Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Elegant Rage of A.J. Burnett

July 30 was special night for Pirates baseball. 

It wasn’t just because the Pirates swept a doubleheader against division rival St. Louis.

It wasn’t just that they guaranteed themselves first place in their division at the beginning of August.

What made it incredible was how the Pirates did it. In a season of highs Pittsburgh baseball hasn’t seen in a generation, pitcher A.J. Burnett’s performance in the sixth and seventh innings might supersede them all.

Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay led off the sixth inning. Facing a two-strike count, Jay swung at a pitch that, from the vantage points of the 35,000-plus in attendance — Burnett and catcher Russell Martin included — either went foul or hit him.

Home plate umpire Eric Cooper called the play a dropped third strike. It skipped behind Martin, affording Jay the opportunity to run the bases, and forcing the Pirates to complete the out.

Martin was on a different page — he thought the ball had hit Jay on the foot. Instead of retrieving it, Martin argued with Cooper — a rare lapse of reason from one of the Pirates’ smartest players — and Jay was halfway to second before Martin thought to shut up and play the live ball.

His throw to second was hasty, late, and left Jay safely in scoring position. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle emerged and argued. The umpires conferred. Hurdle argued some more.

Burnett was so angry that Martin, also visibly peeved, had to restrain him.

Replay clearly showed Jay swinging through a pitch that hit his foot. According to Major League Baseball rule 6.05 (f), Jay should have been both out and incredibly embarrassed. Instead, he stood on second base because Martin’s action was dumber.

This made A.J. Burnett incredibly mad.

Baseball people love to talk about little things in the game which are as beautiful to them as something one might see while hiking in Yellowstone: DiMaggio rounding second base so elegantly and precisely that he never had to break his stride to touch it, and on so mathematically perfect an arc that it inspired the invention of protractors.

Watching Jack Wilson play defense was like this — sheer athletic poetry which took you on a five-second vacation through every possible emotion before dropping you off safe, sound and wondering how you could have witnessed something so breathtaking.

The most beautiful thing in baseball today is the sight of A.J. Burnett seething with focused, incandescent, glorious rage.

It’s been this way since Burnett got here. In a game against the Dodgers last year, Hanley Ramirez didn't go about his business while rounding the bases after hitting a home run off Burnett in the fourth, and Burnett was visibly ticked. Ramirez hit again in the sixth. This is where a lot of pitchers, were they going to retaliate, would drill the guy. Burnett didn't do that. He struck out Ramirez on a big, sweeping curveball, then told him in no uncertain terms to "sit the fuck down."

The level of Burnett's play and competitiveness are inspiring. He's the quiet, badass kid who kicks the shit out of the playground bully.
Not in a generation have the Pirates had a player with this backbone. Plenty have talked about it — mostly terrible managers. Now, at the dawn of a new era, here is a player who won’t allow this club to be a punchline or a punching bag.

Tuesday night, Burnett was angry again. With nobody out and Jay on second, in stepped Matt Holliday. Burnett's first pitch sailed in right past Holliday's knees — a low strike if Cooper felt like calling it.

The instant he didn't, Burnett raised his arms and shouted toward home. Whatever he said got under Cooper's skin. Cooper darted out from behind the plate, pulled off his mask and began pointing and yelling at Burnett.

Baseball’s umpires are notoriously drunk with power. The league allows them to immediately eject anyone for arguing balls and strikes, and Cooper could have tossed Burnett from the game without a second thought.

Why didn’t he?

Martin put himself between Burnett and the umpire, and Hurdle came back out of the dugout. When third-base umpire Jeff Kellogg approached the mound, Burnett waved him off.

"Don't come near me," was announcer Greg Brown's read of Burnett's lips. The pitcher turned his back and walked away.

It was at this moment that Cooper lost control of the game. By not ejecting Burnett when practically dared to, Cooper handed him power in a bloodless coup. He gave Burnett a blank canvas and said, “paint this with your rage.”

Burnett is better than anyone else at not giving a fuck, and in being that way, he gives more of a fuck than anyone has ever given a fuck.

Though the second pitch to Holliday was low and outside, the jeers rained on Cooper.

It didn’t matter. When A.J. Burnett is angry, nothing matters. When A.J. Burnett is angry, he morphs into an immortal werewolf from space and you are going to die.

He sent Holliday down swinging. He dispatched Carlos Beltran on a lazy fly to left. Matt Adams hit a groundball at the mound, which Burnett knocked down by throwing his glove behind his back. He picked it up and threw it to first for the inning-ending out.

Coming out for the seventh, Burnett looked no less bloodthirsty.
He got Tony Cruz to fly to center. He emasculated Daniel Descalso with a curveball that left the Cardinals’ third baseman indecisive, handcuffed and barking at Cooper.
On Hurdle’s order, Burnett obliquely walked Pete Kozma on five fastballs, forcing Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to pull starting pitcher Lance Lynn in favor of pinch hitter Allen Craig, one of the league’s finer hitters.
After two fastballs missed the zone, Craig took the third for a called strike on the outer half, right where Martin asked for it. He fouled off the fourth, a letters-high strike, to even the count. Burnett wasted no time in going back to the curveball. Craig swung weakly through as it fell 10 inches away from him.
Burnett spun around and pumped his fist. As he stepped off the mound, Brown didn’t dare read his lips aloud for fear of incurring FCC punishment.
“YEAH!” he shouted. “FUCK YEAH!”
He walked off the field to a standing ovation, his head lowered and an angry scowl on his face, lest anyone interpret the gesture as indicative of joy.

This piece was originally published in the August 7th edition of The Union Hall Times, official alt-weekly of Bar Marco

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