Paul Daugherty, email@example.com
July 13, 2015
There is no right place to start with A.J. Burnett, who has pitched 17 years in the big leagues, won a strikeout title and a world title, thrown a no-hitter in which he walked nine batters and once shattered a truck window with a warmup pitch. On purpose.
Some athletes have careers. A.J. Burnett has had a lifetime.
"I've been through it all, and now I can say I've done it all,'' Burnett said Monday, of his first All-Star Game invitation, at age 38. "I'm one of a kind. Not many like me, put it that way.''
Nope, not unless you know a lot of guys who resemble a latter day Butthead, sporting a modified Mohawk hairdo and enough tattoos to open a gallery. Burnett said he will wear "Batman'' spikes Tuesday night, "black and gold and they got some wings,'' he explained. "Because I am a huge (Batman) fan (and) Pittsburgh is my Gotham.''
We might as well start at the end with Burnett, a Pittsburgh Pirate who is pitching as well as he ever has, partly because his always electric right arm and his formerly hot head finally have found common ground. He's a fully formed pitcher and person, too, something not even Burnett could ever have envisioned.
"I wish I'd been this way a long time ago,'' he said.
So, naturally, he's walking away after this year.
"My mind's made up. Heck, why not go out with a bang, you know?'' he said.
Most jocks have to be shown the career door at 2 a.m., and begged to call a cab. Knowing when to leave is a gift as rare as a 100 mph fastball. You'd think a guy with enough drive to survive 17 years in a Darwinian occupation like baseball would be hesitant to give it up, once he finally got things just the way he wanted them.
You'd think that. But there is nothing quite ordinary about Burnett.
He has the ability to call his career shot. He took a $4 million pay cut to sign with the Pirates, rejecting a player option with the Phillies that would have paid him $12.75 million this year. Pittsburgh got him for $8.5 million, simply because Pittsburgh was where Burnett wanted to be. Before playing for the Phillies last year, Burnett had spent two years as a Pirate, educating younger players on how to be big league. He liked it in Pittsburgh, surrounded by young, hungry teammates on the rise.
"Where I've been the happiest,'' said Burnett.
At 38, he reinvented himself, as aging power pitchers must. Instead of throwing 97 mph fastballs, Burnett started mixing in 90 mph sinkers on the corners. Better control, a tighter grip on what he was doing. "Ain't no Fountain of Youth,'' Burnett said.
"It's knowing what I have. It took awhile for me to get over trying to strike everybody out. I still like my strikeouts. But let 'em beat it into the ground. Keep the ball down. Ball's up, you get hit. That's all it is.''
Burnett has led the league in losses, walks, earned runs, hit batsmen and wild pitches (three times). In 2001, he threw a no-hitter while walking nine.
"Eight,'' he suggested Monday.
"Nine,'' I said. "Look it up.''
"And I hit a guy,' Burnett said.
While pitching for the then-Florida Marlins, Burnett became a little agitated that the team mascot, Billy the Marlin, would drive a truck behind home plate between innings, while pitchers warmed up. "What's a truck doing on the field in the middle of a game?'' he wondered.
Young A.J. did the only sensible thing. He deliberately threw at the truck. A 90 mph purpose pitch, at Billy the Marlin. The ball shattered a back window. "Slipped outta my hand,'' Burnett suggested Monday.
"No, it didn't,'' I said. The toss was, in fact, 10 feet to the first base side of the catcher.
"The truck was never on the field again'' was all Burnett would say about that.
Of the 70 stars here, 31 are here for the first time. It's a young man's game. This isn't lost on Burnett, who spent a long time acting like a young man, but has aged as well as any bourbon in a barrel. "It's time to get on with the second half of my life,'' he said.
Burnett has two sons, 14 and 11, and a wife of 15 years who has done all the heavy lifting. "Time to give them some at-bats,'' he said. I asked him why it was so easy for him to leave the mountaintop after working so hard to get there.
"I think it's because I've given a lot back the last couple years,'' Burnett said. "It's not all about A.J. Burnett. Leave a positive influence on guys you play with. That means more than anything.''
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle explained Burnett this way: