Commentary

Enigmatic A.J. was worth every penny

Yankees banish Burnett to Pittsburgh -- but on one October night, he earned his keep

Updated: February 19, 2012, 11:02 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

As a Yankee, A.J. Burnett was often entertaining but seldom very good, and extremely expensive but rarely very valuable.

But on one night -- Oct. 29, 2009 -- Allan James Burnett was worth every penny the Yankees paid him.

Because simply put, if Burnett doesn't come back to win Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, the odds are Joe Girardi is still wearing No. 27 on his back. That is, if he's still the manager.

On that night, Burnett outdueled Pedro Martinez and took the World Series back from Cliff Lee, who threatened to make it his own after stifling the Yankees in Game 1.

Burnett threw seven innings of four-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout ball that night, the Yankees won 3-1 and they went to Philadelphia tied at one game apiece rather than down 2-0.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesIf not for A.J. Burnett, there might have been no bubbly for the Bombers in 2009.

Four nights later, Lee won his second game, but it didn't matter anymore. By then, all he was buying was one more ride up the New Jersey Turnpike, a one-way ticket to execution in the Bronx.

This is not to say no other pitcher is capable of having won that game. Maybe Freddy Garcia, on a one-year, $3 million deal wins it, or maybe Bartolo Colon, at $900,000, pulls it off, but no matter.

A.J. Burnett was the guy with the baseball that night, and a lot of pressure on him, and he came through. Everything that happened after that, all the blowups and implosions and failures and demotions, may obscure the memory of that night, but they can never erase it.

That night is the reason Joe Girardi refused to pull Burnett from his rotation even when it was obvious that he was through as an effective starter for him.

Operating under the very valid belief that an athlete is as good as he was on his best night, Girardi kept hoping that Oct. 29, 2009, would return for Burnett.

Although he showed flashes -- most recently in Game 4 of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers -- Burnett never regained that form and there was little question that it was time for the Yankees to move him.

But for a franchise that routinely overpays for performance, who is to say that the approximately $70 million the Yankees paid Burnett -- if the deal, which is pending approval, goes through, the Pirates will take on about $13 million of the $31.1 million remaining on Burnett's contract -- wasn't worth it to them?

After all, by the time Alex Rodriguez is done here, the Yankees will have paid him upwards of $300 million. CC Sabathia will earn at least $191 million and possibly as much as $211 million. Mark Teixeira will pocket $180 million.

And if it turns out all this team has to show for that investment is one World Championship, A.J. Burnett will start to look like a bargain.

He wasn't, of course, but by Yankee standards, he certainly was no bank buster.

What he was was immensely talented but maddeningly erratic, volatile as a beaker of nitroglycerine on the mound but placid as a kitten in the clubhouse.

He was a mass of contradictions, tattooed and menacing-looking on the outside but soft-spoken, even harmless on the inside.

I liked him, but I never could figure him out, which probably places me among a large group of people, most of whom know him a lot better than I ever did.

He wasn't a jerk, like Randy Johnson, or a petulant malingerer like Carl Pavano, or a guy whose stuff just did not measure up, like Javier Vazquez.

At the end, he provided little more than a weekly laugh, a once-every-five-days burlesque show that made you cringe but that you wouldn't dare miss.

But certainly, if you can throw as good a World Series game as A.J. Burnett did that October night in 2009, you are no bum. The talent was in him. He just could never find a way to bring it out consistently, nor could the many managers, pitching coaches or catchers who tried to make him into the pitcher they thought he should have been.

He was a guy capable of much better than he showed, and a guy who badly wanted to be much better than he was. I can hardly think of a sadder situation in professional sports.

And now he's about to be gone, off to the Pittsburgh Pirates where I would not be surprised if he has a pretty good season pitching for a middle-market team in a weaker hitting league, at the comparatively bargain-basement price of about $6.5 million a season.

But even at that rate of pay, there's no way the Pittsburgh Pirates will ever get as much for their money out of A.J. Burnett as the Yankees got for theirs.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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