Friends since childhood, Bradley, Burnett traveling on divergent roads as pros

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

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SEAN BURNETT:
Age: 21

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 190 pounds

Throws: Left

Drafted: 2000, 19th overall

2004 stats (with Pirates): 4-2,
2.18 ERA(45 1/3 innings)


First they shared a neighborhood. Two kids, 2 miles apart with a love for baseball and the talent to turn that love into a career. That was the connection -- rare and powerful, and as years went by, they shared so much, how could you doubt it when they assumed they would share good fortune, too?

Bobby Bradley met Sean Burnett almost 10 years ago and -- in an instant -- the path of two kids from Wellington, Fla., fused into one. Bradley and Burnett shared every ballfield in the area, sometimes practicing for eight hours a day as teammates at Wellington High School.

They shared trips to the gym for pickup basketball. They shared computer conversations. They shared poker games and rounds of golf. They shared the spotlight that extended from hundreds of Florida scouts who couldn't believe their luck: The baseball eyes had discovered two pitchers with arms worth driving hours to see, and the kids lived five minutes apart.

Then, suddenly -- impossibly -- Bradley and Burnett shared more.

They shared a pro organization. The Pirates drafted Bradley eighth overall in 1999; then took Burnett, 641 days younger, 19th overall in 2000. For the first time, a pro team had used consecutive first-round picks on players from the same high school. That summer, two teenage millionaires dreamed they would soon be in the same big-league rotation.

It was the last time Bradley and Burnett shared much in common.

Today, Burnett is in the Pirates' clubhouse -- at 21, the youngest player on the roster. Everything so fast, so soon. He sped through the minor leagues in just three seasons. With seven big-league starts, a 4-2 record and a 2.18 ERA, he has convinced most Pittsburgh fans he'll be a top-level starter for years.

Bradley, meanwhile, is pitching for Class AA Altoona. He's 23 -- still a prospect, but minus the can't-miss tag. This is Bradley's sixth minor-league season, and what does he have to show for it? A right arm with 11 scars and surgical incisions.

"Coming out, they were equal talents," said Cam Bonifay, who was the Pirates' general manager when both players were picked.

"Both No. 1 starters," Burnett's father, Rich said. "Sean left-handed. Bobby right-handed."

"But if I had to pick one ... ?" Wellington pitching coach Walt Pope asked. "Maybe I would have said Bobby, at least right out of high school. He had one of the best curveballs I've ever seen for a high school player. Oh, but both were so close."

Before Burnett zipped on an open road to the majors, before Bradley collided with injury problems in the minors, good fortune made them a pair. Bradley and Burnett. Alliteration rolled it all together.

In writing and conversation, Bradley's name always preceded Burnett's, and not just because Bradley was older. He was harder to miss. Bradley posted a 12-1 record and a 0.38 ERA his senior year of high school, then used part of his signing bonus to buy a Hummer. Once, while pitching against a rival team, he spent an inning brashly announcing every pitch -- "It's a No 2!" -- before he threw it ... and still struck everybody out.

"He's more wild," Burnett said. "He's the character, always taking the spotlight."

"Sean's a little quieter," Bradley said. "He keeps to himself more."

During the recent All-Star break, Bradley took a trip to Atlantic City, where he avoided losing money until the last 10 minutes in town -- when he promptly lost $800. Burnett, meanwhile, spent his All-Star break in Wellington, an upper-middle class suburb of West Palm Beach. He went home and relaxed.

Instead of buying a Hummer after graduating, Burnett purchased a Chevy Tahoe.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

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BOB BRADLEY:

* Age: 23

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 190 pounds

Throws: Right

Drafted: 1999, 8th overall

2004 stats (with Altoona): 3-1,
3.04 ERA (50 1/3 innings)


Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Rookie pitcher Sean Burnett takes bunting practice during workouts this year at spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
Click photo for larger image.

He kept more to himself in high school. Like Bradley, he put up great numbers -- a 10-1 record his senior year; a 0.81 ERA -- but by then, a layer of novelty had worn off such statistics. Burnett liked it that way. Heck, eluding attention worked so perfectly for him, it even help start his baseball career. When his parents signed him up for a 5-year-old's league, Burnett was only 4. "We lied," Burnett's mom, Annibal said. Nobody noticed.

