Friendship with Proefrock key to Burnett's joining Phillies

Posted: February 18, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - A.J. Burnett drove his Dodge truck for 16 hours, and Saturday bled into Sunday morning. He stowed his 20-foot Nitro Z-9 fishing boat beyond the center-field wall at Bright House Field. The Phillies were stretching when Burnett, a $16 million infusion to the franchise's most expensive team ever, appeared at 9:55 a.m.

The 37-year-old pitcher raised his black Pittsburgh Pirates bag as a greeting. "That's the wrong bag!" a new teammate yelled. Later, Burnett explained that he was four days tardy because he could not make a decision.

"He's right on time," Ryne Sandberg said. The Phillies manager beamed. He saw Burnett don a red No. 34 jersey and called it "a beautiful thing." Sandberg did not hide his desire all winter for another reliable arm. This was a time to extol his ownership's financial commitment and the series of coincidences that kept Burnett from returning to Pittsburgh or retiring.

Scott Proefrock, the Phillies' assistant general manager, sat undisturbed in the stadium's cafeteria while Burnett was introduced to reporters. Five days earlier, Proefrock's 12-year-old son, John, did not play his best basketball game for the Carroll Manor Warriors at home in Maryland. Proefrock missed the last regular-season game, and John missed his father.

The coach called Proefrock to talk about it. They discussed the game until the coach said he needed to pack for a trip.

"Where are you going?" Proefrock asked.

"Clearwater," Burnett said.

The day after Burnett thought his baseball career had ended he went to Proefrock's house. The two men are neighbors in Monkton, Md., and their 12-year-old sons are friends. There was a party at the middle school. Burnett chaperoned.

He started 30 games last season for the Pirates and posted a career-low 3.30 ERA. He pitched the franchise's first postseason game in 21 years but could not survive the third inning. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle bypassed Burnett for a 23-year-old rookie in Game 5 of the National League division series. The Pirates lost, 6-1.

"What are you going to do?" Proefrock asked Burnett.

"I'm done," Burnett said.

The fathers took their children trick-or-treating later that month at a nearby neighborhood. The conversation, invariably, turned to baseball. Burnett was insistent; he did not want to pitch. He had an idea. Why not coach the kids' basketball team with Proefrock as his assistant?

Burnett loved it. They periodically met after the draft, which placed Proefrock's son, John, and Burnett's son, Allan Jr., as teammates on the Warriors. The games began in early December, about the time Proefrock flew to Florida for the Phillies' annual organizational meetings to discuss the winter's strategy.

"We talked about free agents," Proefrock said. "His name was at the top of the list. I said, 'Hey, man, he's not playing.' So we moved on. That was pretty much the end of it."

Proefrock, though, informed Burnett of his interest.

"You do what's best for your family," he told Burnett. "But if you decide to play, let me know because we'd love to have you."

This winter, as potential improvements cashed in elsewhere, Ruben Amaro Jr. maintained his team's ability to contend with a $170 million payroll. He backtracked Sunday, saying Burnett was "a unique opportunity." The Phillies, after signing Burnett to slot between Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, will spend more on their roster this season than ever before.

"There's all types of reasons why he is here," Amaro said, "and I think many of you can figure it out."

Money was one. The Pirates' offer was for a reported $12 million. Burnett is effectively guaranteed $23.5 million if he chooses to pitch in 2015 for the Phillies and can make as much as $33.5 million over the lifetime of the contract.

He will earn $15 million in 2014. A $1 million buyout for his mutual 2015 option raises the one-year guarantee to $16 million. The mutual option is worth another $15 million. If the Phillies decline that, Burnett can activate a $7.5 million player option.

A partial no-trade clause allows Burnett to select nine teams to which he would accept a trade. That stability was important to protect Burnett's desire to be near home. The commute from Monkton to Philadelphia is about an hour and a half.

Proefrock continued to probe Burnett. The Warriors were invited to Burnett's basement movie theater for a preseason screening of Hoosiers. Proefrock admitted to feeling "weird" about it all. He stopped his pursuit and told Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, to call if circumstances changed.

"As January crept around and then February, you start getting that itch to throw again," Burnett said. "And then talking to my wife, talking to my family, I wasn't ready to go."

Proefrock suffered a broken right leg while skiing on New Year's Eve. He missed some Warriors games. Braunecker phoned Proefrock with news of Burnett's renewed interest. He advised Proefrock to expect a call from Burnett.

"We had a game that night," Proefrock said. "He said, 'I'll take the boys home, feed them, and put them to bed. Come over.' So I went over. It was like 9 p.m. We talked. I told him about Philly.

"I told him about some of the things the organization has done for me and my family. I can be home for anything I need to be home for anytime. The other thing I said was, 'A.J., I think we have a legitimate chance to win, especially if we put you between Cole and Cliff. I'll take our chances with anybody.' "

The two sides negotiated. Burnett surprised the longtime baseball man with his intentions last week. "Did I hear that right?" Proefrock wondered. Burnett was comfortable with the pitch, especially coming from Proefrock.

"It was all about basketball and having fun with the kids," Burnett said. "He's been a good friend for a lot of years. He's a good man and he was very respectful."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|