In some form or fashion, it’s depressing to be writing a piece about a player getting ready to retire who is eight months younger than me. But let’s all just try and power through it.
The reality is that in baseball terms, 38 is ancient. Like, the ruins of Machu Picchu ancient. But Allan James (you can call him A.J., if you like) Burnett is going to attempt one final act of defiance in a career defined by such acts. He’s going to try and give the middle finger to Father Time for one final season, right here in our fair burgh, along the muddy banks of the Allegheny.
As Brad Pitt’s character says in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when you get to the end you start to think about the beginning. Although many fans first became aware of Burnett when he debuted with the Marlins in 1999, he was actually drafted by the Mets in the 8th round of the 1995 draft out of Little Rock, Arkansas.
His career in the minors from 1995 to 1997 was fairly restrained, especially for a pitching prospect during that era, as he never topped 58 innings in a single season. Part of that was due to his terrible control, as his BB/9’s were in the obscenely high 6 to 8 per 9 innings range. So rather than being some highly touted, quick-rising prospect, Burnett was simply one of three players traded to the Marlins in February 1998 for Al Leiter and another player. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and then sold off a bunch of high-priced assets in a series of salary dumps prior to the 1998 season.
That 1998 season was the inflection point on Burnett’s whole life. In addition to having an eye-popping, Tyler Glasnow-esque season line of 10-4, 1.97 ERA, 119 IP, 45 BB, and 186 (!) K’s, the ’98 season is when Burnett got weird. Or in his words from this 2001 ESPN The Magazine article, just said “what the hell”.
On a whim, Burnett iced his chest in his room one day and stuck a sterilized needle into his left nipple. (He got the other one pierced in a shop.) He dyed his hair blond, then jet black, then blond again. Then there were the tattoos: himself pitching on his left ankle; a gothic design he came up with for his left arm; his initials on his right arm; and, last year, another set of initials between his shoulder blades — belonging to a girl named Karen he started talking to in a restaurant just before that breakout season.
That girl Karen ended up becoming Mrs. A.J. Burnett in the fall of 2000. A few months later in March 2001, A.J., Jr. was brought into the world. “It wasn’t planned,” said Burnett in the ESPN The Magazine article. Hey, happy birthday, buddy!
By 2002, the 25-year old Burnett had established himself as a fearless competitor on the mound, replete with a blazing high-90’s fastball. He was the human embodiment of an Angus Young from AC/DC guitar solo. The 2002 season saw Burnett lead the league in a few categories. First, he allowed the fewest hits per 9 innings with 6.7 and the fewest home runs per 9 innings at 0.5. But he also led the league with 14 wild pitches. His control has always been his Achilles’ heel — his career walk rate is 3.7 BB/9 and he has posted double digit totals of wild pitches in eight separate seasons, including leading the league in three of them. Just for good measure, he’s had four double digit seasons of plunking batters, with his 2010 season seeing a league-leading 19 souls get drilled.
His personal career highlight is a perfect microcosm of his career. On May 12, 2001, Burnett pitched a no-hitter against the Padres. His nine innings saw him strike out seven, but walk a staggering nine. He tossed in a hit batsman for good measure on his way to a 129 pitch outing.
While with the Marlins, Burnett succumbed to the specter of Tommy John in 2003. He returned in 2004, but his passion was never tamed. This reared its ugly head in 2005, the season before he was scheduled to become a free agent. In late September 2005, playing on a team that collapsed down the stretch, Burnett voiced his frustration to the media regarding his grandfatherly manager, Jack McKeon, and the front office. McKeon asked him to leave the team on September 27th, thus forcing Burnett to miss his final start and fall short of the 210 innings pitched clause that would have given him a $50,000 bonus.
As a free agent, Burnett positioned himself in the 2005 offseason as the 2nd best starter behind C.C. Sabathia. In an attempt to leave Florida behind as much as possible, Burnett signed a 5 year/$55M deal with our friends to the north in Toronto. His contract had the unusual perk of eight yearly round trips via limo for his wife, as she’s not the best with the whole concept of flying.
His first two seasons of 2006 and 2007 saw Burnett total just 300 combined innings as he dealt with lingering arm soreness from his Tommy John surgery and other assorted pitching-related maladies. The 2008 season, though, saw Burnett rebound in a big way. He logged a career-high 34 starts and pitched 221 innings, racking up a league-leading 231 strikeouts in the process. It was the kind of performance that Toronto had been yearning for those first two seasons. But then Burnett made another impetuous move, one that perhaps he wishes he could do over. In his contract with Toronto he negotiated an opt-out clause after the 2008 season, which he chose to exercise after his peak point year. Maybe realizing that the sledding was tough in Toronto, Burnett decided to join the Evil Empire and signed a new free agent deal with the New York Yankees for 5 year/$82.5M.
