In September 2012, the Pirates' season was about to reach a merciful end, and A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke were sitting together on the outfield grass at Citi Field. A month and a half earlier, the Bucs had been riding high, with a 63-47 record. Now, after losing 32 of their last 45 games, the team was out of the playoff race.
The previous night, Locke felt he had dominated the first two innings, but then the roof fell in. He had given up four runs in the third inning, and another in the fourth. He had exited after allowing nine hits and five runs over only 3.2 innings.
That start had been the ninth of Locke's big-league career. He was 0-6 with a 7.08 ERA in 46 innings pitched. At age 24, he was starting to doubt his abilities.
The crowds in the majors were intimidating. Home plate seemed farther away and the umpires strike zones felt incredibly tight. He was at a low point, but he didn't necessarily identify it as such. Instead, he felt something worse: the haunting notion that maybe he wasn't good enough to pitch in the majors.
Burnett and Locke went out on the field for their pregame catch the day after his loss. When they finished warming up, Burnett asked the young left-hander to sit down to chat. With the crowding filing in, Locke suggested that maybe they should go inside. "No, let's sit right here," the veteran right-hander said.
"He just sat down on the grass and talked to me," Locke said. "‘What do you got? What's going on?' I'd never had anybody, especially someone like him, say, ‘Hey I want to talk to you.'"
Locke continued: "The game's about to start in 30 minutes and we're just talking baseball. He asked me what I was thinking about. ‘Are you comfortable and confident? Are you throwing the pitches you want to throw? Are you still nervous because you haven't done anything here?'"
At some point or another, most young pitchers question whether they belong in the big leagues. The game at which they had previously excelled can suddenly feel very different, and they experience a loss of control. It's like suddenly driving too fast downhill, or surfing a wave that's too big. There is an instinct to bail out and try to just survive.
But a young pitcher can't make a career just trying to stay alive. It is impossible to perform well when suddenly the plate feels a mile away and the strike zone the size of a quarter. He must feel he can thrive at the highest level. He must be loose and confident, and trust what got him to the majors to begin with.
That day in New York, Burnett asked Locke questions that forced the left-hander to confront his professional insecurities, and approach the mental hurdles that are rites of passage for young pitchers.
In his next start, Locke got his first professional win. The following year, he made the All-Star team. Now, Locke has pitched 444 innings and won 23 games.
Locke says you're never comfortable in the big leagues, but you can become confident. And confidence is essential to success. Burnett, who'd had his own professional struggles, taught Locke how to maintain it.
"He helped me so much in 2012," Locke said. "You know what it is? To be honest, the biggest thing he taught me was to be confident in myself. And if you go out there and give up five runs in five innings, your confidence can't teeter. You just have to be confident."
"I used to hate him"
For those not prepared for it, there is an unexpected and unmistakably strong atmosphere of machismo in a major league clubhouse. And upon first impression, Burnett has more of it than most.
"He is intimidating to people who don't know him," Locke said. "He has that persona."
Burnett can stare right over or through you. He doesn't appear to suffer fools, and he can seem unapproachable.
But there is another side to Burnett: the side that will sit in the outfield and help a struggling young pitcher.
As most Pirates fans know, Locke and Burnett are almost inseparable now. Their lockers are next to each other and they hang out constantly. Their friendship began before their talk in New York, but it has grown strong since.
That Locke and Burnett would become friends is counterintuitive. At first glance, they just don't seem to have much in common. Where Burnett can seem surly, Locke is always quick to smile and willing to talk about almost anything. Where Burnett keeps newcomers at a distance, Locke seems almost too trusting. Burnett, of course, is a longtime pro who's experienced the media cauldron of New York. One worries that the media pressures and fan criticisms that are part of the job will eventually turn Locke cynical, and he'll change.
How did this odd-couple friendship start?
The clubhouse at Pirate City is divided by a doorway. On one side are the guys that are pretty much on the team, and on the other are the rest of the players on the 40-man roster. Locke said the players refer to them as the "minor league and major league" sides.
When Burnett showed up in Pirates City for the first day of Spring Training in 2012, he walked across the clubhouse and tossed his bag in front of his locker on the major league side.
Locke and his friend Justin Wilson were sitting in front of their lockers on the minor league side and, like a scene out of the movie Major League, they looked at each other as if to say, "Look at this f***** guy."
Locke knew all too well who Burnett was, and he wasn't a fan.
"I used to hate him so much because he's pitching for the Yankees," Locke said. "I didn't like his attitude, and his curveball was so good. And every time he'd play against the Red Sox, even when he was with Toronto, he'd kill them. You know, I just didn't like him."
After Burnett made his noisy entrance, Locke and Wilson decided to break the ice with the veteran. Puffing out their chests and putting on their best tough-guy impressions, the two minor leaguers walked to the line that divided the two sides of the clubhouse. As they stood at the threshold, Locke shouted to Burnett, "You see this line right here? Don't cross this line. It's the minor league side."
"We just gave him a hard time," Locke said. "[Burnett] was like, ‘Who the hell are these guys?' But I think he embraced it and liked it. ... I think he liked the fact that we came right at him with, ‘This is our house. What are you doing here?'"
From that first introduction, a close and unlikely friendship eventually blossomed.
"I often tell [Burnett], 'God, I can't believe we're so close, because I really didn't like you,'" Locke said.
"I think the reason he wanted to help me [in 2012] is because he is such a good person and I think he knows, or learned, that I'm a good person," Locke said. "And he appreciated that. And I think he thought that, ‘Hey, this kid's got really good stuff. There's a few things in there that can [work at this level]."
As the clubhouse was closing Sunday night and the players were getting ready to leave for the break, Burnett was finishing packing for his first trip to an All-Star Game. With Burnett's two sons scurrying around, and players dragging luggage this way and that, Locke walked over to his friend and gave him a big bro-hug and wished him luck. They were now even, in a sense: Burnett had helped Locke get to an All-Star Game, and the left-hander couldn't tease him about not making one himself any longer. They laughed and headed their separate ways.