Commentary

Only A.J. can make A.J. OK ... OK?

Rothschild, Girardi, Cashman can help, but Burnett bears ultimate responsibility

Updated: March 3, 2011, 8:28 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- On that indelible day Alex Rodriguez confessed under a circus tent to his steroid use, his general manager, Brian Cashman, talked of piecing together the shattered Humpty Dumpty of a slugger and elevating him back to the top of his wall.

Sports executives are in the business of restoring damaged assets, so Cashman was only doing his job. But in the end, the only people who can save high-priced athletes consumed by professional or personal demons are those high-priced athletes themselves.

A.J. Burnett needs to embrace this truth. He isn't recovering from any scandal that took a Louisville Slugger to his good name; he's recovering only from a wretched 10-15 season and a home run ball that cost his New York Yankees a chance to repeat as World Series champs.

So his journey back from a disaster of his own design should be less perilous than A-Rod's. Burnett took his first innocent baby steps Wednesday in a two-inning spring training start, one that was more promising than the pair of line drives delivered by Captain Jeter's bat.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireA.J. Burnett threw 21 pitches on Wednesday, 15 of them for strikes.

Burnett threw 21 pitches at the Houston Astros, 15 for strikes. He allowed two hits, recorded his first strikeout of the spring on a big, nasty curve, and pronounced himself liberated from a season he wouldn't wish on any member of the Red Sox staff.

"I realized just how important I was last year for the first time in a long time," Burnett said. "There's been a lot said; why wouldn't there be after what I did last year? So it's my job to go out and shut mouths and do what I can do and not worry about that."

Yes, it's his job. Not Cashman's or Joe Girardi's or Larry Rothschild's. Cashman made a November visit to Burnett's Maryland home to begin the healing process, and his new pitching coach, Rothschild, followed by spending two days with the pitcher studying tape and working on mechanical flaws around Burnett's refurbished barn.

Only no executive or coach will repair Burnett and a 5.26 ERA in 2010 that ranks as the worst ever by a Yankees starter with at least 180 innings to his name.

Same goes for the fans. Burnett and his wife traveled to the Bahamas for Christmas and went to see their favorite band, Disturbed, play a few concerts. "And everywhere I went there was nothing but people in my corner," Burnett said Wednesday. "It was amazing. People understand a lot more than you think."

But the same people who told Burnett to go get 'em in April will be jeering him off the mound in August if that ERA starts rising like the price of gas.

The fans won't afford Burnett the benefit of the doubt this year, not after he turned every gathering 2010 threat into an apocalyptic meltdown, not after he cut his hands taking out his frustration on the clubhouse door, and not after he surrendered the Game 4 homer to Bengie Molina that made the ALCS property of the Texas Rangers.

"Any time you don't get out of the second [inning] for a month, you're going to have confidence problems," Burnett conceded. "But to my credit, I went out there every five days with confidence. I didn't go out on the mound thinking, 'I've got nothing.'"

Even if he had, you know, nothing.

Nobody was eager to see Burnett shove a pie in anyone's face, not when he was his own practical joke. He turned up with a mystery black eye in September, and despite the Yanks' $82.5 million investment in his right arm, he wasn't booked for any starts against the Twins in the ALDS.

But Yankees fans praying that Burnett isn't destined to finish his Yankees career as half Carl Pavano, half Kevin Brown, can grab hold of this indisputable truth:

Burnett showed up for every single one of his 33 starts.

"A lot of guys would have found a twinge in their back or something that hurts so they wouldn't have to keep going out there," Cashman said. "A.J. didn't look for a way out. He didn't try to run and hide from it."

The GM traveled in the offseason to see Burnett, among other Yanks, because he thought face-to-face communication would enhance his message, a lesson he learned from Pat Gillick. On arrival, Cashman said, "I didn't find a broken man at all.

"A.J. took last year's performance very seriously, and was very motivated to come back from that. He feels responsible. He cares. He wants to contribute in a significant way."

Cashman was encouraged by the fact Burnett immediately reached out to Rothschild in the way Robinson Cano once reached out to Larry Bowa. "Help make me better," was Burnett's simple plea to Rothschild, who, among other things, worked on tempering the pitcher's swinging front leg.

Wednesday, Burnett succeeded in eliminating what he called a "karate kick." He kept the extraneous movement to a minimum, stayed on line with his target, and had better luck repeating his delivery.

"It was fun to get back out there and face some hitters," Burnett said.

Of course it's only the first week of March, when a lot of guys look like Bob Gibson and Babe Ruth. Burnett won't be tested for real for another month, and he won't have Andy Pettitte or Cliff Lee to cover his back. In fact, A.J. might have the entire season riding on his right arm, a daunting challenge for a guy who referred to himself as "rubbish" last year.

Can Burnett shoulder the burden? He denied that the lengthy sabbatical taken by last year's pitching coach, Dave Eiland, contributed to his breakdown, a thought seconded by Cashman.

"I don't believe Dave's absence impacted A.J. at all," the GM said.

But something did reduce A.J. to a distracted mess, something that only one Yankees employee can fix.

"Coaches and other people can only do so much," Cashman said. "Ultimately the player is the one responsible for his own performance."

In other words, A.J. has to save A.J. Cashman, Girardi and Rothschild can do everything in their power to make their most important pitcher whole again, but when the games start to count, they won't be any more helpful to Burnett than his tough-guy tattoos.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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