The amount of money that these players make has numbed us to the fact that they are people with the same issues and demands that we have. They’re not monkeys that should dance for us just because fans think they pay their salaries through our tickets and merchandise purchases. There’s a very real chance that Burnett was homesick from being in Canada and away from his travel-phobic wife and two young children. But perhaps putting a volatile player in the pressure-packed media environment of New York City was not the wisest choice, either. It kind of looked like this:
Although he led the league in both walks and wild pitches, Burnett’s 2009 debut season with the Yankees wasn’t too bad overall. He took the ball every fifth day and put up 207 innings of 4.04 ERA ball. In other words, he was A.J. Burnett. The 2009 season ended with the Yankees hoisting the trophy as World Series champs, so all in all it was a good season.
The 2010 and 2011 sequels were not. Both years, his ERA ballooned over 5 to go along with the usual control issues. Even more problematic were Burnett’s issues with home runs, coming to a crescendo with 31 allowed in 2011. Was it the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 that spooked him? Was it the pressure of pitching in New York, the media capital of the world? Every mistake was magnified and jumped on by the fans and media alike. Both sides were looking for an escape hatch. An unlikely one was found.
In February of 2012, the baseball world did a double-take when the New York Yankees salary-dumped a player to the low-payroll Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees sent $20M of his remaining $33M to the Pirates over two years, in exchange for two players that were destined to never see the Majors, just to be rid of him.
For the first time in a long time, the 35-year old A.J. Burnett could breathe deeply again. Out of the media scrutiny in the relatively soft world of Pittsburgh sports media, Burnett could take on the role of staff mentor. Although the Pirates were a team on the rise, it wasn’t as if the goal on every fan’s mind was to win the World Series like in New York. Heck, many fans (including myself) just wanted to see them break the decades long losing streak first.
Burnett’s swagger was what the young Pirates were so desperately lacking. Although the 2012 Pirates collapsed down the stretch, he imbued a sense of “what the hell” that the team needed in order to fully believe in themselves and take the next leap, which they did in 2013.
But even on that playoff-bound 2013 team, when the fans would routinely give him a standing ovation at the end of his outings, Burnett’s worst enemy (himself) would rise up again. First he had an on-field confrontation with shortstop Clint Barmes, perhaps over the Pirates’ philosophy of shifting when Barmes was not in a certain spot after a grounder went past him. The second, and larger one in the eyes of outside observers, was his tantrum after being skipped over for a Game 5 2013 NLDS playoff start against the Cardinals in favor of Gerrit Cole.
Whether it’s a sign of a true competitor or someone painfully unaware of circumstances, Burnett was skipped because the Cardinals absolutely served him his lunch on a silver platter in Game 1. He lasted just 2 innings, gave up 7 runs, walked 4 and struck out none. Oh, and in typical Burnett fashion he also hit a guy with a pitch. By contrast Gerrit Cole owned the Cardinals to such a degree in Game 2 that he had to declare them on his taxes the following year — 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K. It was a clear-cut choice, but Burnett’s pride got in the way.
During the 2013 season, Burnett routinely said that he would either re-sign with Pittsburgh or retire, but perhaps his playoff tantrum left a bad taste in both parties’ mouths. To me, Burnett seemed like the perfect candidate to receive the new Qualifying Offer that would have given him the choice of a 1 year/$14.1M deal (at the time) or elect free agency. If he signed elsewhere, the Pirates would get a compensatory draft pick. The Pirates felt like that was too much to commit to one pitcher and did not offer it, forcing Burnett to develop a little bit of a bruised ego.
The 37-year old Burnett was on the market again and still thought of himself as a 27-year old alpha dog that could anchor a rotation. He self-limited his own market, though, to teams around his offseason home of a Baltimore-area suburb. Bridges were burned in New York, the Pirates and he had an acrimonious departure, and no offer came from the Orioles. A member of the Pirates’ coaching staff told me that Burnett floated the idea of pitching a half-season starting in July at a prorated salary. Eventually, the Phillies bailed him out with a 2 year/$22.5M deal for the 2014 season.
This was probably a choice that he regretted even sooner than his previous free agent stops of Toronto and New York. The Phillies were a terrible team on the downslope and that bandbox park of Citizens Bank didn’t do him any favors. Although he took the ball every fifth day again, he gave up the most earned runs and walks in the league last year. Some of his issues probably stemmed from a lingering sports hernia that he had repaired in the offseason, but it was clear that the situation was not one he wanted to re-visit. Both sides turned down their mutual $15M option for 2015, but Burnett took the even more drastic step of turning down his $12.75M player option which was fully in his control.
He wanted to come home, or at least the closest thing to home that the peripatetic Burnett had experienced in his baseball career. He instructed his agent to deal solely with the Pirates, which even GM Neal Huntington described as “awkward”. The two sides agreed on a 1 year/$8.5M deal that saw Burnett be willing to give up $4.25M of salary in exchange for one final shot at the playoffs.
And also one final shot to make things right in his career, perhaps. He’s not coming in with any inflated expectations this time. He knows that he’s not “the man” in the rotation this go-around. One final chance at glory, one final chance to maybe rectify mistakes he made on his way out the door in 2013.
After this season, A.J. Burnett will retire and maybe finally find the peace that has eluded him, mostly through his own doing, all these years. He’s going out on his own terms, which is something very few players get to do.
Kevin Creagh is the author of the sci-fi novel Creating Christ, available now on Amazon