I miss A.J. Burnett.
I know you miss him, too.
Who can forget looking out at the Pittsburgh skyline and seeing the “Bat signal” on nights one Allan James Burnett was pitching for the Pirates?
Chants of “Batman” erupting from the crowd, it was the night of July 11th, 2015, PNC Park. Pirates versus Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ John Lackey working on a two-hit shutout into the fifth inning. Batman at the plate. Down no balls and two strikes. Then…
A 400 foot shot to deep left center.
That moment, a game in which the Pirates came back to win 5 to 4 in extra innings on their way to a dramatic series sweep of the Redbirds, encapsulated the entire A.J. Burnett era in Pittsburgh.
It still gives me goosebumps.
Few people could have imagined the bond that would form between the player and the city when, on February 18, 2012, General Manager Neal Huntington made an announcement:
The Pirates had acquired veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees for a pair of minor leaguers, Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno, and the Yankees were picking up $20 million of the $33 million owed on Burnett’s contract.
While most in the media considered this a solid, low risk move, there were still concerns regarding the pitcher. He had been ineffective the better part of his tenure in the Bronx and was coming off 2010 and 2011 seasons where Burnett sported an ERA above 5.00 with a WHIP of 1.44 in 2011.
Burnett’s debut in spring training did not go so well, either, as he underwent orbital fracture surgery after getting hit in the face attempting a bunt. The prognosis--Burnett would be out two to three months.
He made his Pirates’ regular season debut just seven weeks later, on April 21, 2012, at Busch Stadium against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Burnett’s accomplishments throughout that 2012 campaign were numerous and impactful. He became the first Pirate since Dock Ellis to win eight consecutive starts. The team had won, at one point, twelve consecutive games in which he started. Burnett finished the season with sixteen wins, a 3.51 ERA, 180 strikeouts against just 62 walks, and a WHIP around 1.2. He also pitched 202.1 innings.
Despite a 62-46 record in August, fueled by Burnett’s success, the Pirates faded badly down the stretch, finishing the season 79-83, which was their 20th consecutive losing season. However, the club realized, for the first time in a fortnight, this team was ready to take the next step.
Veterans Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano were added to a solid core of talent, and the 2013 edition - led by Burnett, once again - won 94 games and made the postseason for the first time since 1992.
Burnett led the 2013 Pirates with 209 strikeouts, the first right-hander in team history to record 200 plus strikeouts in a season. However, he had suffered a partially torn labrum earlier in the year and, at 36 years of age, was openly contemplating retirement after the season. He was now a free agent and, after no action from the Pirates throughout the winter, Burnett signed a one year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The events leading to Burnett signing elsewhere surprised few people. Burnett played the final two seasons of his contract with the Pirates, with the Yankees picking up a bulk of the money owed him. He had regained his success with the organization after working with pitching coach Ray Searage. He was going to be 37 years of age in 2014 so the risks of resigning Burnett seemed to outweigh the benefits.
It was supposed to be “business as usual”.
The Pirates’ three-year playoff run has been glorified as an achievement of success by one particular group of players. While it is true the young core of stars, led by Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez, remained intact, the 2014 club was different.
The 2014 Pirates started slowly and risked falling out of contention before summer. The club slogged through a 10-16 April. On May 20th, after a dismal 9-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, the team was 18-26. The run of success, beginning with the optimism of 2012 and culminating with the team’s playoff run in 2013, appeared to be truncated. Done. Finished.
This inconsistency plagued the team throughout much of the season. On September 3rd, the club was perilously close to missing the postseason altogether. They were just three games over .500 at 71-68 and were five games out of first place. Only a late run coinciding with other teams’ fading down the stretch allowed the Pirates to capture the first Wild Card spot with 88 wins.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Keystone State…
Burnett was toiling through a particularly poor season. The Phillies and Burnett had agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal in spring training. It would be safe to say neither club nor player got what they had bargained for. Burnett finished with just eight wins, and his 18 losses led baseball. Once again, Burnett’s ERA soared above five and he had been plagued by nagging injuries much of the 2014 campaign. At 37, it had appeared Burnett was close to finished. He and the Phillies parted ways at season’s end and Burnett was, once again, a free agent.
Much like the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet at the confluence to join forces and form the Ohio River, it took Burnett and the Pirates to join forces to form a championship-contending club.
The Pirates missed Burnett. Burnett missed Pittsburgh.
Things weren’t always like this for Burnett.
Drafted by the Marlins, he made his major league debut with them in 1999 and pitched his first full season in 2001. By 2003, he had pitched a no-hitter and helped lead the Florida Marlins to their second World Series championship in six seasons.
By 2005, however, Burnett wanted out of Miami. The Marlins wanted him gone, as well.
After some late season struggles, Burnett allowed his frustrations to consume him. The team sent him home in September after Burnett openly criticized the organization. Although he later apologized for his outburst, and signed a five-year, $55 million deal with Toronto, Burnett had garnered a reputation in some circles for being a malcontent.
After playing for teams in big markets Toronto, New York, and Philadelphia, Allan James Burnett - an Arkansas native - had found a second home in Pittsburgh.
Burnett actually called Neal Huntington and asked to come back to the Pirates. He also told Huntington he would not negotiate with any other club.
“Actually, it was almost awkward,”Huntington stated regarding his conversations with Burnett.
The Pirates and the fan base gleefully embraced Burnett upon his return to Pittsburgh. The swagger returned to the clubhouse. His influence as a leader, and mentor, was unquestioned. You need to look no further than to the success of young left-hander Jeff Locke. Burnett had taken the young Locke under his wing, mentored him, and helped mold Locke into a successful pitcher in 2015.
The results speak for themselves. Burnett was named, at 38 years of age, to his first All-Star Game in 2015. Jeff Locke--Yes, Jeff Locke--joined him.
The 2015 cast of characters, led by their superhero, slashed their way to 98 regular season wins, a ten game improvement over the previous season. The team and city had found their superhero--Batman--Burnett’s moniker during his second stint here.
Despite falling short of a championship, Allan James Burnett’s contribution to the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club can never be underestimated. He was a leader, a mentor, and--much like the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers unite to form the Ohio--his union with the Pirates was essential in reuniting a city with a baseball club. It seems almost unfathomable that Burnett played just three seasons with the organization.
I miss A.J. Burnett.
I know you do, too.
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