Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pteromerhanophobia, AJ Burnett, and Jackie Jensen

By The Common Man

This morning, we learned that AJ Burnett has officially rejected a trade to the Angels, citing his desire to play on the East Coast. On the surface, it seems ridiculous. Burnett is clearly not wanted in The Bronx anymore, by either the Yankees or the fans, and the Angels have a low-pressure rotation spot that he’d be ideal for as he seeks to right his career. So why…why on Earth, would AJ Burnett refuse the trade?

According to a commenter on one of Rob Neyer’s latest posts (h/t to Rob's Tweet) there is speculation that Burnett’s committed to staying on the East Coast for family reasons. Burnett lives in Maryland in the offseason and, based on some of the provisions of his contracts with the Blue Jays, the team paid for limousine service for Burnett’s wife and children to drive the 8 hours from Baltimore to Toronto several times during his stint there. The speculation is that Burnett’s wife may be deathly afraid of flying, and playing on the East Coast allows him to get back to see his family more regularly, since they can’t come extreme distances to him. The Common Man has no idea whether this is true, nor if it is does he think that anyone in the Burnett family deserves any measure of criticism for their decisions.

What interests The Common Man is that this is in no way the first time that a fear of flying has potentially derailed a promising baseball career.

In the 1940s, Jackie Jensen was an All-American football and baseball player at the University of California, and helped UCal win the first College World Series as a pitcher and outfielder. He also placed 4th in the Heisman Trophy race in 1948. Jensen had a big year in 1949 when he married his high school sweetheart, Olympic Silver Medalist in Women’s Diving Zoe Ann Olson, scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, and signed with his hometown Oakland Oaks in 1949. After another year, Jensen was sold to the Yankees with Billy Martin.

Despite great offense in limited action, the Yankees didn’t have room for him with Gene Woodling, Joe DiMaggio, hank Bauer, and, eventually, Mickey Mantle patrolling the outfield. So Jensen was packaged with three other players in a terrible trade with Washington that netted another outfielder (Irv Noren, who was productive) and a shortstop (Tom Upton, who never played for the Yankees). That summer, Jensen would make his first of three All Star teams and led the AL in outfield assists.

Jensen played another year for the Nationals, but was soon dealt to Boston for a young 18-game winner (Mickey McDermott) and a 23 year old outfielder (Tom Umphlett) who had finished 2nd in the ROY voting the year before, but who would have a 48 OPS+ in two years in the nation’s capital.

Taking advantage of the Green Monster (as opposed to the cavernous left field in Griffith Stadium), Jensen’s power manifested. He hit 25 homers, more than 100 RBI, and led the AL in stolen bases in his first year with the Red Sox. Jensen would become a fan favorite, hitting 157 homers in his first six years in Boston, with a 127 OPS+. He also broke out in 1958, hitting .286/.396/.535 (148 OPS+) with 35 homers, led the AL with 122 RBI, and was voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League.

But beneath the “golden boy” exterior (bolstered by his marriage to Olson and his rescue of two drowning boys in 1954), Jensen was troubled. Former teammate Frank Sullivan remembered, “Playing baseball takes a gypsy of sorts. I felt Jackie probably would have enjoyed a more stable life.” Billy Goodman and Pete Runnels both described Jensen as a kind of pressure cooker who was unable to let off steam. Goodman told reporters, “He was quiet, kinda lived in his own world. What pressure there was, he created for himself, and what he created, he kept to himself.” Runnels also recalled the most public struggle that Jensen had as a ballplayer, “He always seemed to be under tension. When he played he was always so conservative and businesslike. And of course, he just didn’t like to fly.”

It was more than that. Jackie Jensen didn’t just not “like to fly.” He was deathly afraid of it. He was so afraid that, when the Nationals traded him to the Red Sox in 1953, he almost refused to go, and talked about going back to Oakland, knowing the Sox used planes more often than Washington did. The Sox had to kick in an extra thousand dollars to get him to acquiesce. Then, as the team used air travel more and more, they hired therapists for Jensen to try and help him get over his fear. They hired a team hypnotist. Nothing worked. Jensen constantly talked about quitting and going back to the West Coast to be near his business interests and his family.

Finally, a day before the season was supposed to end in 1959, he snapped and walked out on his club. That January, he confirmed he would not be back, saying “it is disagreeable for him to be separated from his wife and three children.” He was only 32, and a year removed from being the AL MVP.

After a year off, he came back, telling reporters
“As you know, when I announced my retirement last year I said I had personal problems. I thought a year away might solve them. The problems are still there. I think I was a bit immature in my thinking. That’s why I feel like returning to baseball, a game I like and enjoy. I realize now that the problems would have existed no matter what business I happened to be in and I shouldn’t have blamed baseball. I still dislike the traveling that will keep me away from my family but other things will compensate for that.”

The year off didn’t help. He still suffered humiliating and debilitating panic attacks in airports, and was forced to modify his travel or skip certain trips entirely. In May, just a dozen games into the new season, he left the club without telling his manager after reportedly saying “I can’t hit any more. I can’t run. I can throw. Suddenly my reflexes are gone. I am quitting only because I have too much pride to be the 25th man on the Red Sox.” A few days later he was back and apologetic, saying “I made a very hasty decision last week…and, as I’ve already told [Manager] Mike Higgins…I regret not only that decision but also the manner in which I left the team.”

But the trouble didn’t stop. A flight to Baltimore had a lot of turbulence, triggering his symptoms again. In June, Jensen drove 850 miles with the club hypnotist from Boston to Detroit for a series. In August, Jensen refused to travel to Los Angeles for a series with the Angels and boston announced that “it is understood that Jensen will not be paid for the games he misses.” He also refused to fly home from the club’s September 1-3 series in Minnesota, and missed the Labor Day game in Boston.

He still had strong on base skills, but his power was largely gone. No one was really surprised when, even though the Sox had offered to find a way to modify his travel schedule in 1962, Jensen retired again. He was 34, and finished his career hitting .279/.369/.460 (120 OPS+), with 199 homers, 143 stolen bases, and 26.5 rWAR. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given the level of tension he seemed to have in his life, that Jensen died of a heart attack at just 55.

So let’s not pretend that AJ Burnett’s situation is normal. Let’s not assume that he just needs some extra motivation, or that booing him is going to help him pitch better. Too often, we forget that ballplayers are human beings, not gods. When they play poorly, it’s stupid for fans to treat it as though they’re having a crisis of faith. If these reports are accurate, AJ Burnett has enough on his mind, and we hope that he finds a home closer to home to be there for his family, and that he’s able to become the talented Jack Morris doppelganger we all want him to be.

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