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Pirates hope A.J. Burnett can still draw blood when needed

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Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
 

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Almost a decade ago, when they were wild, young Florida Marlins teammates, A.J. Burnett and Miguel Cabrera would celebrate victories with a special handshake. It ended with them shouting, "Sangre!" which is Spanish for blood.

"He liked it so much," Burnett recalled a few days ago before a workout at the Pirates' spring training complex. "He was like, 'Yeah, we play for blood! We want to win real bad!' and it went from there. The hitter's trying to take from me, and I'm trying to take from him. It's my game. You've got to give it everything you've got. You've almost got to be bloodthirsty."

During the 2001 season, a few weeks after he no-hit the San Diego Padres, a magazine writer asked Burnett to describe himself. The corners of Burnett's mouth curled up, and he said, "Bloodthirsty -- at least, I pitch that way sometimes."

Now, Burnett is 35 years old. He still throws heat, even with a surgically reconstructed elbow. The Pirates are his fourth team in eight years. Fans in baseball's mecca embraced him, then reviled him. He has two seasons left on an $82.5 million contract. And he knows that when he retires some day not too far off, he will gain the wonderful luxury of being with his wife and two sons every day.

Is Burnett still bloodthirsty?

"That was a long time ago," Burnett said, shifting in his seat. "I have mellowed."

It's true.

But on the mound, Allan James Burnett can still draw blood when needed. That's what the Pirates were counting on a week ago when they swapped two minor leaguers to the New York Yankees for Burnett and $13 million of his salary.

'You respect that in a teammate'

It is still five weeks until Opening Day, when Burnett will take the ball and stare down the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park. Until then, Burnett is busy revving up his right arm and blending in with his new teammates.

Many of them, such as 24-year-old left-hander Jeff Locke, know Burnett only as a face they've seen on "SportsCenter." In the clubhouse the other day, Locke wondered how to approach the veteran -- intimidated by Burnett's celebrity status, by his seven postseason starts, and, yes, by Burnett's pierced nipples (one of which he did himself) and head-to-toe tattoos.

When Locke gathered his courage and introduced himself, Burnett smiled, and they chatted for several minutes.

"He's a fantastic person," Locke said. "It's a good fit for all the young guys to see someone like that. He's a presence in the clubhouse. It will be a huge asset."

Locke paused and laughed.

"I've never met someone where my initial perception was off by so much," Locke said.

Fans in New York can say that, too, in a different way. When Burnett joined the Yankees, folks expected a larger-than-life hero. What they got was a mixed bag.

In 2009, Burnett won 13 regular-season games and helped the Yankees claim their 27th World Series title. But over the next two years, his control grew erratic and his ERA began to soar.

By the end of last season, the clamor among Yankees faithful for the team to dump Burnett had grown to a roar. Even after he tossed a gem in Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series, handcuffing the Detroit Tigers, it was clear Burnett's time in New York was over.

The trade with Pittsburgh pleased Yankees fans and gave the team spare cash to sign slugger Raul Ibanez. But not everyone in the clubhouse was eager to see Burnett go.

"A.J. pitched in some big games for us, and he was successful in those games," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "Regardless of whether he had ups or downs, he always took the ball for us. He didn't shy away from anything, and you respect that in a teammate."

'Throw the you-know-what out of it'

Even as a kid, Burnett found amazing ways to rise to a challenge. His father wouldn't let Burnett throw a breaking ball until he was 15, but his fastball was still plenty good in Little League. One day, when Burnett was just messing around on a mound, his grandfather walked over to show him something different.

"He said, 'Throw it like this, and throw the you-know-what out of it,' " Burnett said. "I did, and it went 20 feet (over the plate). He got so mad, 'Do it again!' I did."

Eventually, Burnett learned to master that curveball. To this day, he throws the same pitch -- but don't call it his grandfather's curve.

"It's mine now," Burnett said, grinning.

Coaches at Central Arkansas Christian, a small Class A high school, liked Burnett's live arm but dreaded his too-frequent throws to the backstop. In Burnett's senior year, CAC played Russellville, a Class AAAA school that was ranked No. 3 in the state. When Chris Simmons, CAC's ace pitcher and Burnett's best friend, came up with a sore shoulder, Burnett was the only one rested enough to pitch.

"He filled in for me and, man, he mowed them down," Simmons said. "It was a big, big game for us, and he stepped up. He was dominating. There were scouts there, so it kind of took off for him."

A New York Mets scout was at the game to evaluate another player but wound up being captivated by Burnett. A few weeks later, the Mets drafted Burnett in the eighth round.

Over 13 seasons in the majors, Burnett has collected 121 victories, two World Series rings and the respect of his peers. He got into trouble with the Marlins for openly criticizing management. He was suspended by the commissioner's office in 2009 for throwing a high-and-tight pitch to Nelson Cruz during a game in which Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira was plunked twice.

"I leave it all out there. That's how I've always played," Burnett said. "If I don't like something, I'm not going to sugar-coat it. If I do like something, everybody's going to know it. It's my plate. It's my mound. It's my game. You've got to do what you have to do to win."

Unlike most pitchers, Burnett loves to hit and names his bats after his favorite hard rock bands. He wishes he could remember which piece of lumber -- Korn, Marilyn Manson, Kid Rock, Kurt Cobain or Rob Zombie -- he used to smack his third career homer in 2005 off new teammate Kevin Correia.

'We're country guys'

An ultra-competitive nature drives Burnett on and off the field. It shows up even when he and Simmons get together to play what Simmons said are "unbelievably intense" games of pingpong.

Among Burnett's numerous tattoos are several that are tied to his family, including a Godzilla on his right leg that is his older son's favorite. His wife's initials are stenciled on his back, and they both have the phrase "Fortius Quo Fidelius," which is Latin for "Strength through loyalty," inked on their bodies.

Yet don't be fooled by Burnett's sometimes brash exterior.

"I've never considered him a hell-raiser," said Simmons, who still lives near where they grew up outside of Little Rock, Ark. "Maybe that reputation comes from all the tattoos, the nipple rings and all that stuff. We're country guys. We like to go fishing, ride four-wheelers and things like that."

Burnett's right arm has earned him a comfortable life, with a tricked-out pickup, a snazzy speedboat and a chunk of land in suburban Maryland where he makes his home.

"My kids are asking me, 'When are you going to be home every day• When are we going to have summers with Daddy?' I tell them, 'Soon, soon. Don't worry,' " Burnett said.

That is why Burnett vetoed a possible trade to the Los Angeles Angels -- who have glamor, glitz, Albert Pujols and tons of run support -- and instead approved the deal with the Pirates. Playing in Pittsburgh, Burnett knows his family is just a four-hour drive away, not on the other side of the country.

"It's hard to realize it when you're young," Burnett said, "but once you get older and you have a family, you realize you're playing the game for them. The A.J. Burnett on a baseball field is what I am, not who I am. It's what I do but not who I am as a person.

"Getting here (with the Pirates) and working with these young guys is making me feel young again. I'm cool with that. I like to be the leader of the staff. The final chapter is to get back to where I used to be a couple years ago, and that's being a free spirit who likes to play the game and have fun."

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