Rothschild, though, was overruled on Burkett by general manager Chuck LaMar, who was enamored of young righthanders Ryan Rupe and Dan Wheeler. When Burkett asked Rothschild during spring training about his chances of making the club, Rothschild told him about LaMar's thinking. Burkett asked for his release and planned to head home to South Lake—after attending to his laundry. The Braves contacted his agent while Burkett's clothes were in the spin cycle of the washer and closed the deal before time was up on the dryer. Says Burkett, " John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox called me on my cell phone while I was in the Laundromat. I had just gotten released by the Devil Rays, and now the Braves were excited to get me. That was a big deal to me."
Burkett, a sharp student of the game, quickly prospered in Atlanta's collegial, think-tank atmosphere. From pitching coach Leo Mazzone he rediscovered the importance of commanding the down-and-away fastball, which Mazzone believes is the key to all successful pitching. He learned from watching how lefty Tom Glavine, no matter the count or situation, never gives in to hitters by throwing pitches near the center of the plate. Mostly, he absorbed the ways and wisdom of Maddux, a version of himself evolved to a higher level of pitching. "If I had to pick five guys who throw the most like me, he'd be one of them," Maddux says. "Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could come up with anyone who's more like me than he is. He doesn't throw it past anyone. He relies on movement and location."
It wasn't long before Maddux began revealing some tricks. He noticed, for instance, that before winding up Burkett stood on the rubber with his feet pointed not directly at home plate but slightly toward the third-base dugout. Maddux told him to realign his toes. Likewise, Maddux saw that from the stretch position Burkett's left foot was slightly open in relation to his back foot and recommended that he adjust his left foot so his feet would be parallel. "I made both changes and noticed I got much better command of my pitches," Burkett says. Meanwhile, Burkett stuck to Rothschild's long-tossing program, which he says returned the life to his fastball and the stamina to his outings. (Asked if he has made any dietary changes since joining the game's most regal staff, Burkett laughs and says, "Switched from beer to Crown Royal.")
Last year Burkett won 10 games for the Braves in 22 starts and nine relief appearances. The Boston Red Sox and the Anaheim Angels had seen enough to offer him more than $2 million during the off-season as a free agent, but he took slightly less ($1.75 million) to remain enrolled at Pitching U. He and Maddux, whom he almost always follows in the rotation, have rescued Atlanta this season, allowing the Braves to remain only a game behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East even while injuries and ineffectiveness have limited Glavine, John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood to a combined 10-10 record.
"It's a great advantage for me to follow Greg and see how he attacks hitters and how they react to his stuff, since our stuff is so similar," Burkett says. At the break he was 5-4 with a 1.56 ERA when he pitched against the same team Maddux had faced the previous day—and 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA when he didn't.
In Atlanta, Burkett's contributions have gone beyond those on the field, as evidenced before a June 30 game, when he held an Introduction to CD Burning class in the food room of the clubhouse. He has helped 10 of his teammates, including Maddux, purchase and configure laptops and is their resident IT troubleshooter.
Who knew that a cybersurfer who bookmarks PBA.com (he has bowled in five tour events and got into the money for the first time last year in Dallas, when he finished 32nd and earned $1,360) would turn out to be one of baseball's hottest pitchers? Rothschild, he thinks, may have been right after all. "I can pitch into my 40s," Burkett says. "I've never had a streak of starts like this. But I'm no longer surprised and I don't think, 'When's it going to end?' There's no reason it'll stop. The next three years or so I expect to be pitching like I am now."
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