CLEARWATER, Fla. – Right-hander A.J. Burnett lives about a mile away from Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock in Monkton, Md. Their sons are seventh graders who have gone to school together since kindergarten and play on the same recreation-league basketball team.
This winter, when deciding who would coach the team, Burnett and Proefrock decided that Burnett would be the head coach and that Proefrock would be the assistant. Proefrock had to leave for spring training on Feb. 10. Burnett could stay in Maryland longer. His plan was to retire.
It didn’t work out that way, of course – Burnett agreed last week to a one-year, $16 million free-agent contract with the Phillies, a deal that became official on Sunday. And yes, the relationship between Burnett and Proefrock played a role in Burnett’s decision, but perhaps not as important a role as Philadelphia’s proximity to Monkton.
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Proefrock said his home is about a 1-hour, 45-minute drive from Citizens Bank Park, and that Burnett lives slightly closer. The two drove home together one night last season when the Pirates were in town to play the Phillies. Burnett drove himself to his physical in Philadelphia last week, declining the Phillies’ offer of car service.
Anyway, here’s Proefrock’s version of how Burnett became a Phillie:
"The first time I saw him, he was at our home a couple of days after the Pirates lost to the Cardinals. He was picking up my son John to go to youth night at the middle school. He told me he was done. He didn’t think he was going to pitch next year.
"I said whatever works for you, I’m not going to bug you. Throughout the course of the fall, we went trick-or-treating with the kids, talked about what his thoughts were. Nothing had changed. I didn’t think anything about it. Eventually, I told him, ‘Look, I’m not going to bother you about it."
"Especially after the (retirement) press conference Roy (Halladay) had at the winter meetings, to see how at peace he was with it . . . these guys make so many sacrifices for their families. And being with A.J., spending time with him, I know how important his family is to him. I get it. I’m in the same boat with my kids. So, I really didn’t bother him at all.
"I talked to his agent (Darek Braunecker) a couple of times. I said, ‘I’m not at all comfortable talking to A.J. about this. But if he ever does want to play, we would have interest.’ At one point, I did have a conversation with A.J. I told Darek, ‘I can’t do this. It felt weird.’ I’ll talk to you about it, but I won’t ask him.
"We started basketball and practice. He had the kids over to his house before the games started. He has a theater in his basement and showed them ‘Hoosiers’ to get them pumped up. I talked with him a couple of times, said, ‘Let me know if you change your mind,’ that kind of thing. Nothing real serious.
"Then I got a text from Darek a couple of weeks ago. He said, ‘A.J. is going to call you, he wants to talk to you about the Phillies.’ So, after one of our games, we went over his house and talked for a couple of hours.
"I told him also how important he would be to our club. Putting him in between Cliff and Cole (Hamels), I’ll take my chances with anybody . . . His heart was in Pittsburgh. But his family was extremely important to him was family, being able to get home. He already has talked to me about driving home after Opening Day so he can be home on the off day.
"I told him some of the things we told Kristen Lee when we signed Cliff. She said in Texas, the family section was under an underhang, and they couldn’t see the scoreboard. And the family room was a long ways away. In Philadelphia, the families sit in prime seats. One thing, our family room is on the main concourse so they don’t have to go downstairs, only a short walk from the seats. You can go as often as you want to check on the kids. That’s the attention to detail to putting families first.
"The thing we have in common is our kids. He’s a great dad. My son, because he has four sisters, probably would rather spend time at A.J.’s house when I’m not there. I’ve got a great deal of respect for him not just as a baseball player, but as a dad as well. You can tell how much he loves his kids and family."