CINCINNATI (AP) — A.J. Burnett sat at his table during the National League media session Monday wearing a white T-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms, his hair styled in a faux hawk similar to the ‘do worn by one of his sons standing nearby.
The old man of this All-Star Game fit right in with a pretty young crowd.
“When I came up I would talk to the older guys. I never thought I’d be one of those guys,” the 38-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher said.
“It’s special to be the guy who’s been there and done that. ... When I first came up there was one or two young guys and a lot of older guys. That’s how the game’s changed. Now there are one or two older guys and a lot of young guys,” he said.
After baseball spent two years of saying goodbye to longtime superstars Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, the All-Star gathering in Cincinnati is dominated by some dynamic, fresh faces who are transforming the game.
Burnett, along with the Angels’ Albert Pujols, the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira, St. Louis’ injured outfielder Matt Holliday and Seattle’s Nelson Cruz, represent the 35-plus set. In comparison, there are 20 players 25 and younger among 76 All-Stars.
The rough-edged Burnett’s trip to the Midsummer Classic is even sweeter because it’s his first selection to an All-Star squad — in his 17th and final season.
The lanky right-hander who had been known to pout on the mound and be difficult with media and coaches returned to Pittsburgh after an 8-18 season with Philadelphia, his worst as a pro. And he’s gone 7-3 with a 2.11 ERA.
“When I was younger I didn’t know who A.J. was,” he said. “Now that I know more, I can handle those things I’ve learned that I can’t control.”
His leadership on the field and off it has been invaluable to the growth of several of his young teammates, including fellow All-Star pitcher Gerrit Cole.
“He’s just a tremendous teammate. He’s got an edge about him. He’s got a competitiveness that he brings to the clubhouse, brings to the team. It’s been fantastic,” the 24-year-old Cole said. “He’s a big kid, actually.”
Pujols and Teixeira had their greatest successes when many of the players they’re sharing a clubhouse with this weekend were kids dreaming of playing in the major leagues.
Teixeira hadn’t been to an All-Star Game in six years, Pujols in five.
Pujols made nine of 10 All-Star Games from 2001-2010 but he began to fall off statistically in 2011, failing to drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career, his last season with St. Louis. With the Angels, he played hurt in 2013 and has been somewhat in the shadow of reigning AL MVP Mike Trout.
But he’s had a remarkable revival this season, leading the American League with 26 homers, though he’s batting a career-low .255. He’s also been a great guide for Trout and the West-leading Angels.
“He’s taught me a lot of things — from a player standpoint, just playing the game the right way,” Trout said. “It’s huge, just to have in the clubhouse, just for younger guys including myself, just to know that if you have a question or anything you need, he knows the answer to it.”
Teixeira had slumped badly in the past couple of years after being slowed by injuries, including a wrist operation that cost him nearly all of 2013. He even talked candidly about not being able to achieve the numbers he put up in the past.
But his wrist has fully healed and he changed his diet. He has 22 homers and an AL-leading 62 RBIs and earned his third All-Star trip when Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera was injured.
“I can kind of enjoy this more,” Teixeira said. “I don’t take it for granted.”