The evening had not gone well for A.J. Burnett. Five miserable innings. Six Houston Astros runs on a dozen sometimes confounding hits. The prospect of Burnett winning a 10th straight start gone.
And yet, as the veteran Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander slumped off the mound at PNC Park last July, head down in a fit of self-disgust, his ears stumbled upon something that caught him off guard.
Applause, and lots of it.
“I walk off, and I’m getting a standing ovation,” Burnett said. “I’m like, what is going on?”
Consider it Burnett’s “Welcome to Pittsburgh” moment. The one where the talented but sometimes erratic pitcher drank in the warmth of a blue-collar city and an up-and-coming team searching desperately for leadership.
New York it was not. Not by a long shot.
Burnett wears a wry smile while talking about his three seasons with the Yankees from 2009-11. He won a World Series but could never seem to find the precision that led him to 18 wins with Toronto in 2008. For the Yankees’ $82.5 million, five-year investment they received a 34-35 record, hardly horrific but certainly not what the team or Burnett expected.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody in the city did,” Burnett said. “If that’s called letting New York get to you, then maybe it did. But I just know that I went out there and tried to do too much. I tried to do more than I could do.”
When New York shipped him to Pittsburgh last February — with the Yankees picking up the lion’s share of his annual $16.5 million salary — Burnett didn’t put up a fight. He wasn’t escaping the Big Apple so much as accepting a chance to start over. Pittsburgh wasn’t simply a way station to a paycheck but an opportunity to make a real impact.
“It wasn’t, oh man, I got traded to the Pirates from New York,” he said. “It was, oh, I’ve got a new start here. I’ve got a young team that is going to be good. ... I took it as a positive. I didn’t take it as one big negative.”
Still, the move thrust him into an unfamiliar role. The guy with the facial scruff, arms and legs sleeved in tattoos and a devilish grin that belies his 36 years went from borderline bust to clubhouse leader the second he walked through the door.
It felt, well, different.
“I never considered myself as that guy [until] I came here last year,” Burnett said. “But that was the impression I got before I even got here and I didn’t have a choice in it and I accepted it and ran with it.”
All the way to a 16-10 record on a team that flirted with breaking the .500 barrier for the first time in two decades before a brutal September collapse. Burnett regained his control — his 2.9 walks per nine innings were the second-lowest of his career — while putting together the finest season by a Pittsburgh starter in 21 years.
Perhaps more important than his performance, though, may have been the swagger and sensibility he brought to a staff filled with guys trying to figure it out. He developed a close bond with right-hander James McDonald, talking about everything from fishing to fastballs to fatherhood. Burnett showed younger players how to go about things the right way, sharing lessons learned from more than a decade-plus trying to live up to the sky-high expectations he set for himself.