Ron Cook: A.J. Burnett is wrong, but Derek Jeter is right


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What a day in baseball Wednesday. Shortly before noon, news broke that A.J. Burnett is leaving the Pirates and the calm of Pittsburgh for the Phillies and the storm that is Philadelphia. He is doing this despite being overmatched and overwhelmed by the bright lights and scrutiny of New York earlier in his career. Then at 2 p.m., Derek Jeter -- one of the greatest New York Yankees of all -- announced he is retiring at the end of the 2014 season. Never has a player, a franchise and a city been better-matched.

Good luck to Jeter. Here's hoping his final season is filled with good health, plenty of hits and -- what the heck? -- a sixth world championship. He's been so good and so admirable for so long that he deserves it.

Good luck to Burnett. He's going to need it. If Philly eats him up the way New York eventually did, oh well.

Burnett has 16,000,000 legitimate reasons to make the move, and no one can blame him for doing it. He owes the Pirates nothing. But that doesn't mean it's smart. Money can buy only so much happiness, right? It's hard to imagine a worse landing spot for Burnett with the possible exception of Baltimore, which would have brought him back to the American League East. Those clubs often beat him beyond recognition, so badly that the Yankees paid the Pirates -- literally -- to take him off their hands two years ago.

Coming to Pittsburgh was wonderful for Burnett. He and manager Clint Hurdle are most responsible for changing the culture on the Pirates, from laughable losers to respected winners. Burnett certainly did his part on the field. For two seasons, he gave the team plenty of innings and strikeouts.

Much of Burnett's competitive fire was good but too often he behaved like a jerk, showing up Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and his teammates. The worst moment came after Hurdle bypassed him for rookie Gerrit Cole for the start in decisive Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Burnett threw such a tirade that there was some concern in the organization that he would quit on the team and not show up for Game 5.

Most Pittsburgh fans didn't care about any of Burnett's personal shortcomings, of course. "That's just A.J. being A.J. He's a competitor."

The city embraced Burnett with both arms, and he hugged back. The lovefest reached the point that he took an either-or stance after last season -- a return to the Pirates or retirement.

But, hey, people change their mind.

Those 16,000,000 reasons, remember?

The Phillies certainly can afford to take a chance on Burnett, who turned 37 last month, wasn't sure he even wanted to pitch this season and could be ready to start breaking down. They just signed a 25-year, $2.5 billion cable deal with Comcast SportsNet. But it won't be a surprise if they don't get their money's worth from Burnett. The Pirates weren't wrong for not going anywhere near $16 million for him, not after they didn't have enough confidence in him last season to give him the ball in the biggest game. If you want to blame them for something, blame them for not spending that $16 million to add to their lineup at first base or in right field. That makes them look bad. It makes them look like the same, old, cheap Pirates.

Pittsburgh will get over losing Burnett.

New York will need a lot longer to get over losing Jeter.

Athletes don't have to be role models. Their obligation is to deliver a professional performance every time they step on the field, court or rink, not to help raise your kids. But isn't it terrific when a player is a responsible citizen? For 19 seasons, Jeter has lived in the constant spotlight of New York but never took a misstep or misspoke. There were no stories of drug use, no ugly run-ins with managers, teammates, fans or girlfriends. Did you ever hear of him getting even a parking ticket?

"In the 21-plus years in which I have served as commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter," Bud Selig said in a statement.

If you are ranking the greatest titles in sports, Yankee Captain would be no worse than second behind Heavyweight Champion of the World. For 12 years -- an eternity in sports -- Jeter has worn it with pride and dignity. His 3,316 hits, .312 batting average, 13 All-Star Game appearances and five Gold Gloves at shortstop scream first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you ask him, he surely would say he'd best like to be remembered as a winner. Baseball -- any sport, really -- has had few better at that.

ESPN jumped on the opportunity presented by Jeter's announcement to come up with a list of the 50 greatest Yankees. Jeter would be No. 1 for many franchises, but he's just No. 7 on the Yankees' list. No shame there. No shame at all. Not when the first six are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera and Yogi Berra. It's only a matter of time until Jeter and Rivera take their place among the other legends in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.

Injuries limited Jeter, 39, to 17 games last season. He hit just .190 with one home run and seven RBIs. It's time for him to retire. Of course, it's time. When it comes to baseball, he always makes the right decision.

Jeter's farewell tour should be wonderful. Enjoy every minute, especially the games against the Pirates May 16-18 in New York. It will be a long time before you see another player like him.

That's if you see another like him.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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