2006-07, he hit a combined .219 with a .262 on-base percentage. He spent the majority of that 2007 season in the minors. He responded by hitting .290 with 11 home runs in 2008. From 2009-11: .242 average, .303 on-base percentage.
It was in spite of Barmes' offense that his teammates respected him. Through 70 games at the end of last June, Barmes had 44 hits in 236 plate appearances. He had a .224 on-base percentage. He struck out 55 times with four walks. Teammates credited him with preventing the struggles at the plate from affecting his defense.
"To be able to separate offense and defense is an unbelievably important thing in this game," Walker said. "It's hard to do. But it's specifically important as a middle infielder, someone that's very involved in the game. That's a very valuable lesson I learned from him."
Barmes earned his respect due to his fielding prowess and flat-line demeanor. His ultimate zone rating, a metric that attempts to quantify how many runs a player saves or allows because of his defense, ranked in the top six in the majors among shortstops in each of the past two seasons.
Barmes strives to play the game the way a professional should, and that's what he hopes to impart to the younger Pirates. He learned the craft in Colorado under Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla and Todd Helton.
"It's not like we're asking them to be anything different, or anything other than play the game the way it's supposed to be played and carry yourself," Barmes said.
The trio avoids harping on teammates, but they'll speak when they need to. Burnett and Barmes have each pulled McDonald aside to deliver messages. At times they told him he was slacking on his work. Other times, they offered advice on his mound presence. McDonald said he understood that the desire for his absolute best drove the visits. Their demeanor adds authority to their words.
"It's not meant for everybody, and that's the hard part," Karstens said. "You can't care if you're liked."
Players said Barmes sways toward Burnett's end of the spectrum. He leads by example. For the most part.
"You guys don't see the half of it with him," Walker said. "He doesn't want the limelight, he doesn't want the credit. You're not going to hear him. When he speaks, which is not very often, but when he speaks, he speaks wisely and he gets his point across and everybody listens."
Preparing for battle
Neither Burnett's experience nor Grilli's perseverance nor Barmes' level-headed attitude will directly contribute to the Pirates' 2013 win total. Uncertainty at the back end of the rotation, the corner outfield spots and on the bench could imperil the season. If the Pirates do play well early, they must discover a way to avoid playing their way out of contention in the second half, which they did in each of the past two seasons.
"We were upset last year," Burnett said. "We figured we're a better team. Barmie and I were talking about it. We felt like we could have done more at the end. We let these guys down at the end when it got out of control. I don't know if we did or not, but it's our responsibility."
On the rare occasion that Burnett doesn't call for Manson when he takes the field, he sometimes uses "Fever Dream," an instrumental song from the soundtrack of the movie "300." The film depicted a small contingent of Spartan warriors fighting the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. Burnett has a tattoo of the Spartans' leader, King Leonidas, on his left arm. He listens to the soundtrack before his starts, and likened the Spartan phalanx, a battle formation predicated upon defending one's neighbor as part of a unit, to the 25 men in the clubhouse.
"Where you're only as strong as the guy next to you," he said. "That's what the character lived by and that's how it is here, too. It's a team game. You're only as strong as your teammates. You got to pick up your teammates. And nobody wants to be that weakest link."
That's what Burnett, Grilli and Barmes try to do: prevent their teammates from being that weakest link.