Burnett emotional, appreciative after ovation
Pirates veteran recognizes fans, teammates, opponents in final regular-season start
PITTSBURGH -- A.J. Burnett walked off a regular-season mound Saturday night for the final time, with two taps to his chest by his manager and the appreciative roars of 34,180 fans in his ears.
Burnett was removed from his 430th and final career start with two outs in the seventh inning at PNC Park, with the Reds already leading by the final score of 3-1 over him and the Pirates. After allowing two runs in the first inning, Burnett settled in to yield three runs overall on five hits, while walking four and striking out nine.
"Obviously, winning the game is the most important thing, and that's where I was at," said Burnett, his eyes welling with moisture. "They changed that instantly the way they reacted. You could ask me a million times what it was like, and I couldn't describe it."
The cheers began to build as soon as manager Clint Hurdle made his slow way out of the Pirates' third-base dugout, bringing with him not the usual hook but a virtual garland for Burnett. Before accepting the game ball from the pitcher, Hurdle tapped twice on his heart.
"What was said there is between him and I," Hurdle said, but with a glint that betrayed that it was a special moment between the men.
As Burnett, who had announced in Spring Training that he would be retiring at the end of his 17th season, started down the slope of the mound, the fans' applause began to build and escorted him into the dugout.
After a few seconds, he leaped back onto the field to wave back at the fans -- and even motioned toward the dugout of the Reds, on this night representing all of the MLB competition that had driven him to compete.
The first gesture in this episode of mutual respect had come from the Reds' Joey Votto, who tipped his cap toward Burnett upon stepping into the batter's box for his first inning at bat.
"The highlight of my day was competing against A.J. Burnett," Votto said. "Heck yeah, he deserves it. What a fantastic career."
In his last regular-season act, Burnett did take one final step among the game's immortals: His fourth strikeout of the night was the 2,508th of his career, moving him past Christy Mathewson for 31st place on the all-time list.
When acknowledgment of that flashed on the scoreboard, the fans began their night-long celebration of Burnett, a man who came into their midst relatively late in his career but made everyone feel as though he had always been here.
Burnett isn't Pittsburgh's own, but he was certainly adopted, and quickly, by a city that saw its reflection in the pitcher's work ethic, in his edge, even in his occasional emotional outbursts.
"I guess I had 'em tricked," Burnett said of the city's love affair with him, before turning serious. "I'm leaving it all out there, being the same whether I'm getting my butt handed to me or the other way around, and they accepted that. From the get-go, before I even threw a pitch. I've had great numbers in my career, played in great cities -- but nothing like this. It's been amazing."
"He was someone they could identify with. It was a good fit both ways," Hurdle said.
Three ways, actually: Poised to step out of the darkness when Burnett was acquired via trade from the Yankees in February 2012, the Bucs needed someone to show the way. Burnett was the lantern.
"We needed somebody with an edge on the mound to be the front of the rotation. We asked him to be an ace -- the first time I ever had one [as a 10th-year manager]," Hurdle recalled. "Watching him prepare, work ... it rubbed off on everybody."
"I came at the right time, I guess," Burnett said. "You had young guys here, and look where they are now. This run ... I'm glad to be a part of it."