It is the 2003 World Series and a bright sun beats down on Miami's Pro Player Stadium, even in mid-October. Hours before the start of Game 3, Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett walks slowly toward the outfield accompanied by a teammate. They begin to play catch.
Burnett, a spectator during this World Series, is less than six months removed from elbow ligament replacement surgery and medium-strength tosses are all he will be allowed to throw for the next several months. After 15 minutes he begins to walk slowly back toward the dugout. Then he stops, and in one quick motion, a simple act of frustration, he turns and throws the ball with all his might toward the right field bleachers. It lands in an empty seat, a few feet from a group of startled reporters.
When his right elbow ligament snapped just four starts into the 2003 season, Burnett was one of the best young pitching prospect in baseball and a budding top-of-the-rotation starter.
"I mean really, at the time of his injury he was our best pitcher," former Marlins and current Minnesota Twins catcher Mike Redmond said. "He was really getting it going. He was starting to dominate. Whatever happened, his elbow just couldn't go anymore. I know it was tough for him to just sit there and watch Josh [Beckett], Pavy [Carl Pavano], and not be able to go out there and compete with them. I know that hurt him a lot. . . . He wants to be the guy out there pitching in the big game."
More than two years after elbow surgery, what kind of pitcher the 28-year-old Burnett is now is unknown. Burnett has a career losing record (43-44) and has never won more than 12 games in a season. Aside from the year he missed because of the elbow surgery, he has been on the disabled list because of a broken foot and a torn thumb ligament. Yet he has caused every contender, including the Baltimore Orioles, to rethink its rotation when the Marlins made him available only a few weeks ago.
"We're a business full of optimists," said a high-level scout for a contending team. "The big thing about him is that every night he's out there, if he's right, he has the ability to throw a no-hitter. That's the allure to a lot of people. Obviously there's the thought about being a .500 pitcher and the health issues but there's no question about the attraction with him. He's got top-of-the-rotation stuff."
The biggest moment of his career, a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on May 12, 2001, may be the biggest example of Burnett's ability and inconsistency. Burnett walked nine, hit one batter, and threw a wild pitch. In four of the innings the Padres had two men on base. Once they had runners on second and third. Three runners each stole a base against him. Yet Burnett was untouchable when consistently in the strike zone.
"Obviously it wasn't your typical no-hitter," Redmond said. "I think we all just looked up in the seventh and eighth and we were like, 'God, he's throwing a no-hitter.' Just because it wasn't clean. He had so many walks. There were all these guys on base. You think a typical no-hitter nobody even gets on first."
Burnett throws a fastball that can top at 98 mph, even late in games; an effective change-up and a curveball that is among the best in the game.
"It's got as much power as any breaking ball in the big leagues," the scout said.
Agent and friend Darek Braunecker said he can easily explain Burnett's lack of career wins. From 2001 to '02 Burnett had the fifth-best opposing hitters batting average (.219) in the majors. Yet in that time he also had the 10th worst run support. Three of the top 10 pitchers in worst run support during that time were Marlins. In 2002, his breakout season, Burnett was fourth in the majors with a .209 opposing hitter average. Braunecker also challenges the notion Burnett is injury prone.
"People talk about his medical history, but he's had one real baseball injury," Braunecker said. "We're going to certainly acknowledge his injury history. And teams better acknowledge the lack of baseball injuries he's had."
Braunecker said he believes Burnett will thrive when put in the spotlight. It's an opportunity he has been waiting for since that 2003 World Series.
"I believe it's inevitable he's going to be moved to a contending club," Braunecker said, "and you'll see what he'll do in that environment."