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Pirates

Colin Dunlap: A.J. Burnett Commands Your Praise

By: Colin Dunlap
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

dunlap-head-shot Colin Dunlap
Weeknights, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Colin grew up in Sharpsburg and...
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Do what you want over the Fourth of July weekend this year.

I’m not one to tell you what you must do, but here’s something you shouldn’t do, not even think about: Boo A.J. Burnett when he steps into PNC Park with his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies will trudge into Pittsburgh — along with Burnett and his one-year, $16 million deal — over the Independence Day weekend.

If you boo Burnett, you’re a buffoon.

Plain and simple.

Indeed it was back around Halloween when Burnett came on my radio show, as he was a newly-minted free agent and made the now-famous pronouncement that, moving forward in his career, it would either be Pittsburgh or retirement.

That’s the part everyone focused on; the part everyone clung to with unyielding hope, played and replayed and held Burnett to.

But, all too conveniently, too many neglected to focus on three other words Burnett said as he made that declaration to me — “at this time.”

We all heard what we wanted to hear, all listened to the parts that we wanted to extricate from the interview without paying full-focus to the whole message … that “at this time” offered Burnett some wriggle room wherein he could change his mind, where he could shift his allegiance.

Three little words in a 25-minute interview that definitely change the tenor and tone of his decree.

And we saw exactly as much, as between Halloween and Wednesday, Burnett had a change of heart, time shifted and advanced and he decided that that grabbing his perceived worth from the Phillies — that $16M — was the correct choice for his situation.

How can anyone begrudge him?

How can anyone resent him?

How on Earth does he fall in line for one iota of blame in all of this?

How can anyone hate him for getting all that someone was willing to pay him?

More to the point for the sake of Pirates fans, how can anyone forget what Burnett did for this not-too-long-ago-laughed-at franchise?

That is what the emphasis should be on today; not Burnett leaving — because his value moving forward can be debated here — but what Burnett did in his time wearing that black cap with a gold ‘P’ on it. There is absolutely, positively zero argument about just how important this man was to towing the Pirates out of a two-decades-long despair that, at times, seemingly had no end.

Have there been many athletes in Pittsburgh sports history who have been here such a short time but have had such a deep impact on their particular franchise? Hard to find many.

Here is the man who stood up to — and literally shouted at — the biggest bullies on the block, the Cincinnati Reds, when Dusty’s degenerates decides to, time and again, try to intimidate the Pirates.

Here is the man who took authority in a clubhouse that, all too often in the past, was one in which was filled with despondencies and discouragements and turned it into a place where guys didn’t just believe in themselves, but the other 24 men who put on the same uniform.

Ask any manager in the game the importance of players policing the clubhouse and you will get the same answer all across the board: If the manager needs to step in and be the policeman in the clubhouse, the situation can turn toxic. But, rather, when players can get differences figured out amongst themselves in that room, it breeds the precise atmosphere you need for winning.

Burnett was the guy who did that; the player who played Hurdle’s lieutenant in the clubhouse, making sure that place was policed by players.

And here is the man, in Burnett, who also led by example over the past few seasons, as the Pirates went from laughingstock to playoff team. Burnett went 26-21 in his two seasons as a Pirate, but more important had that 3.41 ERA, ate up 61 starts and almost 400 innings and had an 8.9 strikeout-to-9 inning ratio.

Burnett talked that talk but he walked it, too.

When he returns to Pittsburgh with his new team in a little less than five months, any boos or heckling jeers might be the most misguided things ever flung at an athlete from a sports fan in this town.

That’s at least how it looks. At this time.

Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at colin.dunlap@cbsradio.com. Check out his bio here.