"Welcome to Yankee Stadium,'' A.J. Burnett said to a flabbergasted man and his wide-eyed son as they entered Gate 6 at Yankee Stadium this month.
It was a 90-degree day in the Bronx, and most of Burnett's teammates were holed up in the team's air-conditioned clubhouse. Burnett, however, volunteered to stand in the stadium's great hall and greet fans.
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It was so hot that every few minutes, Burnett found himself using the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his neck and face. Still, he worked the gate for a good 45 minutes until a Yankees public relations man reminded him that he needed to get back to the clubhouse in time for batting practice.
Burnett is not the only Yankee to pull the meet-and-greet duty this season, but he probably is the most enthusiastic one when it comes to doing it. In fact, with the possible exception of Nick Swisher, Burnett may be the most enthusiastic Yankee when it comes to doing anything.
Having introduced a team award system that includes everything from a pie in the face to the bestowing of a wrestling championship belt to the hero of each game, Burnett has worked hard on the mound and played hard off it. He has interjected a much-needed level of goofy fun to a clubhouse that had been notoriously uptight and corporate.
"A.J. is a leader. He is a major reason the club is the way it is this year,'' said Ray Negron, whose duties as a special assistant to George Steinbrenner include getting players to participate in community events. "Forget about the tattoos and all that. He's someone who cares. If you ask him to help, he helps. To me, that's the greatest kind of Yankee. His heart and soul are into being a Yankee on and off the field.''
Burnett has made a seamless transition to being a Yankee. That comes as a big surprise to some observers who feared that the Yankees were getting themselves into another Carl Pavano situation when they signed Burnett to a five-year, $82.5-million contract last offseason.
Burnett's talent was never in doubt - everyone was aware of how he had dominated the Yankees and Red Sox - but there were questions about his durability and makeup.
Burnett, 32, had had Tommy John surgery and missed significant time during his career because of injuries. On some levels, he also was an intimidating character with his multiple tattoos, nipple rings and penchant for speaking his mind so bluntly that the Marlins asked him to leave the team before the end of the season in 2005.
But there has been no question about Burnett's durability this season. He has pitched 153 2/3 innings in 24 starts, compiling a 10-6 record and 3.69 ERA - behind only CC Sabathia's 178 2/3 innings, 14 victories and 3.58 ERA among Yankees starters.
In the Yankees' 3-0 loss in Oakland on Monday, Burnett pitched all eight innings and had good enough stuff that manager Joe Girardi said he felt the team had let him down by not giving him any run support.
Burnett went 3-2 with a 2.10 ERA in five June starts and 4-0 with a 2.43 ERA in five July starts. Though he doesn't have a win in his four August starts, his outing against the Red Sox Aug. 7 was exactly what the Yankees brought him here for. He yielded one hit in 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the 15-inning win that ended with Alex Rodriguez's home run.
"This is the funnest thing I've ever been involved with,'' Burnett said. "I came here because I wanted to win. I wanted to be a part of something like this.''
Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, said he's not sure his client would have been ready for something like this earlier in this career. Braunecker is a family friend from Little Rock, Ark., and has known Burnett since he was 15 years old.
"I think A.J. had kind of grown into his own skin over the last few years and started being comfortable with who he is,'' Braunecker said. "I think he had to get over this notion of having to prove himself in baseball. He proved himself in Toronto. Now he wanted to be a Yankee and be on this stage, and I thought he was ready to do it.''
There was a time when Burnett wasn't terribly comfortable with the whole notion of being a role model, but that changed over time. He regularly speaks at schools and makes hospital visits. During the Yankees' Hope Week, he was out playing with kids on the Yankee Stadium field at a carnival that went on until 4 in the morning.
"I think A.J. realizes you're going to have a legacy whether you like it or not. Carl Pavano has a legacy,'' Braunecker said. "I think he realizes if he performs his best every day and is accountable for his actions, that's all people in New York really want. This is a perfect place for him.''
It's so perfect that Braunecker's client admits he can't believe how much fun he is having. Said Burnett: "It's just really good here. I knew it would be good here. But I didn't know it would be like this.''