What the hell. That's what A.J. Burnett was thinking on May 12, the biggest night of his career, when he no-hit the Padres while giving up nine walks ( ... and a wild pitch ... and a hit batsman) and throwing 121 fastballs. Marlins catcher Charles Johnson kept putting down one finger and Burnett kept nodding. "What the hell," he thought, as he cranked out another heater.
Maybe you'd think that way too if you'd had six years like Burnett has had -- if you'd had no major league hopes until you were a high school senior and your best friend got hurt and you got called in from third to pitch against the third-best team in your state, if you saw your teammates wince and look away, but you just thought, "What the hell," and threw it. Maybe you'd think that way too if you had suffered the injuries Burnett has suffered -- if you broke your foot when you fell into a gutter while bowling, or if your breakout season nearly ended when you broke the same bone in the other foot on a treadmill, or if you burned your pitching hand ironing your jeans and then threw the game of your life with that same blistered hand. Maybe you'd think that way too if everything good in your life happened without any prior thought at all.
Maybe you think baseball is boring. Pro Player Stadium sure is, and the Marlins are, well, not terribly exciting. But their newest star is completely, deliberately, unabashedly nuts. A.J. Burnett is a flame-throwing freak show who has no plan for the next pitch or the next day. Craziness is all over him -- nipple rings, tattoos, leather pants, baseball bats named after Marilyn Manson and Korn and a T-shirt that reads: "Bad is back and it's here to stay." And everything you see -- from the body art to his newborn son to that sick curveball -- came about because he said, "What the hell." Now all he needs is the one thing he's always resisted: control.
Allan James Burnett never fit in. The younger of two boys, he grew up in a Catholic family in North Little Rock, Ark., but ended up at a Church of Christ high school when the baseball program at Catholic High -- where his brother went -- folded. At Central Arkansas Christian, A.J. yawned as teachers told him never to drink or dance or dip lest he go straight to hell. But he was a Catholic. He was going straight to hell anyway. Maybe that's how A.J. first got to thinking, "What the hell." Says schoolmate John Dugger: "No matter what trouble he got into, his attitude was, 'Whatever.'"
Same way on the diamond. Burnett had no major league plans. He didn't even have pitching plans; he was a third baseman. "I just played because it was fun," he says. Coaches gave Burnett a few innings as a junior because he could throw hard, but more of his pitches ended up at the backstop than in the strike zone. "He was so wild," says catcher Ted Pinney. "His ball would just run all over the place."
In 1995, though, late in his senior year, Central Arkansas Christian traveled to Russellville to play the third-ranked team in the state. Team ace Chris Simmons came down with a sore shoulder. Only Burnett was rested. So here was a third baseman with little experience and no control leading a Single-A school up against a loaded 4-A club with major league scouts watching. "We were thinking," says Simmons, "just this once, A.J., throw strikes."
He did. His two-seamer ran up and in to righties. His four-seamer veered in on lefties. His nasty curveball -- which he learned from his grandfather and still uses -- waited until the last second to break. Burnett gave up only one run in seven innings. He earned a start -- only his fourth ever -- in the state semis. A Mets scout named Larry Chase showed up to check out another pitcher, and stayed around to watch the late game. Chase saw Burnett throw three pitches and said, "I can't believe this!" The Mets drafted Burnett that summer.
But when Burnett became a pro, "What the hell" morphed into "Oh s--." His control problems worsened. In his first two years in the minors he had nearly as many walks as K's and threw 23 wild pitches. Once he called Simmons after a game and his buddy's mom answered. Burnett told her how many batters he struck out. Ma Simmons replied, "That's great, Allan. How many did you hit?"
Burnett couldn't control his temper, either. He couldn't settle down after he made a mistake and screamed at players who made errors. Burnett had heat, but as much came from his mouth as from his right hand. Someone had to calm him.
