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Commentary: Burnett wasn't worth it

by on February 16, 2014 2:00 AM

The A.J. Burnett era is over.

Pittsburgh sports fans will have to get along without his famous tattoos and not-quite-as-famous pierced nipples. A.J., who said a few months ago that he would either return to pitch for the Pirates or retire, ended up signing a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies.

Burnett was one of the best pitchers in the National League last season, and taking him and $20 million of his salary from the Yankees two years ago turned out to be a good move.

But, last October, the Pirates bumped Burnett out of his spot in the starting rotation for their most important game in 20 years — Game 5 of the National League Division Series with the Cardinals — and replaced him with a rookie, Gerrit Cole.

Burnett didn’t exactly take it like a man.

He threw a fit. There were no public reports by eyewitnesses but, by all credible off-the-record accounts, it was a doozey and may have included a threat to be a no-show for the game.

A good teammate would have recognized that he had been knocked around in the Cardinals’ ballpark more than once and been satisfied with pitching Game 1 of the NLCS in Los Angeles.

Of course, the Pirates never got to Los Angeles, and Burnett never pitched for the Pirates again.

Pirates fans who love to spend Bob Nutting’s money were demanding that the Pirates pay whatever it took to sign Burnett in the offseason.

General manager Neal Huntington admitted this week that the Pirates didn’t offer Burnett the $14 million that, if it had been turned down, would have given the Pirates an extra first round draft pick, because they were afraid that he would take it. The Pirates didn’t want to pay that kind of money for that kind of player. Can’t say I blame them.

Now, should they have come up with $10 million or $12 million to sign another top free agent? That’s another story.

• I don’t care that Michael Sam is gay. I really, really don’t. I was doing fine without that information.

In case you haven’t heard, Sam is an NFL prospect who played defensive end/ linebacker at Missouri, and last Sunday he let the world know he’s gay.

The media, of course, went nuts.

Sam could be the first openly gay player in the NFL, and that’s a story that goes way beyond sports. And, of course, NFL general managers who said they would re-evaluate Sam’s draft status because of his announcement were trashed as homophobes. We were told that the word “distraction” in Sam’s case was a code word for homophobia.

Sam won’t be a distraction. He’ll be a circus.

More than one commentator accused NFL general managers of hypocrisy for suggesting that Sam would be a difficult distraction when they have had to deal with players who committed DUI homicide and/or were accused of everything from assault to rape.

The point that they all seemed to miss is that those “distractions” were unavoidable. Those players were already employed by them and subject to union due process.

If Ben Roethlisberger had been accused of rape a month or two before the 2004 draft, do you think the Steelers would have taken him as the 11th overall pick?

And, please, I’m not equating being gay to being a rapist. I’m talking about avoidable and unavoidable distractions.

The consensus seems to be that Sam is a middle- to late-round talent, which would mean he would be somewhere between the 120th and 200th player picked.

The GM who makes Sam his fifth-round pick will have to decide that Sam and the circus that will come with him as, say, the 156th-best player in the draft is a better choice than whoever is 157 on his board.

Maybe choosing Sam under those circumstances would be the courageous, honorable thing to do, but not taking him sure doesn’t make him a homophobe.

• Many of the ringmasters of the media circus, who are drooling over the prospect of putting their tent over Sam, have been saying how wonderful it will be when a gay NFL player is no longer a big story and not worthy of their overkill.

Here’s a suggestion for ESPN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, TMZ, HBO, NFL Network, The Associated Press, USA Today, People magazine, Us magazine, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, all the bloggers and all the local media in the town where Sam ends up: Start now.

In order to make it easier for the next gay player, pledge to the NFL team that drafts Sam that you won’t descend upon him and his family and torture him with cameras and microphones. Promise not to badger every one of his teammates and every other NFL player about how they feel about having a gay teammate or opponent.

You all have the power to make it a non-story and make it more likely that he’ll be drafted and not be a “distraction.” You can make it impossible for a GM to legitimately be reluctant to draft him because of the impending media circus.

Go ahead. Make the pledge. Or, you can bring the circus to town and then bash the next GM who shows any inclination to avoid it for being a homophobe.



John Steigerwald's blog can be found at www.justwatchthegame.com, and he is the author of "Just Watch The Game." His column appears each Saturday.
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