By Jason Keidel
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Judging by the joyous chorus of my Tri-State brethren, any tears gliding down the cheeks of baseball fans in the five boroughs will be from glee, not regret, over the recent departure of A.J. Burnett, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the equivalent of two tickets to Jersey Boys.
And their sentiment is quite understandable.
Whether he rests his head in the five boroughs or near the old Forbes Field, whether his check was cut in Canada or coated in pinstripes, it seems Burnett’s vocational lot in life was to torment the Yankees. And he succeeded, his Bronx career ending with a 34-35 record and a swollen 4.79 ERA.
This is a de facto demotion, with Burnett going from the perennial World Series contenders to a team that hasn’t won a playoff game – or even finished .500 – since Barry Bonds brought clean veins to the game in the early ‘90s, before he shot equine cocktails that would make Seabiscuit blush.
Burnett now takes his talent, torment, and tattoos to the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s version of the Los Angeles Clippers, a place where you see far more madness than magic, a wasteland or retirement home, a place to start a career but never end it if you have any ability.
Simply, it’s the perfect place for Burnett, who never seemed to have an identity, even when he won a World Series ring with the Yankees. Win or lose, he had the same detached demeanor, alarmingly aloof for someone whose job requires monolithic focus. Ted Williams said that hitting a baseball is the hardest job on Earth. Burnett made it seem like throwing one was doubly difficult.
Too many times we saw his head snap sideways to follow some bullet darting over his head, only to shake his head in the locker room after each poor performance, just as confused as the men questioning him.
No one ever questioned Burnett’s talent. And that blessed right arm charmed the Yankees into signing him to a lucrative deal (five years, $82.5 million), calling him a Yankee Killer. They were right, but for the wrong reasons.
Even when the Bombers were literally giving Burnett away, they couldn’t, as the enigmatic pitcher had the power to veto trades to ten teams, a contractual muscle he flexed for a few weeks. Indeed, beyond Burnett’s low deeds and high pay, he cares more about where he goes than how much he wins, rejecting a trade to the powerful Anaheim Angels – who just signed Albert Pujols – just to be closer to home.
Nothing encapsulated Burnett’s bewildering career in New York like Game 4 of the 2010 ALCS. With the Yankees down two games to one, Burnett pitched the Yanks through five innings, tiptoeing to a 3-2. In the sixth, however, he surrendered a 3-run homer to the rotund catcher Bengie Molina, the last man anyone expected hit one (a .240 hitter that season with 2 home runs), which essentially clinched the series.
After going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA in 2010, Game 4 was Burnett’s chance to gain favor with the franchise and save face with the fans. In retrospect, there was no turning back after Molina waddled around the bases in the Bronx. Burnett went 11-11 last year, with a 5.15 ERA and a team-record 25 wild pitches, each wretched performance an audition out of New York.
Everything about Burnett screams unfulfilled: promise, potential, talent, etc. Just as it’s hard to believe the Pirates were once a dominant franchise – the home of Clemente, Stargell, Parker, and Bonds – Burnett was seen as something of a snake charmer, a pitching mystic who could make a baseball dance like no one else. “Filthy” is the term used in respect to such hurlers. Now Burnett and the Pirates give the moniker a new meaning.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org
Yankees fans, are you rejoicing over the departure of Burnett? Sound off below…