By Jason Keidel
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Does a guy ever really get on your nerves? Perhaps you nod yes when thinking of my columns.
Well, I’m not sure about you, but I’m sick of parsing the primitive thoughts of an overpaid, underperforming, prima donna with a body by God and brain by Cable Guy. I’m talking of course, about Allan James Burnett.
It’s bad enough we’ve gelded these great arms with pitch counts and pop psychology. (How’s them Joba Rules goin’?) We must now pamper these pitchers because they hold all the cards (no, that wasn’t an A-Rod reference), wrapped in guaranteed contracts longer than the Irving Picard’s invoice. You can’t cut ‘em, so coddle ‘em. Maybe once A.J. Burnett hugs his inner child we’ll finally see a man on the mound, not this grumpy but obscenely gifted pitcher brooding after another bad outing, a guy whose opponents say is the filthiest pitcher on the planet yet takes the mound every fifth day with an incongruous, .500 record (9-9 this year, and 119-109 for his career), 4.61 ERA, while leading the world in wild pitches (15).
Joe Torre’s genius was in assuaging his aging stars while nursing the Core Four into stardom. Though no one doubts Torre’s baseball brain, it was the wand he waved while he weaved disparate egos into a singular mantra, that principle trumps personalities, that winning supplants the superficial. Victory became the ultimate statistic. Don Shula once said the only stat he followed was on the scoreboard. Essentially, if the team gets theirs, you’ll get yours.
It just takes a lot more semantic dexterity to convince the player these days, which is paradoxical when you consider that they have it exponentially better than their predecessors, who almost always had offseason employment because their baseball salaries didn’t pay all the bills. Back then, the World Series meant a lot more than a world championship; it was a much-needed monetary nest for the rest of winter. World Series checks are merely tip money now, but ask Yogi Berra (who got 11 of them as a player) how much they meant in, say, 1951.
Oddly, Joe Torre was the beneficiary of this nouveaux athlete: a maddening hybrid of man and child. Back when Torre wore the mask, they paid you for play, not for your thoughts. There was a distinct, masculine dignity to sports before “feelings” became as important as hits, homers, and strikeouts. We can’t just pay you millions to play a kid’s game and expect you to do so with quiet grace. Today’s athlete now needs – beyond a phalanx of bodyguards, masseuses, personal trainers, chefs, and nutritionists – a roaming Tony Robbins to tell him everything is okay. And it doesn’t hurt to have an encyclopedic recall of Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche.
Enter A.J. Burnett, who comes off as a caricature, a victim of his sublime skill and dwindling will. He talks under a crown of spiked blonde hair and endless tattoos, which creep up his sleeves like some baseball doppelganger consuming his soul, his drawl and droopy cadence bring to mind a man who doesn’t get it and/or doesn’t care to. It’s as though he were a teen given a superhero’s power yet none of the adjunctive training and wisdom to harness it. If each pitch from his divine right arm were a hand grenade, it would blowup during his windup, just as he slowly raised his glove up to his face.
Sometimes things are simple. And no matter how many times you, his manager, general manager, or mother pat his padded butt, dangle the stick and carrot accordingly, the answer is easy: he sucks. And the best way to get us off his back is to…stop sucking.
There’s no doubt that no matter how great an athlete is, he’s human first, and that the laws of physics are metaphysics are pliable but still apply, even to stars. But baseball is a zero sum game, unlike film, painting, or literature, where the art and artist are viewed through subjective lenses. Unlike many vocations, there is a clear winner and loser in team sports because we keep score. And Burnett’s stats blink over his locker like a “Vacancy” sign.
The only reason he’s still a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees is he’s making over $16 million per season. Perhaps you’d like to see Ivan Nova take his place permanently. Perhaps you’d like to see one of the renowned “Killer B” pitchers to get a taste of the majors. Perhaps you’d like to see anyone but Burnett on the mound. But the Yankees have nowhere to hide him. He’s useless in any location and a nuisance in the rotation.
Joe Girardi wraps Burnett in platitudes about confidence and momentum. “It probably feels really good,” Girardi said of Burnett’s first August win in pinstripes, against – you guessed it! – Kansas City. Even against the dreadful Royals (50-73), Burnett surrendered 10 hits in just over 5 innings. “He’s thrown some games I thought we could have got him wins and we didn’t,” Girardi said. The manager must say that in public, but no one knows better than Girardi that Burnett, on the mound, is as trustworthy as Julian Assange. That’s a small problem in August, while the Yanks make their march toward the playoffs, but it could be a catastrophe of pitching atrophy in October.
“Upside” is a new, nauseating mantra, like many corporate slogans that slide down the decades. In the 1990s it was Proactive. “We need to be proactive on this, Jason,” one of my former bosses used to say, long before I swapped a suit and sweaty commute for a latte and a laptop. She said it to me because her boss said it to her, and that boss got it from one of those meetings on one of those high floors our elevators never quite reached, where they craft the corporate lexicon.
Over the last decade it has been going forward. “What do you plan to do, Jason, going forward?” is a phrase that leads me to lighter fluid and a matchbook. Going forward? As though there were another direction to travel, with time as the path and measurement.
So A.J. Burnett, based on his electric arm and eclectic mien, and his history of dominating the Yankees and Red Sox (before he came to New York, of course), was seen as a pitcher bursting with the aforementioned, overrated commodity (upside).
At what point does it become downside? At what point does A.J. “I can only beat the Royals” Burnett become a burden? When is it acceptable – particularly for a franchise like the Yankees – to employ a pitcher who has just one August win in three years (and just got it two days ago)?
If it weren’t for a few flashes in 2009, when he actually contributed to a World Series title – though his ERA was 7.00 during that Fall Classic – Burnett’s got a lot of Oliver Perez in him. No, he doesn’t have Ollie’s penchant for pounding the Denny’s dinner buffet, but all the psychological bona fides of a bust are right there. He’s soft, stubborn, not so smart, and super-sensitive.
Or maybe he’s simply getting fat on cash. Indeed, the more money he makes, the worse he pitches. He made $9.6 million in Florida while pitching to a 3.73 ERA. He made $28 million in Toronto and left with a 3.94 ERA. And while in the middle of an $82 million deal in New York, he’s got a 4.61 ERA. (Yes, your ERA is bound to jump in the American League, but not a full run per season in your prime.) Last year he produced the worst season (10-15, 5.26 ERA) for a starting pitcher in Yankees history, and then starts this year by barking at reporters, ordering them not to remind him of 2010. It’s 2011, you see, and we’re always going forward.
Unless you’re A.J. Burnett, where forward and backward are obscured, where the numbers lay but never lie, like the $16 million he makes this season. He’s the first to hop out of the dugout, pie in hand, sneaking around and stalking the player with the game-winning hit, and then smashing the shaving cream into the unsuspecting face of his teammate. Yet it’s Burnett who always winds up with pie in his face, a sullen stroll from the mound to the showers under a shower of boos from those who are sick of his inflated pay and deflated pranks. If only he took the same care of his curveball that he does those creamy concoctions he mashes into men who have actually accomplished something. Maybe then the joke wouldn’t be on Burnett.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com