AJ Burnett on (maybe) coaching, fights, COVID-19 and much more

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Derek Shelton may soon have another phone call to make.

While the new Pirates manager has actively sought to establish connections with franchise legends such as Bill Mazeroski and Jim Leyland, former pitcher AJ Burnett appeared on 93.7 The Fan on Sunday morning and teased the idea of potentially becoming a coach with Pittsburgh.

“One thought that always enters my mind about that 2013 Wild Card game is I think we could have went further,” Burnett told host Dan Zangrilli. “I wish we could have taken it further for the city of Pittsburgh. If I ever had the opportunity to come back and coach, and maybe take a team further than we went that year, that would be special for me.”

Obviously, the Pirates aren’t going to blow up their existing coach staff simply because Burnett, who retired after the 2015 season, said he wants to give it a shot.

But it’s also pretty easy to believe that, as someone who made 430 starts over 17 seasons, would be able to add something, even as a guest instructor during spring training.

“It’s maybe a possibility that I could come back and be a coach at some point, we’ll see,” Burnett said. “At least show up in spring here and there, hang around the pitchers, do something like that where I can drop something on them.

“I feel like I have a little bit to give here and there still. A lot of people helped me on my way up. I think it would be cool if I was able to help other people on their way up.”

The idea of Burnett returning to Major League Baseball in the near future actually produced one of the funnier lines in the expansive interview, which totaled nearly 20 minutes and ran past its allotted time.

Zangrilli asked Burnett if he has exerted “max effort” since retiring. “No sir,” Burnett replied before explaining that he didn’t do anything for two years and has since been long-tossing with some of his son Ashton’s high school buddies. “The ball is on a line,” Burnett added. “I feel strong.”

The humor came when Burnett started talking about today’s game. He cracked a joke about teams stealing signs, then went full get-off-my-lawn regarding some celebratory actions performed by hitters today, most notably flipping their bats after home runs.

“Today’s game, I don’t know,” Burnett said. “I’m going to have to come up with a Bluetooth thing to get my signs to the catcher. Just seems like every young kid who comes up just hits (bombs). Then there’s the bat flips. How many people would I tell to STFD (sit the … heck down) with the bat flips?

“I get it, letting the kids play. But I don’t know if I would survive. … I’m different. I’m old school. I’m going to stand up for what I believe in. I talked to (Jordy) Mercer like 3-4 days ago, and he said, ‘You would have been fighting people by now.’ I was like, ‘Has it changed that much?’ It’s different.”

Burnett also offered some additional insight in that 2013 Wild Card game, which he said he watched again last week. Francisco Liriano always stands out, Burnett said, because of the left-hander’s seven strong innings while pitching sick.

It was also fascinating to hear just how bad it was for Liriano, who described his illness at the time as a sinus infection, its symptoms including congestion and a sore throat.

“I wouldn’t even say he was 50 percent,” Burnett said. “He might have been 50 percent, maybe. He couldn’t do anything after the game. We’re all celebrating. I’m pretty sure he was in the training room, laying down.”

As for Liriano’s command in that game, Burnett said he was “in complete control” while snapping off a couple really good one-liners. Among them:

— “There were some really good hitters on that (Reds) team,” Burnett said. “He just made ‘em all look silly.”

— “It was completely different watching on TV than from the dugout. You really got to see his stuff work. We called him ‘Filthy’ for a reason.”

— Burnett also explained his thought process when Johnny Cueto dropped the ball, and Russell Martin cranked the next pitch into the left-field bleachers. “He was done when that ball hit the ground,” Burnett said. “Cueto, I love watching him pitch. Good guy. Good competitor. But he came into our house, over and over and over again and just shoved it. Then for us to mentally to get him like that — the fans as well — and when Russell hit that home run and the ball hit the ground, there was no way they were coming back from that.”

The Pirates had a contingency plan if Liriano couldn’t pitch, Burnett said. It likely would’ve been him, although Gerrit Cole might’ve also been involved.

Regardless, Burnett said it was pointless. Liriano wasn’t about to relinquish that opportunity, and Burnett had zero expectation of actually pitching that night.

“We’re just kind of sitting back there like, ‘Frankie ain’t gonna let nobody else throw, man. The first Wild Card game for the Pirates in how long? I mean, c’mon. He’s gonna take the ball.’ “ Burnett said.

“I believe I would have taken (the ball) after Liriano. At the same time, he’s a big boy. I don’t know if I wanted to fight him for it.”

The Cole part was fascinating. He caught unnecessary flak for throwing after the game. Burnett said Cole was loosely available out of the bullpen and wasn’t needed; thus he needed to get his work in. “Believe me,” Burnett said. “He came in and did some celebrating.”

The interview actually started with a Twitter poll that Zangrilli conducted, one that had 88.6% of 1,825 participants agreeing that Burnett is the Pirates’ most important pitcher since Doug Drabek.

“Why you gotta give me goosebumps at 10:40 in the morning, man?” Burnett started when Zangrilli brought up the results.

The fan favorite, though, had actually been up for hours. He met a friend of his to exchange some COVID-19-related supplies. Burnett urged everyone to stay safe and help out anyone in need during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Try to help as many people as you can, whether it’s staying at home, meeting somebody with supplies or doing the social distancing. Just being there and not hoarding everything,” Burnett said. “Do what you can to make everybody comfortable through this. It’s different for everybody. It’s a weird time for us.”

Burnett has been working on re-assembling a four-wheeler with his older son (also named AJ), who’s a sophomore at Coastal Carolina. Dad took the machine apart about a month ago to see if he could put it back together and has since been getting some help, with the Burnett boys spending hours working together in their barn.

“Before he left for college, it was like, ‘Hey, AJ, you wanna go to the shop?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe in a little bit.’ “ AJ Burnett Sr. said. “Now it’s, ‘Don’t go down to the shop without me.’ It’s good to have him help me with that.”

The Burnetts, like most families, are also enjoying plenty of together time right now, whether it’s building puzzles or playing video games.

“We’re spoiled,” Burnett said. “We’re just trying to make the best of everything.”


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