If you ask Pirate fans when the club’s string of 20 consecutive seasons started to show a sign of stopping, there could be a variety of answers.
Some would say the end was nigh when Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen were drafted. Others may point to the Neal Huntington or Clint Hurdle hirings.
But tonight, there is only one “right” answer, and that was the day A.J. Burnett became a Pirate
He brought an attitude and a veteran leadership to a club that was in desperate need of one. His “STFD” mantra had attitude with it, and the city, known for loving hard-bitten athletes who aren’t afraid to work hard, was quick to accept him in his first tenure and forgive him for leaving for his second. With Batman flags flying from the stands on a frigid Saturday night, Burnett’s final curtain call was a near perfect conclusion to his time time in Pittsburgh.
He came at the right time, as a young 2011 team was able to compete for most of the season with its young hitters, but the rotation left something to be desired.
“We needed the edge off the mound more than anything,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s where he made the biggest difference.”
With that edge, Hurdle was also given something that he did not have in his first year with the club or his tenure in Colorado: a bona-fide ace.
“He’s made me a better manager,” Hurdle said. “It’s the first time I’ve had an ace in the rotation, and it’s grown from there with the addition of Liriano and the addition of Cole.”
Cole’s evolution from rookie to ace is just one of the success stories the Pirates have had with young starters while Burnett was on the club, with the most obvious examples being Jeff Locke. Nobody has taken a shining to Burnett quite like Locke did, and while he has been shaky through this season, his 2013 had a fantastic start, resulting him being an All-Star. He has strived to be the Robin to Burnett’s Batman (going as far as to don the outfit of the Boy Wonder next to the predictably dressed Dark Knight when the club had a superhero costume photo-op in Los Angeles), and at times, succeeded.
There is a definite bond between the two, and it didn’t take Locke long to realize that he may have found a mentor.
“I told him from the first week I ever met him that ‘I never really met anyone like you before. You’re different,’” Locke said. When asked how he was different, Locke responded: “‘I can’t give you an answer why, but you’re just different than anybody I’ve been around before.’”
Burnett’s influence also was instrumental in introducing a former battery mate that he had in New York: Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli insisted that this isn’t the last time the righty will toe the rubber (suggesting a playoff appearance), but he was thankful for everything that he had done for him this season.
“When I came here, he talked to the guys. Only positive things,” Cervelli said. “He was the guy who opened the door for me.”
And in Pittsburgh, Burnett was able to become Batman. Finally free from the Yankees and a culture that Locke suspects held him back, Burnett bounced back from a 5.15 ERA to a 3.51 in his first year in Pittsburgh, and when he returned this year, he went from the league leader in losses to an All-Star. This was, has been, and probably will always be remembered as the perfect environment for him to win.
So yes, Burnett’s 240th regular season start is his last one. While his three year tenure with Pittsburgh may look like a blip on his 17 year career radar, he did more to turn around a dormant franchise than Pirate fans could have hoped.
“I guess I came at the right time,” Burnett said. “I’m glad I’m a part of it.”