By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist
ALMOST FROM Day One in a Pirates uniform, A.J. Burnett became a fan darling.
After a couple of decades of virtually no leadership, here came the big right hander, from the New York Yankees, no less. The fact that he was 14-3 on August 5, 2012 certainly helped. Because he and James McDonald were joined at the hip, Burnett seemed to get credit for guiding enigmatic James McDonald to a 10-3 record by mid-July.
Even though McDonald stumbled to a 2-5 record after that point and Burnett only went 2-7 in his last nine decisions, Burnett remained the tattooed golden boy who would lead the 2013 Pirates to the land of victory.
While the Pirates will end up with 90-plus wins, Burnett opened 3-6 and has struggled uphill all summer toward even grasping a .500 record, falling to 8-11 after Monday’s tough loss.
Through it all, the one positive has been his perceived leadership for a team that had been devoid in the past of anyone grabbing the team and almost willing it to be better.
Burnett’s visible emotions played positively with the fans and, presumably, his teammates.
But in last Wednesday’s game in Texas, Burnett displayed a lack of both professionalism and leadership when he gestured disgust at a teammate. Burnett coaxed a ground ball to where shortstop Clint Barmes normally would have been positioned. But manager Clint Hurdle had shifted the shortstop closer to second base, and the ball sneaked through the infield because Barmes was positioned closer to second base than he normally would be. Burnett didn’t like this and proceeded to yell at Barmes, recognized as one of the game’s best defensive shortstops.
The hit allowed the Rangers to load the bases, and both runners scored on Ian Kinsler’s single, cutting the Pirates 4-0 lead in half.
The fact is that everyone — including Burnett — knows the Pirates, like many 2013 teams, are in love with “The Shift” and Barmes was playing where his coaches had told him to play.
So if Burnett had a problem with that, his remarks should have been directed at Hurdle — and only in the dugout or locker room.
Even if he thought Barmes was the offender, making a scene for every tv camera to see was bush league.
Besides, Burnett had WALKED both batters to open the sixth!
While Burnett and the Pirates won 7-5, one has to wonder about the effect on “team chemistry” everyone seems to worry about.
It wasn’t the first time Burnett behaved badly on the field.
In a late July game which the Bucs lost 9-7 in Washington, after working out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning, Burnett walked off the mound, motioning toward the Pirates’ bullpen to sit down, after Hurdle had gotten up reinforcements in case they were needed.
Hurdle met Burnett at the top of the dugout and followed the pitcher the length of the dugout, re-identifying the roles of who does what on this team.
Following the game, both downplayed the encounter, as Barmes and Burnett did last week.
Certainly no one is going to blame Burnett’s blowup as the reason if the Pirates lose the division.
I understand that like any workplace, not everyone gets along, even in situations where they don’t spend every day for eight months together side by side, as ballplayers do.
Nor do I wish to return to days of gutless Paul Maholm or cardboard cutout John Russell.
And I’m old enough to remember how “the Fightin’ A’s” won three consecutive World Series despite lawsuits, fisticuffs, and worse in 1972-1974.
It’s just that Burnett’s public behavior was wrong and unprofessional, while—thankfully—rare.
We expect more from a leader.
TWO RUNS, ONE HIT: Trailing the lowly Seattle Mariners 1-0 in the 8th inning last Friday, St. Louis scored the tying run on a two-base error, stolen base, and ground out. They won the game in the 10th on a single, two walks, and a passed ball. Sigh!
Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for the Allied News.