- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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There is a story that illuminates how A.J. Burnett could struggle with the Yankees for most of his three seasons in New York but flourish now in his first with the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose current lineup has never been confused with Murderer's Row. And the tale dates back two Yankees pitching coaches (a turnover that is not Burnett's fault, I swear ).
Even by the midpoint of the 2010 season -- or 1½ seasons before the Yankees finally unloaded Burnett in February in what one baseball analyst termed "a salary dump" in which "two warm bodies" were sent to the Yanks "just so it would look like a trade" -- the Yankees knew what was wrong with Burnett. It's the same thing that was written on the warning label that came with him when they gave him a five-year, $82.5 million deal to leave Toronto.
"It starts with his head," then-Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said one mid-July day with a directness that took me aback.
So it wasn't Burnett's mechanics, his velocity, maybe the mix of pitches the catcher was calling -- none of that explained his struggles? By then the Yanks had given Burnett a "personal" catcher, too, light-hitting Jose Molina.
"No," Eiland firmly said. "When his head's not right, then his body won't follow. But his head goes first. Then his body gets all out of whack."
"Always the mind first?" I repeated.
"Pretty much," Eiland said, nodding.
I remember saying only half-jokingly at the time that there's a highly technical term for this in baseball. It's Head Case. And I mentioned that a great measure of how fed up a team is with a player is how willing it is to tell the unvarnished truth about him.
Burnett, 35, isn't exactly exonerating himself of either charge now that he's rediscovered his game with Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are riding a major league-record streak of 19 losing seasons, but they're again off to the sort of fast start that is teasing their long-suffering fans into believing that this might be the year that finally changes. Then again, the Pirates did the same thing last year. They were still battling for first place by the All-Star Game, then dropped like a stone to a 19-43 finish. As any Pittsburgher knows, not even a 16-ounce can of Iron City Beer sinks to the bottom of the Monongahela River that fast.
Burnett would seem to be a highly unlikely candidate to be the engine of this year's success. But if you think about it, his revival with the Pirates makes perfect sense. Because once again, it starts with the head.
See, the confounding thing about Burnett was never his stuff. It's terrific. If anything, he was a head case because he had such great stuff. He came to the Yankees still armed with a 95 mph fastball and arsenal of other pitches. But guys who were within earshot of Burnett in the clubhouse or on the field when he got upset -- which was often -- say he would say things like, "Why am I a .500 pitcher when I have great stuff? ... Why is everything so good and then so bad?"
He was famous for cruising along in games, then self-imploding -- sometimes over the smallest things. Opponents openly admitted they tried to aggravate him.
"He gets frustrated, I think that's the biggest thing," one Yankee told me. "Then he starts thinking too much. Then everything starts snowballing, and sometimes he can't self-correct."
He can't self-correct between innings or between batters?
"Both," the player said, sighing.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde act eventually drove fans crazy in New York. He'd always been a Yankees killer for Toronto, and, the joke now went, he was still filling that role after joining the Yankees. He was like that singing frog in the old Warner Brothers cartoon. When everyone was looking at him to perform his best, he was an enigma. When no one expected much, he slapped on a top hat and belted out songs.
Burnett's final numbers in New York were a 34-35 record with the two highest ERAs of his career the past two seasons (5.25 and 5.15). His short list of antics included one frustrated punchout of a clubhouse door that left him with two slashed palms shortly before my 2010 talk with Eiland, some terse mound exchanges with high-strung Yanks manager Joe Girardi when Girardi pulled him from some games, and two other nights when Burnett showed up at the stadium with (1) a really bad blond hair dye job hoping it might change his luck, and (2) a black eye that was never explained beyond team officials' assurances to reporters that the shiner was not baseball-related.
Taken all together, it could be enough to drive any club into trading a guy. Except here's the other thing about Burnett: People like him. They really do. So even when he pitches poorly or does the occasional knucklehead thing, they often cut him some slack. No matter how confounding he was, other Yankees had a hard time being mad at him -- the players, I mean. They said he was a good guy, a good teammate, a hard worker.
Burnett did get the Yanks a huge Game 2 win in their eventual 2009 World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. And he did liven up their notoriously staid clubhouse with the postgame pie-tossing habit he brought from Toronto.
There was also this: The Yanks knew Burnett struggled not because he didn't care. If anything, he cared too much.
Maybe that's a sin in sports. But it doesn't make someone a loathsome human being.
Now, by all accounts, Burnett's Pirates teammates enjoy him as well. The difference is he's winning again.
Burnett is 6-2, and he's doing it the hard way. Six of his 10 starts have been in one-run wins for the Pirates, who were 17-10 through Wednesday in such games. Burnett is earning raves from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle for his professionalism and impact on younger players like James McDonald. Almost just as importantly to the Pirates franchise and their fans, Burnett actually wants to be there.
"When I talked to A.J. before the trade, it was abundantly clear he did not want to leave New York," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Wednesday. "He felt he had unfinished business. But he also said if it he did have to leave, this is one of the places he'd like to go."
As a native Pittsburgher myself, I feel confident I can summarize the local reaction to Burnett's open-mindedness in a word:
The only obvious thing the Pirates have over the Yankees is they beat them in the 1960 World Series on a walk-off homer by Bill Mazeroski that still grinds some folks as a fluke. Burnett could've moped about how he'd gone from the Yankees' penthouse to the down-and-out house of Major League Baseball, even if he only had himself to blame. Yet he hasn't. Because Burnett understands what he is, too.
When a New York Daily News reporter passed through Pittsburgh in late May and checked in with him, Burnett volunteered a telltale story. He spoke about how in the first inning of his home debut as a Pirate, he coughed up a walk, a single and another walk to the very first three batters he faced. Oh no.
"I could imagine what that place [Yankee Stadium] would sound like," Burnett said. "But there was about two words that came out of the crowd here. So it's just different.
"You're a little less on edge. Some guys thrive in that."
Burnett is one of them. Mock him or credit him for his honesty, but with him it's always "Heads, you win."
He's 4-0 with a 1.27 ERA in six home starts for Pittsburgh.
This past weekend, Burnett even had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning of the Pirates' rousing 3-2 win over Kansas City, their 12th victory in their past 15 games. Although Burnett's bid ended when the Royals' Alex Gordon stroked a single to right field with one out in the sixth, a nice thing happened when Burnett was taken out of the game in the eighth.
The Pittsburgh crowd of 25,752 gave him a rousing standing ovation.
And Burnett took a look around and held his cap high to acknowledge them back.
It was quite a scene, this impromptu little lovefest between the Pirates' long-suffering fans and their cast-off new pitcher, all of whom are emotionally invested in letting the inglorious past stay in the past.
The Pirates are again fighting Cincinnati for first place. And Huntington could very well be Burnett talking when he says, "The scary part of it is we know we'll encounter a whole new level of cynicism if we do fall back again."
But why go there now?
"I've had a couple [standing ovations] like that in my career," Burnett said after Sunday's game. "My last start in Toronto, a couple in Yankee Stadium. You never forget them. It was unbelievable."
It's the sort of rush that can stick in a player's head, all right. A different kind of great stuff. The kind that can keep a man pushing on through just about anything -- self-inflicted or not -- for years.
A.J. Burnett would seem to be a highly unlikely candidate to be the engine of this year's success in Pittsburgh. But his revival with the Pirates makes perfect sense. Because once again, it starts with the head.