By Jason Keidel
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As we imbibed on Irene last week, I wondered if weathermen could slap a special designation onto baseball players, particularly A.J. Burnett.
But then I realized Burnett is a most unnatural disaster.
Given gifts we dreamed of as children, Burnett has singularly squandered his career. Unless you use money as the sole criterion, his legacy seems sullied beyond repair. The problem, of course, is not with Burnett’s arm. We know the organ of origin – his brain. And that must be a special kind of torment, as a doctor can’t just snap a cast on it and toss him two aspirin.
I recently wrote a column on Roger Maris, calling him little more than the residue of Mickey Mantle’s greatness. In retrospect, I was too harsh on Maris, because rather than shrivel in the widening lens of the media spotlight – as Burnett clearly has – Maris defied the deities and broke the Babe’s record. The fact that he had eight extra games to do so was not of his doing.
Forgive the philosophical tangent, but there’s a delicious duality to Burnett, who has become a fifth wheel on an otherwise well-oiled Yankees machine, now 33 games over .500, with the Red Sox shrinking in the rearview mirror. He has perfected a most arduous art – being a burden on a team that can cover almost any mistake. He is 9-11 with a 5.25 ERA (on July 9 he had a 4.15 ERA) and has an ERA well over 10.00 over his last six starts. Joe Girardi, as he must, hides Burnett’s failures in cryptic, semantic support because he needs the extra arm in his rotation for now.
Perhaps it’s the pampered nature of Yankees fandom and the team’s corporate fiefdom that leads us to focus on the negative. We’re like the rich kids at FAO Schwarz shrieking because mom didn’t buy the biggest toy. To us, the Yankees are like a gorgeous woman with one hand. She may possess all the qualities we covet – brains, beauty, kindness, etc. – yet we stare at the negative, spellbound by the missing appendage.
But there is something to Burnett, at once beautiful and grotesque, an emblem of ravenous Yankee capitalism and somehow the symbol of its ails. It shows, frankly, that you can’t simply buy championships because it’s inherently unfair. In the last decade the Yankees have consistently lost to teams with a fraction of their payroll. Last year, for instance, New York lost to Texas with, of course, Burnett surrendering the de facto series-losing home run to Molina in Game 4.
Indeed, once the Yankees became, in Larry Lucchino’s parlance, the Evil Empire (in 2003) the team has one title. Despite your feelings about the franchise – I’ve been a fan since 1977 – the 1990s dynasty was not the result of reckless spending but rather cultivating their farm, as all teams should do as the model of prosperity.
It’s not necessarily Burnett’s fault that he morphed into the face of the problem, but his pitching did put him in that place, a symbol of scorn, of a man who got figuratively fat on his bloated, $82 million contract.
He may or may not have barked at his manager that time in Minnesota, but it’s incidental. What Burnett offers beyond bad poor pitching is apathy; he just doesn’t seem to give a damn. That’s what rubs most of us wrong. Failure is as much a part of life as success. We know that. But we can’t accept not caring, another beguiling art A.J. has perfected.
All of his scripted platitudes after each awful start are as hollow as his arm now appears to be. Burnett looks like a little leaguer shoved onto the Yankee Stadium mound for the first time, and pitches accordingly. But we know the problem isn’t with his arm.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com