»»» Yankees manager Joe Girardi told the Trib he was impressed by how Burnett handled adversity in New York, and liked that the veteran pitcher was not afraid to mentor younger guys. “He kind of took (righty Ivan) Nova under his wing,” Girardi said. “He and Nova were kind of partners in their work.”
Nova made the Yanks’ starting rotation out of spring training last year, and pitched a gem in June against the Reds. But despite pitching well, Nova went back to the minors when Phil Hughes came off the DL. Some advice from Burnett made the demotion easier to accept, Nova said. “I remember we went to Toledo (for a Triple-A game), like eight hours in the bus, the day after the All-Star break I think it was,” Nova said. “It was hard. At that moment, I started thinking, ‘The first opportunity I have (to get back), I have to take advantage.’ A.J. was one of the guys that told me that. You’re going to have your opportunity to go back to the big leagues. And once you get it, keep showing that you’ll never be sent down again.”
Nova came back to the majors for good at the end of July. His 16 wins last year were the most by a Yankees rookie in 43 years. Nova plans to stay in touch with Burnett. “I have his number,” Nova said. “He’s a good man. Sometimes, when he’s mad, you try to make him laugh and whatever. And he does the same thing with me.”
»»» Burnett and Chris Simmons have known each other since they were 10 years old, growing up together in suburban Little Rock, Ark. “I’m an only child, so he’s my big brother, really,” Simmons told me in a phone conversation the other day.
However, they were not always best friends. “Growing up, we were always on opposite teams and we always hated each other,” Simmons said. “He was always the best player on the other team and vice versa, so it was always a competition between me and him. When I transferred to (Central Arkansas Christian High School), I walked into geometry class and there he was. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ And there was my seat, right next to him. ‘I’ve got to sit next to this clown?” But the next thing you know, we were pretty much inseparable.”
Simmons and Burnett have remained close over the years — even afgter Burnett accidentally broke Simmons jaw in 1995. They were playing catch on day after school and Burnett fired a fastball before Simmons was ready to catch it. Simmons’ jaw was shattered in three places. “I actually still have the ball,” Simmons said, laughing. “I made him sign it.”