In the summer of 1997, Burnett met a man who will always be remembered for a wild pitch and a teammate's error. Bob Stanley was on the mound when Bill Buckner booted that ball in October 1986 and cost Boston its best chance at a World Series title in 68 years. More than a decade later, Stanley got a job as a rookie league pitching coach with, of all teams, the Pittsfield Mets. When Stanley called the former pitching coach to get his bearings, he learned of one raw hurler who had potential but no control over his pitches or his petulance. "Good luck," he was warned.
Right away, Stanley saw Burnett throw fastballs and fits. After one walk-filled inning, Burnett clomped into the dugout and plunged his pitching hand into the cement roof over and over until his knuckles bled. Burnett told the trainer he couldn't go out for the next inning. Stanley walked up to the pitcher and yelled, "I don't give a s--." Burnett sheepishly returned to the mound without a single stitch. Blood dripped from his hand and splattered his jersey when he wound up to throw. He struck out the side. The prospect strutted to the dugout. Stanley was waiting. "You're done," he said. When Burnett asked what he was talking about, Stanley leaned in again: "You're done when I say so."
Stanley became the first nonfamily authority figure A.J. would listen to. "That's when I broke through," Burnett says. Pittsfield advanced to the New York-Penn League championship game that fall, and Stanley threw him out there. "This game will either make him or break him," Stanley told the other coaches. Burnett pitched a beauty, striking out four and giving up two runs and three hits in 6 1/3 innings. In the next few months, his career -- and his life -- changed completely.
A.J. calls 1998 "the stupid year." He got sent to the Marlins in the Al Leiter deal, and at Class-A Kane County he went 10-4 with a 1.97 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 119 innings. "What the hell" was back. "That's when I got my attitude," he says. He riffed on his guitar, learned everything from Manson to Morrison. On a whim, Burnett iced his chest in his room one day and stuck a sterilized needle into his left nipple. (He got the other one pierced in a shop.) He dyed his hair blond, then jet black, then blond again. Then there were the tattoos: himself pitching on his left ankle; a gothic design he came up with for his left arm; his initials on his right arm; and, last year, another set of initials between his shoulder blades -- belonging to a girl named Karen he started talking to in a restaurant just before that breakout season. The morning after he met Karen, Burnett woke up and decided he would marry her. Last fall, he did. By March, the newlyweds had a baby boy -- Allan James Burnett Jr. "It wasn't planned," says Burnett.
Now the 24-year-old with the rings and the tatts and the newborn is one of the Marlins' leaders. Catcher Mike Redmond calls him "American Bad Ass," after the Kid Rock song. Outfielder Preston Wilson says, "He never disrespects anyone." Asked to describe himself, Burnett says, "Bloodthirsty -- at least I pitch that way sometimes." Through July 5, he had allowed one earned run or fewer in six of 11 starts. (He'd also given up 33 walks, but 14 came in just two games.)
Burnett's strength is still his major weakness -- mid-90s heat. "The thing that sets him apart," says Marlins scout Rob Leary, "is the life on his fastball. But he has to work on command and consistency." Burnett threw nine straight balls in the eighth inning of his no-hitter, and his fastball dropped to the mid-80s. He was close to being pulled, no-hitter be damned. He stepped off the mound. "Slow down," he told himself -- and didn't throw another pitch out of the strike zone that night.
The Friday after his no-hitter, Burnett went to a Fort Lauderdale mall with his agent, his wife and son, his parents and his brother Pat, who were all in for the weekend. A.J. got his hair cut and gabbed about which Marilyn Manson song he wanted playing when he walked onto the field. Pat leaned over to his mom. "He's about to pitch against Colorado," he said, "and it's the last thing on his mind."
Burnett left the mall at 4 p.m., changed into a new pair of shorts in the parking lot, and climbed into his blue Jeep -- seven-inch lift, 35-inch tires with black rims, no doors, no top. He put on his Ray-Bans and sang Pearl Jam all the way down I-95. Todd Helton and Larry Walker were waiting at Pro Player Stadium. The whole family had come from Arkansas for his first home start of the year.
A.J. arrived late.
What the hell.
This article appears in the July 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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