BRADENTON, Fla. — Right-hander A.J. Burnett returned to Florida on Saturday to the Pirates spring training clubhouse at McKechnie Field. There he was greeted by his teammates just eight days after undergoing right eye surgery in Pittsburgh.
“We’re happy to have him back,” Bucs Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Everything is moving as well as we could hope for it to. The guys were very respective when he showed up in the clubhouse today. I think he’s got a little bounce in his step as well.”
Burnett has been cleared to begin the second portion of his return to pitch program. After arriving to Bradenton, Burnett began his re-conditioning program after follow-up exams in the morning. Prior to meeting with the media during the Pirates 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, Burnett said he worked out on an exercise bike as well as played catch, tossing about 50 throws.
“Just got through with a pretty good bike routine,” Burnett said. “I got a little catching up to do. It’s good. Everything went well. I’m just happy to be back down here with the guys, be back around them.”
“I want to take it day by day and see how the eye reacts to me running, things like that. I threw today, got on the bike program today and we’ll take it a step further tomorrow. ”
After undergoing surgery to repair the fractured orbital bone in his right eye, Burnett had a very rough estimated timetable to compete without restrictions at the Major League level of 8-12 weeks.
“I think [the Pirates] are taking the conservative approach , which is the correct approach,” Burnett said. “If it takes that long, then it takes that long. If it’s before that, great. There is no timetable. Eight to 12 [weeks] is realistic, but you never know if something could act up from running, or lifting, swelling pop out of nowhere, things like that.”
Burnett was informed that the orbital bone was fractured and that he could have let it heal without surgery, but there was a chance that the fracture could have moved, moving the eye, and possibly giving him double vision. Burnett said the doctors put a thumb sized piece of plastic in there during the procedure.
“I was hoping it wasn’t going to be that [surgery]. But in the long run, for what I do, my eye sight’s pretty important. Why take the chance of it not healing right away? It was a no brainer,” Burnett said. “The doctor did a good job. It wasn’t sore the day after. It was fine. A little bit of swelling, but it’s gone down everyday since. My visions finally back to as good as it was.”
After the surgery, however, Burnett couldn’t see.
“I wasn’t seeing anything,” he said. “My eye was completely closed. It was just foggy, more from the morphine I think. I had to put some morphine on the scars, to make sure they didn’t open up. Then, [my vision] cleared up pretty good.
Burnett put frozen peas on his eye to reduce the swelling. “Whatever works, right?,” he said.
Burnett, who the Pirates acquired from the New York Yankees in February for two prospects, suffered a fractured orbital bone in his right eye after taking a fouled bunt off his face during the bunting competition at Pirate City. Right-hander Brad Lincoln went on to win the championship belt, which can be seen hanging in his locker.
“I think everybody knows deep down in to it, I really won that,” Burnett said with a smile. “I let him have it. It was a fun time. I was glad I got to participate what I did.”
Immediately after getting hit in the eye, Burnett said he had no idea that it was going to be as bad as it did. After being treated by the Pirates medical staff, Burnett flew to Pittsburgh to undergo more evaluations.
“I had no idea. It got me pretty good,” Burnett said. “I know it was loud. You never know. They took the right step, precaution-wise to make sure.”
“You hate to leave, but I got to see my oldest [kids] birthday for the first time in like 10 years. Things happen for a reason.”
“If it’s freaky, it’s going to happen to me. I’ve learned to except those things by now. Not much more I could have done. I pulled the bat back, but you can’t look at it and question it now. I had my day of tears, laying in my hotel room [wondering] what just happened. I’m over it now. We’re in a positive direction getting back on the field…Back in my early Marlin days, I had a few freak injuries. We learned how to handle those. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
After news broke that Burnett successful underwent surgery, fans altered a photo of Burnett in his Pirates uniform with an eye patch over his right eye. The photos were on both Facebook and Twitter, and Burnett found humor in it.
“I don’t do Facebook, I’m a grown up. I don’t do Twitter,” Burnett said. “But I think it’s great. If you can’t laugh at yourself at certain things then you got problems. I think the Pirate logo is hilarious. I got a picture the other day with the kid from the Christmas story, you know, ‘you’ll blow your eye out.’ I’ve heard it all before. I laugh at myself, that’s part of it.”
Despite not being able to pitch as part of the team for the next two to three months, Burnett is still going to make sure he is around while working his way back on the mound.
“I’ll do what I can to be a part [of the team],” Burnett said. “I’m going to be around it. I’m not going to shy away from the fields. I’m not going to do my work in private. This is my crew, this is my family, and I want to be around it everyday I can and make sure that I’m still a part of it whether I’m on the field or not.”