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A.J. Burnett is having fun with the Yankees

Prankster can take New York to the World Series for the first time since 2003 if he beats the Angels.

October 22, 2009|Kevin Baxter

If the stodgy old Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, then the glistening new ballpark next door is the House the Three Stooges Inhabit.

Because in addition to changing addresses this season, the team has changed attitudes thanks to the winter additions of free spirits A.J. Burnett, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. And that, more than anything else, may be the best explanation why the newly relaxed Yankees find themselves a win away from their first World Series in six years.

"On the field we're businesslike," captain Derek Jeter said. "And that's still today. [But] now it seems like people may have more fun."

Adds pitcher Joba Chamberlain: "There's so many different personalities, it's great. Everybody meshes well. The front office did a fantastic job bringing these guys in and knowing what kind of character they have."

And the biggest character of all is Burnett, an incurable prankster who has made a habit of delivering a whipped-cream pie to the face of any player delivering a walk-off hit.

Not surprisingly, the Yankees led the majors with 15 walk-off hits this season, then got two more in the playoffs.

So it's only fitting that Burnett will take the mound today at Angel Stadium with a chance to deliver an American League championship to New York.

"A.J. has been a big part of the looseness in the clubhouse," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. "His attitude is great. He brings a lot of energy every day. Ever since spring training, when he started taking pitchers out to do things after practice."

That's something the Yankees may not have expected when they signed Burnett to a five-year, $82.5-million contract last December. Certainly they knew about his blazing fastball and his hellacious curveball. But in the clubhouse, he had a reputation for making as many enemies as friends.

He was suspended, then run out of Florida when he was with the Marlins after a confrontation with a coach during a pennant race. His tattoos and body piercings and the bats he used, inscribed with the name of shock rocker Marilyn Manson instead of his own, created a bad-boy aura that Burnett furthered by feuding with teammates and managers.

"For the longest time A.J. kind of fought the demons of not living up to the potential of what people expected of him. And what he expected of himself," says longtime friend and agent Darek Braunecker. "Through his growth and maturity, he had to figure some things out on his own."

That process started before the 2006 season, when the Marlins let Burnett leave for Toronto, where he was reunited with former Florida pitching coach Brad Arnsberg while joining a pitching staff led by All-Star Roy Halladay.

"I went there for a reason, I believe," Burnett says.

Early in his stay there, Burnett asked Halladay to sum things up.

"And he's like, 'Well, for one, you've got to forget everything that you hear,' " Burnett says he was told. " 'Your expectations, your contracts, living up to this and that. You've got to forget that. And for you, it's one pitch at a time.' "

The transformation was immediate. Rather than pressing, Burnett let his natural talent take over, winning 38 games, posting a 3.82 earned-run average and striking out more than a batter an inning in three seasons with the Blue Jays.

"I don't know if it's helped me or not during games," Burnett says, "but I literally stare into one spot and tell myself a thousand times, 'One pitch at a time, one pitch at a time.' "

The change off the field has been even more striking.

"I don't know that there's been necessarily a single event," Braunecker says. "The bottom line is he's a good person. He has good intentions. I'm proud of him on so many levels."

Still, Burnett admitted he had some soul-searching to do after signing with the Yankees last winter. The corporate attitude, the team projects -- "straight up and down, like 6 o'clock," Swisher says -- did not appear to be a good fit for a player whose trademark was more vaudeville than Carnegie Hall.

And at first, Burnett said his whipped-cream pies met with criticism. But as the Yankees began to come together as a team, they warmed to the idea.

"You can't go there and try to be somebody you're not," Burnett says. "I understand that it's the New York Yankees. So I understand that some people don't like it. But it's a new team, it's a new stadium. And as far as the locker room, it's a new tradition."

How ironic, then, that the person who rubbed whipped cream all over the face of Yankees tradition is now tasked with rekindling that tradition by taking the team back to the World Series for the first time since 2003 -- when they met A.J. Burnett and the Marlins.

"I don't take it for granted," Burnett says of a journey that has taken him full circle. "I feel like I'm part of something."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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