In baseball, Bradley and Burnett shared the path so comfortably because they complemented each other perfectly. When the Pirates selected Burnett on June 5, 2000, Burnett said, in a quieter moment, that Bradley had been like an older brother to him.

"This is going to be awesome," Bradley's father, Bob Sr., thought at the time. "Two kids from the same high school with the dream of pitching in the same rotation. How unbelievable is that?"

Then, one path split into two. Burnett ascended to the Pirates so quickly, his minor-league career reads like a superstar's resume. The Pirates' minor-league pitcher of the year in 2001. Same in 2002. Eastern League pitcher of the year in 2003. Entering this season, Baseball America ranked Burnett as the second-best prospect in the organization. Bradley, ranked No. 2 three years earlier, was listed No. 28.

It's hard to pinpoint when, exactly, Bradley fell behind, but it's easy to diagnose the reason. Since 2000, he hasn't had a season without injuries, though he has pitched well when he has played. Bradley had surgery to reconstruct his elbow in 2001. He spent 2002 rehabbing. His shoulder was injured in 2003. His pectoral muscle was strained this season and he missed almost two months. Six minor-league seasons, and Bradley's pitched the equivalent of two.

"There was one game ... ," Bradley said recently, pausing. "... Well, it doesn't matter. It's all in the past now. Just, some things kind of upset me a little bit."

It's a story Bradley has trained himself not to tell. In 2000, while pitching for Hickory on a 30-degree night, he had thrown 105 pitches after six innings. The Pirates, Bonifay said, kept a policy of limiting their youngest pitchers to 100 pitches or fewer. Still, Bradley went out for the seventh inning. And when he had finished, he threw 117 pitches. His arm trouble started that night.

"But I can't let it bother me," Bradley said. "I want to get where Sean is. I want to pitch in the big leagues, and stay there for a long time."

In Pittsburgh, Burnett is getting comfortable. He just moved into an apartment across from PNC Park. And he's living full time in the Pirates' rotation after shuttling briefly, after his debut May 30 at PNC Park, between the majors and Class AAA Nashville.

Twenty family members and friends traveled to Pittsburgh for Burnett's first start, a sterling five-inning, one-run outing against the Chicago Cubs. "I don't even remember much about the game," Burnett said. "It was one big blur."

Bradley remembers it. He watched from Blair County Ballpark, Altoona's home, on a TV in the clubhouse.

Bradley's father remembers it, too. From Wellington, he ordered Major League Baseball's television package just before Burnett pitched. It arrived 30 minutes before the game.

"What an amazing thing that was, to watch Sean, to see his name on the back of that jersey, throwing to big-league ballplayers," Bob Bradley Sr. said. "I'll be honest. Just about the only thing that could be better would be sitting up there in the stands at PNC Park and watching my own son pitch."

Bradley, for one, still thinks it can happen -- if all goes well, he'd like Pittsburgh to call him up in September, when rosters expand. Since high school, Bradley has lost speed on his fastball -- he can throw it 92 mph, down from 94 in his senior year -- but he still has the dominating curveball and improved his changeup. In nine starts this year with Altoona, he leads the team with a 2.98 ERA.

"The injuries have definitely slowed his progress," Pirates director of player development Brian Graham said. "He's lost years from a development standpoint. He just needs to stay healthy, because his stuff is still pretty good."

Bradley and Burnett haven't shared good fortune in four years. Still, playing in ballfields separated by two hours of Pennsylvania highway, hope has a way of knotting them together.

Both have spots on the Pirates' 40-man roster. And in the 2004 Pirates media guide, their biographies and photos can be viewed simultaneously -- Bradley's on page 54, Burnett's on page 55. When the book closes, their photos -- Bradley serious, Burnett smiling -- turn inward toward one another.

Here they are, once high school teammates, still friends, separated by just one page. And they were never supposed to be this far apart.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Bobby Bradley takes a break and keeps track of his glove during spring training.
Click photo for larger image.

Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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