"That's when it really hit me," Burnett said. "I kept saying, 'Why am I not there? I should be in that dugout with them.'"
Burnett won a combined 26 games with a 3.41 ERA for the Pirates in 2012 and 2013. Last year, the lure of a hefty payday as a free agent led him to a $15 million deal with Philadelphia.
He found more money but also endured more misery. Burnett pitched all season with a sports hernia and led the majors with 18 losses, 109 earned runs and 96 walks allowed. The Phillies finished 16 games under .500 at the bottom of the NL East.
On Nov. 3, Burnett turned down his $12.75 million contract option with the Phillies. Then he dialed Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.
"He probably wasn't expecting me to call," Burnett said. "I'm wondering, 'Man, would they want me back or not?' I didn't know. I wanted to be very blunt that it's not about money. It's about me coming back and wearing the uniform if they want me back."
Although they have grown their payroll to around $95 million for the first time, the Pirates could not match the money Burnett would have made if he'd stayed with the Phillies.
"It made the negotiations very different than anything I've ever experienced," Huntington said. "You want to be respectful and not take advantage of a player who wants to come back and is very open about being willing to leave money on the table. At the same time, every dollar we can allocate in different spots makes us a better team."
After a few days, the sides settled on an $8.5 million deal. Burnett, 38, who mulled retirement after the 2013 season, insists this contract will be the last one of his 17-year career.
"I feel like I've done it right, for the most part," Burnett said. "You don't want to ever look back and wish you could've done more. I can look back and say, 'You know what? I pitched 17 years and I don't regret a single day.' "
Burnett figures to slot somewhere in the middle of the Pirates' starting rotation, behind left-hander Francisco Liriano and right-hander Gerrit Cole. Charlie Morton might open the season in the No. 3 spot if he continues to make good progress in his recovery from offseason hip surgery.
The Pirates like Burnett's reliability and durability. Despite his injury, Burnett last season ranked seventh in the NL with 213 2/3 innings pitched.
"He's a leader," Liriano said. "Everybody looks up to A.J. because he's a hard-working guy."
Burnett doesn't want the Pirates to do anything special to mark his final season in the big leagues.
"When I think of farewell tours, I think of Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter. Guys who are Hall of Famers," Burnett said. "I've enjoyed everything that I've done. I don't need any gifts except the gift of (playing in) October."
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