By Bill West
Oct 4, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly (L) and owner Robert Nutting (RC) present third baseman Aramis Ramirez (17) and starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) with gifts before the Pirates play the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park. Both Ramirez and Burnett have announced this is their final season. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez responded to their shared set-to-retire recognition ceremony, held before the Pirates' final regular-season game last Sunday at PNC Park, the way that came naturally to each.
“I love every one of you, and that's why I came back,” Burnett, flanked by his family, announced to the crowd. Then he lingered on the field a bit longer to chat with Pirates executives Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly.
Ramirez, stoic in his solitude, remained quiet and headed back to the dugout when Burnett finished his speech.
They went about their business differently. But the two veterans, whose careers ended with Wednesday's wild-card loss to the Chicago Cubs, served as trusted advisers to teammates from differing sects within the clubhouse.
Burnett, 38, whose influence became apparent when he joined the Pirates in 2012 and remained obvious when he returned in 2015 after one year away, used sneers and smiles to enliven a pitching rotation in search of personality.
Ramirez, 37, shared the secrets to career longevity with a crop of young, impressionable players from his home country, the Dominican Republic, which has produced only six players who appeared in more games than Ramirez (2,194). Acquired via a trade in July, he helped them better understand the state of baseball and of the Pirates, who traded him to the Cubs as a promising 25-year-old to solve payroll problems in 2003.
“He's pouring out when guys are willing to listen,” manager Clint Hurdle said of Ramirez. “He's not a self promoter. He's not that guy that's probably going to grab the flag and run to the front. … We've got guys that'll get to the front, and we've got other guys that don't need to get to the front, because you need to have protection in other areas as well.”
Ramirez recognized the abundance of Dominican talent among his Pirates teammates when he arrived in July. He waited for Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and others to approach him with questions.
“I try to help them as much as I can, just like some guys did when I came up,” Ramirez said. “I don't care if you've been here one year or 20 years. You're a man, and I respect you the same.”
Respect for Ramirez increased after the 18-year veteran, strictly a third baseman throughout his career, agreed to start at first base for the Pirates four times in September.
“It impacted me at the beginning because I didn't think he was going to agree, but he took it nice and easy,” reliever Arquimedes Caminero said. “He's a great guy. You can talk to him, and he's normal like we are. Sometimes you look at somebody like that, and you don't think they're going to talk to you.”
Almost as important as Ramirez's words of advice were his actions. Few Pirates savored batting practice swings more than him.
“He wanted to take like five, six at-bats before a game,” Polanco said. “I was surprised by that. (But) I want to do more like him, because he's been doing this for years. … That's the dream for all of us, to stay here for a long time, as long as we can.”
Those who sought Ramirez often could find him seated in front of his locker hours before games.
To find Burnett before a game usually required more exploring as the 17-year veteran maintained a busy-body routine. But even his locker, more orderly and decorated than any other in the home clubhouse, made a statement.
“That's my office,” Burnett said. “I don't want my office to look like a pigsty. Teammates walk through there. Media. Hall of Famers.”
Wednesday's loss necessitated the removal of Burnett's many mementos, which included a Pirates flag, pictures of his sons, two bottles of champagne, two pieces of Batman art, exotic beer labels, zombie-themed stickers and almost a dozen baseballs in individual cases, each of which marked a notable former player Burnett passed on the all-time strikeout leaders list this year.
At points throughout the year, his locker also showcased wristbands worn by Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen, Pirates bobbleheads and other giveaways, and covers of the team's annual media guides.
From his locker to his tattoos to his “Sit the (expletive) down” catchphrase, Burnett operated publicly in a way that bolstered the Pirates, even when his disposition sometimes led he and Hurdle to butt heads, as they did when Hurdle named Gerrit Cole the starter for the decisive fifth game in the 2013 National League Division Series.
“He is strong-willed,” Hurdle said. “We knew that coming in. That's part of what we thought would help us. … We needed the edge off the mound, more than anything.”
Jeff Locke, whose locker sat next to Burnett's, looked at his own stall, where two stickers remained from when Burnett used it in 2012 and '13. Locke had not personalized his space this year, nor had he kept it particularly neat and tidy. He shook his head.
“He's one of the personalities of this game of baseball that I think will be missed,” Locke said of Burnett. “I don't think a lot of guys in this game have personalities that really stand out. … There's a reason why other teams want guys like that. They help bring positive chemistry to the ball club.”
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