Commentary

You gotta really hand it to Burnett

A.J. smacked a door and hurt his palms, but eventually told the truth -- we think

Updated: July 18, 2010, 2:44 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Now, this was one The Boss would have really loved. Or, at least, understood.

In the grand tradition of Paul O'Neill leaving water coolers trembling in fear every time he made an out, of Kevin Brown trying to begin the demolition of the old Yankee Stadium with his bare fist and of George Steinbrenner himself committing mayhem in an elevator on two belligerent L.A. Dodgers fans who were so ashamed of themselves that after 30 years they have never emerged from hiding, we add now to Yankees lore the case of A.J. Burnett and the Plexiglass lineup holders.

Burnett, a notorious hothead who is famously self-critical, became infamously self-destructive Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium when, after allowing a two-run home run to Reid Brignac in the second inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays, stormed into the Yankees clubhouse, slammed the palms of both hands against the double doors leading to the players' private lounge, and came away with "lacerations" to both palms that caused him to be removed from the game two batters into the third inning.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett was removed from the game two batters into the third inning.

Or, so he, his manager and his general manager say.

Certainly, that version of events is more plausible than the original story Burnett tried to sell to Yankees trainers, that he had injured himself after tripping going up the stairs to the clubhouse and landing on his palms.

That one didn't stand up to the deductive reasoning skills of manager Joe Girardi, who observed quite reasonably, "If you fall down stairs you're probably going to have burn marks."

Instead, the only ones who got burned were Girardi and Burnett's teammates, who had to cobble together a replacement for their $16.5 million right-hander out of Dustin Moseley and Chad Gaudin, and wound up getting blown out 10-5 in a game so bad it made the two-inning Old-Timer's Day game that preceded it look entertaining by comparison.

"The bottom line is, I let my team down," a contrite Burnett said. "I took them out of an important game against a division rival."

And gave back the game they had pulled out in dramatic fashion Friday night on Nick Swisher's walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth. With Tampa ace David Price going against Andy Pettitte in Sunday's finale, the Rays could well leave here one thin game behind the Yankee in the AL East race.

And all because, once again, Burnett could not hold his emotions together when things got rough. It has been the same bugaboo throughout his career, a splendid arm sabotaged by a splintered head, a psyche that turns against itself what seems like the slightest hint of adversity.

Burnett was no doubt steaming after allowing a run after getting two quick outs in the first, and then, after getting the first two batters in the second, plunking .236 hitter Jason Bartlett and then teeing one up for Brignac, who had hit just two homers all year.

On the next play, an obviously rattled Burnett butterfingered Ben Zobrist's topper back to the mound, but then settled down to retire Carl Crawford before beginning his cavalry charge back to the clubhouse and whatever he did to skin his palms. (This is said because the Plexiglass frames on the door he supposedly hit are smooth and apparently harmless; I slapped them a couple of times myself after the game trying to duplicate Burnett's injury, to no avail.)

In any event, as Girardi pointed out, it didn't matter how he did it, just that he did do it.

"He got frustrated and hit something," the manager said, barely able to contain his anger. "My concern was that he wouldn't have the same feeling for the baseball, so I gave him a chance for two more batters and then took him out of there."

Burnett insisted he could have continued, lending credence to the belief that Girardi lifted him more for disciplinary reasons than for health concerns.

"It didn't affect me holding the ball or anything," said Burnett, whose performance snapped a personal two-start streak in which he seemed to have rebounded from his horrendous June. "I think it affected me differently, adrenaline-wise. Obviously when you snap like that your emotions go in the wrong direction. In my mind I came out because I was terrible today."

In fact, he was better than what followed. Dustin Moseley, in his third appearance as a Yankee after being recalled from Triple-A, allowed four runs in three innings, including a three-run shot to Brignac in the fifth that broke the game open at 8-2. And Gaudin, despite striking out five in four innings, also added to the assault by allowing two more runs, including Carlos Pena's solo homer in the eighth.

But all the postgame talk there was centered on Burnett, who threw a pie Friday night and a tantrum Saturday afternoon. Girardi and Brian Cashman preferred to downplay the incident and emphasize Burnett's honesty in amending his original story in an impromptu meeting with the manager, the GM and assistant trainer Steve Donahue after the game.

"He took the harder, more difficult route by telling the truth," said Cashman, who said the team would take no disciplinary action.

"I asked him if he could make his next start and he said, 'Yeah,'" Cashman said. "So I told him, 'No harm, no foul, buddy.'"

That is the old-school approach favored by Steinbrenner, who thought that seeing his players smash water coolers, or one another's heads, was a sign of their competitive spirit.

But Girardi, a more rational type, took issue with that approach.

"Mr. Steinbrenner always deemed Paul O'Neill a warrior and he hit more things than anyone I've ever seen," Girardi said. "Some guys are just better at expressing their frustration than others. I will continue to talk to A.J. about that not being the proper way to do it. It's not something A.J. is proud of and it's not something I want our players to do. I'm not happy that he did it."

GAME NOTES: The Yankees got solo home runs by Mark Teixeira (No. 18) and Jorge Posada (11), a two-run double by Brett Gardner and an RBI double from Alex Rodriguez. But again, their success rate with runners in scoring position (2-for-11) was woeful. Derek Jeter, his average down to .269, stranded five runners, three in scoring position. ... The last time Pettitte (11-2, 2.70) started against the Rays, on May 20, he allowed a season-high seven runs in five innings. Price (12-4, 2.42), the AL starter in the All-Star Game, is 2-0 in four career starts against the Yankees, with a 2.56 ERA and holding them to a .153 batting average.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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