10/4/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Burnett's third inning a flashback to Yankees days
By Will Leitch / Special to MLB.com
There are no New York teams in the playoffs this year. It's a relief, right? Nothing against the fans of the Yankees and the Mets, but when it comes to national coverage come October, well, those two franchises have a habit of sucking all the air out of the room. Baseball reporters and analysts tend to hate it when you yell "East Coast bias!" at them, partly because they're tired of it and mostly because they know you're right. They don't do it to be mean or dismissive. New York City is where media people live. It's what they know.
So with the Yankees and Mets out detoxifying until spring, the focus of the Tweet-stained wretches tends to become, inevitably, former Yankees and Mets. Specifically, players who left the city's teams in disgrace, or perceived disgrace, or who just decided they no longer cared to have to see a bad pun of their names splashed across a newspaper every time they went 0-for-4. The escapees, basically.
And few got it worse in New York than A.J. Burnett. Burnett was a strange case during his time with the Yankees. He was likable in just about every way you want a player to be, yet still Yankees fans and the media couldn't stand him. But Burnett wasn't horrible as a Yankee. He won 34 games in three years, was the team's best pitcher in their 2011 American League Division Series loss to the Tigers and even notched a win in a 2009 World Series game against the Phillies -- over Pedro Martinez, no less.
Burnett never missed a start, never complained about his manager, never punched a guy in a bar, never dated Madonna. And his teammates adored him. He's the one who started that whole pie-in-the-face craze that briefly throttled Yankee Stadium in '09. Burnett is not typically the type of player you hate.
But bring up his name to a Yankees fan or scribe, and mockery will quickly ensue. This is for two reasons. One: his contract. Signing a contract like the one he did -- five years and $82.5 million -- is an excellent way to draw unwanted negative attention to yourself. (In a pinch, you can always hide by burying yourself under a pile of $100 bills.) But the primary reason Burnett is a figure of ridicule in New York is that, every once in a while, for seemingly no reason, his brain would fall out of his skull, right out there in front of everyone, and he would forget he ever knew how to pitch.
Burnett's implosion innings became legendary in New York, in large part because they were impossible to predict. Burnett would be cruising along, no problem, looking to all the world like the big-money pitcher the Yankees paid him to be. And then he would slowly disintegrate.
It would begin with a leadoff walk, or maybe an error, or an infield single -- something small, seemingly benign. Then, it crumbled. Eventually, he would lose patience, groove a fastball and BOOM, home run, six-run inning, game over. He would be in total control, and then just like that, it would fall apart. This didn't happen every game Burnett pitched, but when it did, you could hear the whispers echo throughout the Bronx: "He's chokin'." "He ain't a Yankee."
When the Yankees finally tired of Burnett and essentially paid him to peddle his wares in Pittsburgh, the assumption among Yankees fans was that he'd be out of baseball in two years, if that. Well, Burnett's been terrific, going 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's also a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
When the Pirates picked him to start Game 1 of their long-awaited National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, no one outside of New York laughed. He was the logical choice. Those days were long behind him. So ... of course he threw two excellent innings and burst into flames in the third. Next thing you know: 7-0 Cardinals, curtains for Burnett and a 1-0 Cardinals lead in the series.
Why does this happen to Burnett? Does he just not like people watching? After all, he was terrific in Toronto and Florida, too. Baseball's advanced analysts are always arguing that matters like "heart" and "fortitude" mean little, and in the long run, they're probably right. But it also looks like every time there are multiple cameras on Burnett, he can hold it together for a short period of time ... and then it all goes away.
Burnett was safe in Toronto. He was safe in Florida. And most of the time, he has been safe in Pittsburgh. But not on Thursday. They're televising these games to the whole country. You can hear the cackles from the Bronx from here. Leave it to Burnett to give Yankees folks something to do in October. They're otherwise unoccupied, after all.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow
Neither of the two NLDS games on Thursday were particularly compelling -- a couple of blowouts behind the two best pitchers in the National League in Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright -- which was probably for the best. You will need the rest: This is October, after all.
This is how you're going to feel the rest of this month, after going through all these games. Think about, say, Oct. 12. Your throat is arid and scarred, your knees are buckled and weak, your eyelids are dipping near your nostrils. These games, as wonderful as they are, take their pounds of flesh.
That starts Friday, with a four-playoff game special, starting at 1 p.m. ET and ending roughly 12 hours later, probably more. If the NLDS has no sweeps, we'll do this again on Monday.
This is probably as close as baseball gets to the NCAA Tournament, and it boggles the brain the more you ponder it. We spend all season rising and falling with our teams, investing a little of ourselves in every game. And those are simply one of 162. These playoff games are worth, using bar-napkin math, around 35 regular-season games. And Friday there are four. I actually started to sweat just typing that.
It kicks off in St. Louis (1 p.m. ET, MLB Network), with the Cardinals attempting to take a 2-0 lead back to that lunatic soccer atmosphere at PNC Park. Two hours after first pitch, at 3 p.m. (TBS), the Red Sox-Rays series starts at Fenway Park. That being a game involving two AL East teams and all, it'll probably be in, oh, the fourth inning by the time Game 2 of the Braves-Dodgers series begins at 6 p.m. (TBS). The Tigers and A's take it home at O.co Coliseum at 9:30 p.m. (TBS).
If you were able to bend the laws of space and time and thus able to attend all four games -- this requires the ability to pause live action happening several states away until you are able to instantaneously transport yourself to the stadium, probably using that machine from "The Fly" -- you would travel a total 4,424 miles (that last kick from Atlanta to Oakland is a killer.)
It is difficult to come up with a better use for such a transporting, time-stopping machine. In lieu of such a device, it is recommended you start practicing your fake cough for your boss. You will need it. We have three more weeks of this, at least. You should have slept in September.
By the way, I feel like I should introduce myself. I'm Will Leitch, and I'll be writing a column every weekday morning for MLB.com during the playoffs. I'm a senior writer at Sports On Earth, which, as a daily reader of the MLB.com site, you've probably seen roaming around the homepage from time to time. I write a daily column and run a daily podcast there. Here, though, we'll be focusing solely on October baseball. Any time you want to chat, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me @williamfleitch on Twitter. This is the best month of the year. Let's have some fun with this together.
Will Leitch is a contributor to MLB.com. His postseason columns will run every weekday throughout October. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.