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Burnett back in his comfort zone with Bucs

BRADENTON, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett never got an MBA at MIT. But he can still count. So he doesn't need CNBC's Jim Cramer to tell him that $12.75 million is a lot of money.

But Burnett left it on the table anyway in November when he told the Philadelphia Phillies: "No thanks."

Not to mention: "Adios."

So instead of picking up a $12.75 million player option to return to Philadelphia after one unhappy season, he took a mere $8.5 million deal a few days later to head back to the team he'd bailed on to go to Philly, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

OK, let's see now. We're pretty sure $8.5 million is still a lot less than $12.75 million, right?

"I know," Burnett said Thursday after his second start of the spring for the Pirates. "But you've got to be happy, man. A lot of guys don't get the chance to go out on their own terms. And I'm very blessed that I've been able to do that. So I've got no regrets."

If he had a mulligan, he never would have left Pittsburgh in the first place. He knows that now. But when he had a chance a year ago to collect $15 million, pitch closer to home and (he thought) contend in Philadelphia, it seemed like a fine idea at the time.

But he then embarked on a long, painful season in Philly that turned into a last-place finish for his team, and a trifecta he never bargained for on his personal stat sheet -- the most losses (18), walks (96) and earned runs (109) in the National League.

And when it was over, he said, he knew life in Philadelphia "was not my cup of tea. That's the best way I can put it."

"I keep in touch with the guys over there still," Burnett said diplomatically. "Great guys. I enjoyed it. If I look at the year I had, if you look at everything, I try to take the positives from it."

But all of that aside, it tells you all you need to know about how he felt about his past two employers when on the very first day of free agency, he picked up the phone -- no agent intervention necessary -- and called Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.

"He said he wanted to finish his career by winning a ring in Pittsburgh, and did we have interest, and if we did, let's make it happen," Huntington said. "So I followed up with his agent. But it was one of the more odd negotiations I've ever been involved with, because he had already left money on the table in Philadelphia. And obviously, every dollar we allocate to one spot takes away money we can use on other spots. ... So it was just a matter of not offending him in the negotiations. But it was an odd negotiation, because there wasn't another team you were competing with."

That, however, was the point. At the time he grabbed that phone to call his old GM, Burnett had already made $135.77 million playing baseball. So it was no longer a time to count dollars. It was a time to count blessings.

He'd spent two of the happiest years of his career in Pittsburgh in 2012 and '13. He'd made an impact on the mound and an impact off the field. And now, at 38, he's out to write a happy ending to one of his favorite baseball stories. But his manager says that all the tales of how he has reconnected with many of the young pitchers he had helped back then have missed something important.

"I think the neat thing to watch is how connected he felt coming back," Clint Hurdle said.

But just as important as those connections is that Burnett is healthy again after having surgery in October to correct a hernia condition he pitched through for virtually the entire season in Philadelphia.

He has deflected questions all spring about how much that hernia impacted his delivery and his results. He did that again Thursday. But when he was asked what he is able to do now physically that he couldn't do last season, he couldn't suppress a tell-all smile.

"Oh," he said, after swirling that around in his head for a moment. "Pretty much everything."

Virtually all of the conditioning techniques he has used for years, he was physically unable to employ last year. But now that his hernia is repaired and healed, "I'm back where I need to be," he said.

Given what he went through, it's amazing to consider that only six pitchers in the National League pitched more innings than he did last season (213.2). But once the doctors told him that pitching wouldn't make his injury worse, his thinking was: "I signed a contract. I'm going to pitch -- unless I can't throw a baseball."

"I had good games with it, and I had bad games with it," he said. "It never hindered me from pitching. It was just always in your head. So now having that cleared up is big."

One thing that came of his physical issues last year, he says, is that it forced him to rediscover his changeup, a pitch he'd thrown very little in his previous stint in Pittsburgh but threw quite a bit Thursday.

"I've always been stubborn about that pitch -- for 16 years," Burnett said. "Hopefully, I'll get over it before I retire."

But more important, he wasn't stubborn enough to grab for the most money he could, at a juncture in his career when fitting in with the right team at the right time was what really mattered. And his new/old team, the Pirates, is grateful for everything he has brought back with him, on and off the field.

"I don't know if we missed it," Hurdle said. "We like having more of it."