Keidel: Breaking Down A.J. Burnett

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.

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  • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

    Oh, A.J. Burnett… God only knows what menace would be spewing from all orifices on The Boss’ face were he still alive to witness this season. It’s not often that the fans so unanimously choose a villain that deserves the title, so one can only imagine what George would have to say. If Hideki Irabu was the fat toad… Well, either way, may both George and Irabu rest in peace.

    There isn’t much more that can be said about Burnett. How many chances do you give a guy? If you look at Joe Girardi these days, he looks like A.J. Burnett, and defending him day in and day out, has given him enough ulcers that his body is eating itself alive. We’ve gone over, in a previous column, how Girardi’s not doing the right thing when handling this headcase, but at this point in the season, nothing’s going to make a difference. If he ends up not in the playoff rotation – which you’d expect, but you never know with Joe or with his ageful wonders, Colon and Garcia – that’ll surely be the last we’ll hear of A.J. until Spring Training 2012. That’s when, Long-Jeter style, we’ll hear the non-stop lauding of the work that Burnett and Rothschild did together to turn things around, and how his stuff looks “better than it’s been since he was with Toronto” or some such garbage. Then the cycle will begin again, and his ERA will be over 10.00 during his entire second half plus June, rather than just his last six starts, and he’ll be more of a villain to Yankees fans than Buckner was to Sox fans.

    Sorry if this is rife with tangents and run-on sentences.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      Oh yeah – the point being that the Yankees will still have to eat Burnett’s contract and performance, because I can’t think of the last time the Yanks released a big signing, no matter how disastrous; they’re just too proud. Maybe if Cashman gets canned or goes elsewhere (Cubbies are lookin’), the Steinies can release Burnett and blame him on Cashman, but we all know that was Georgie Porgie’s signing from the get-go.

      • JK

        Maybe you can explain Eph’s beef with my column, Jonas. He’s contrived some static. Wasn’t I clear that the Yankees have an unfair edge by didn’t of their dollars?

  • Eph

    the more you get to the playoffs, the more chances you get to win the world series. that’s why the yankees have won the most world series and far and above the next best team.

    • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

      I don’t really see what point you’re trying to make there.

  • Eph

    Um Jason the yankees making the playoffs every year IS a result of their payroll. Whether or not they win the world series is up to chance because in short series in the playoffs, anything can happen. The fact that they can pay a guy like A.J. Burnett so much money and still be 33 games over .500 and make the playoffs IS because of their payroll. What other team can do that? except the red sox.

    • Kurt Spitzner


    • JK

      Who is disagreeing with you, Eph? When did I say the Yankees didn’t have an advantage? In fact, I said they did, and that perhaps Burnett is the resultant hex?

      • Eph

        You said that AJ Burnett proves that you can’t buy championships. The yankees bought a championship in 2009 and they were saddled with AJ Burnett. The have the chance to win a world series this year even with AJ Burnett. AJ Burnett doesn’t prove anything except the fact that the yankees can have one big money player not pan out and still have a chance to go where they wanna go.

  • Kurt Spitzner


    • Robert Richardson

      I am a die hard Yankee fan but I must agree with you Kurt

      • Kurt Spitzner

        I am a lifelong Mets fan although its very hard to be die hard under present ownership,but hold no ill wishes for the yanks but I have no pity financially for ANY team that spends a lot of money when things do not work out as planned.As they say you pays your money and takes your chances and thats just the way it goes.doesn’t mean they will not be going to the post season and as we all know thats when its how you play the game and not necessarily how much coin you spend!

      • JK

        I agree, as well, bud. I wasn’t asking for sympathy. Indeed, I said we’re spoiled and we act that way.

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