Meet the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bad Boy, A.J. Burnett

The devastating losing streak that plagued the Pittsburgh Pirates formed a dark cloud over PNC Park. But the team, with pitcher A.J. Burnett at the helm, bucked up, using scrappiness and persistence to combat the negativity and break through to their first winning season since 1992. Now, it’s nothing but sunshine.

Pittsburgh Pirates AJ Burnett

By Rachel Jones
Photograph by Duane Rieder

A Pirate is not just someone with an eyepatch and a taste for rum. A Pirate is not Johnny Depp with eyeliner and dreads. A Pirate is a rough and tough, take-no-prisoners, grit your teeth, and make-it-happen conqueror.

That personality also belongs to starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. With his tattooed arms, scruffy beard, and edgy attitude, he looks like a modern-day buccaneer out on the mound. “He’s the grizzled veteran who is gruff, no nonsense,” says Greg Brown, the Pittsburgh Pirates announcer for Root Sports and 93.7 The Fan. “He’s a true ‘pirate’ in every sense of the word.”

Maybe that’s what we needed; A real pirate on the Pirates’ roster to sever the losing streak that began when this girl was still in her terrible twos. For Brown, he always knew that a winning season was an achievable goal. “You know how Andrew McCutchen said he feels like he’s living a dream?” Brown explains. “It’s like that. I’ve always believed that the combination of a baseball-only ballpark and a winning Pirates team would electrify and energize the region. I just had to see it to believe it.”

After constructing the baseball-only PNC Park in 2001, they still needed to work on building a winning team.

Enter Andrew McCutchen. The first-round draft pick signed with the Pirates in 2005, and even accepted a six-year contract in 2012. “That was the moment where if he put his belief in the Pirates, then doggone it, we’re going to, too!” Brown says. Then, other stars started to align. Starling Marte joined favorites like “Pittsburgh Kid” Neil Walker and Jose Tabata, propelling the Pirates to a new level of baseball.

With the booming, thunderous bats of McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, and lightning-fast strikes from Burnett and pitcher Mark Melancon, the “perfect storm” that Brown predicted was starting to brew. “The personalities of these players just seem to match the city in perfect symmetry,” Brown says. “You’ve got guys who want to turn this franchise around and a fan base that has been starving for a winning baseball team. The love affair between this baseball team and the city is unreal.”

When the chance of celebratory confetti showers seemed high, Burnett says the clubhouse atmosphere was outstanding. “The guys want to win and we, as a team, are upset when we lose,” Burnett says. “We have taken the ‘one game at a time’ approach, and that’s a big reason why we are winning more games this season.” The veteran tries to keep his teammates motivated by instilling confidence, telling them to believe in themselves and trust their abilities.

Everyone became a believer on September 9, 2013, when a 1-0 victory over the Texas Rangers shattered the negative reputation that was once shackled to the Pirates. The grief and grime of the last 20 years had been rinsed clean.

“That was a very dark and painful 20 years for fans,” says Paul Alexander, host of 93.7 The Fan’s Morning Show. “It took the actual 82nd win for some fans to actually believe the losing streak was going to end.” Covering the Pirates since 1985, Alexander says this winning season is so long overdue that the aftermath doesn’t even equal that of the ‘70s Pirates.

Fans who never stopped believing — like my dad, who predicts the Pirates will win the Pennant every year — still provided substantial support in the stands, and TV and radio ratings. But to cheer for a winning team is a more meaningful reward. “This city is known as a football town or a hockey town,” Brown explains. “It’s actually a winners town. We will always embrace a winner.”

In addition to the winning players, Alexander also tips his hat to the manager, coaches, owners, and everyone in the front office who supported this team and elevated it to the pedestal it sits on today. “This group deserves a ton of credit,” he concludes. “All in all, it’s been historical and great for the city and the fans.”

The journey may have had more peaks and drops than our favorite Kennywood rides, but the final cruise to a well-earned winning season makes it all worthwhile. Years from now, Burnett says he will still look back on the season with fond memories and a smile. “I will be most proud of the fact that I was part of a great group of guys who were able to bond together and have a great season,” Burnett says. “And that we were the group that finally brought a winning season to the great fans of the team.”

Meet the Buccos’ Bad Boy

Pittsburgh Pirates AJ Burnett

Photograph from Dave Arrigo / Pittsburgh Pirates.

The tough and tatted pitcher has a reputation of speaking his mind and stirring up more than just dust on the mound. From his “sit the f’ down” (STFD) moment against the L.A. Dodgers, to his sneaky pies in the face for the “player of the game,” A.J. Burnett brings a fun flavor to the clubhouse.

How do the fans and your teammates respond to you being outspoken on the field and on Twitter?

A.J. Burnett: They love it (he laughs).

Do you like seeing the STFD T-shirts and hashtags?

Burnett: I enjoy seeing it. I’ve actually grown accustomed to doing it myself whenever I’m on Twitter. It’s an attitude that hasn’t been here for awhile, and I take pride in coming up with it.

You seem to be the instigator for the post-game pies in the face. Who gets whipped cream and who gets shaving cream?

Burnett: It’s almost always whipped cream and rarely shaving cream. I only use the shaving cream if we’re out of the other stuff, and I whisper to the guy before I do it that it’s shaving cream because it burns when it gets in your eyes.

We hear you’re really into zombies. When did that start?

Burnett: It started when I began playing the video game “Call of Duty: World at War,” and it’s progressed ever since. The only video games I play are zombie-related ones.

What’s something you do that people would be surprised to find out?

Burnett: I sing to my boys when they are going to sleep. I’ve been doing it since they were born and still do it when I’m home with them. I sing “Follow Me” by Uncle Kracker.

Pittsburgh Pirates,
Pittsburgh Pirates AJ Burnett

Photograph from Dave Arrigo / Pittsburgh Pirates.

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