Monday, August 28, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:17 PM ET
By Tim Keown
A.J. Pierzynski bemoans the lack of creativity emanating from the stands in America's ballparks. He ruminates on the subject like a scholar, as if the issue were linked to the greater failure of the country's educational system. These unschooled and unskilled hecklers, doomed to a life of menial insults, belt out "You suck, A.J.!" or "Look out—here comes Michael Barrett!" and slap hands with their buddies as if volume equaled accomplishment.
Pierzynski shakes his head. He has built up such an impressive body of work, and they honor it with such lame insults. What a waste.
"If you're going to come with something, come up with something good," he says. "I'll laugh with you. Promise. But, I mean, 'A.J., you suck'? Come on. You can't do better than that?"
The All-Star catcher is sitting before a plate of chicken parmigiana in a Toronto restaurant. Pierzynski didn't want to subject himself to this. On one hand, he's tired of the low-level potshots and the amateur psychology. On the other, he openly acknowledges that the notoriety that comes with being baseball's biggest antihero—Satan's personal catcher—has elevated his profile and put money in his pocket.
Caught between embracing the image and fighting it, he's decided to forge his way into the middle ground. He'll take the insults when they're warranted—is it too much to ask for a little bounce down at the brickbat factory—but he's not willing to accept vilification based on misinformation or speculation. Told that Pierzynski was hesitant to be the focus of this story, his friend, pitcher Mark Buehrle, rolls his eyes and says, "I told A.J., 'You know you like the attention.' "
So, for better or worse, he's agreed to lunch. There are no horns rising from his parted-in-themiddle hair. He is polite to the staff and mindful of his manners. He puts the napkin on his lap and eats with the utensils. He does not insult anyone.
"I don't know what people expect me to be like," he says. "I think the media can decide you're either a bad guy or a good guy, and they can keep pounding it until everyone thinks it's true. I get tired of the crap. Every day you read the newspaper, you have to hope that somebody didn't say something or write something that'll make you have to defend yourself."
Pierzynski is a good-natured bad boy, more mischievous than mean. He consistently worries that his mother, Mary Jane, a loyal subscriber to Google Alerts, will be calling to ask him, yet again, to explain himself. He needles teammates and annoys opponents, and he does it with a sideways grin and a tongue-in-cheek manner that doesn't always translate well into baseball's militant code of ethics. And although he's had problems with teammates in the past, his personality seems to get more appealing the closer you get to it.
Or, in the inimitable words of Ozzie Guillen, "If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less."
What does Pierzynski do? Mostly little things. When he makes an out, he'll often take the opportunity to jog across the mound on his way back to the dugout. Pitchers, as a rule, don't like this. Or, as he's running across the infield at the end of an inning, he might refuse to alter his course, even if it means nicking the shoulder of an opponent. Or maybe he'll accidentally-on-purpose step on the first baseman's foot as he crosses the bag.
Buehrle laughs and says, "Why does he do that stuff? I wonder that all the time. It's not dirty, and he doesn't really mean anything by it, but in a baseball sense it can be kind of a big deal."
Anthony John Pierzynski grew up—psychoanalyst alert!—as the only child of divorced parents. He went to Orlando's Dr. Phillips High School, which counts Johnny Damon as another famous alum. He played only baseball, and never considered himself a rabble-rouser. "I wasn't a problem," he says. "I never really was in trouble."
Pierzynski talks like he hits—sharp line drives to all fields. On an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon in the White Sox clubhouse, Pierzynski was ripping up Notre Dame football to broadcaster and former pitcher Ed Farmer, a Notre Dame fanatic. Pierzynski, a Florida Gators fan, made repeated references to Michigan State players sticking a flag into the middle of the field at Notre Dame Stadium after last year's Spartans win. Every time Farmer tried to change the subject, A.J. went back to the flag, complete with an animated reenactment of it being violently thrust into the ground. Finally, one of the White Sox said, "Give it up, Ed. You can't argue with A.J."
The World Series champions, looking up at the Tigers and engaged in a pitched battle for the AL wild card with the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins, need more than words to make a serious run at a repeat. They need Pierzynski to maintain his .300-plus average and on-field combativeness while managing a staff that's been staggering to carry its workload. Fortunately, under Guillen's unique leadership, the team seems to be a perfect fit for its 29-year-old catcher. "Other managers might wait 'til he goes too far and then say, 'I'm going to kick his ass,' " says Guillen. "But when you stay on him, it works better. Every day we're on him. It's a lot of work." Guillen waits a second, laughs and adds, "A.J.'s been great for me. He's worth the work because he always shows up for you."
Of course, he shows up others, too. One of the longstanding criticisms of Pierzynski is his penchant for chattering at hitters. Not true, he says. "I say hello and that's it." Oh, except for David Ortiz. The old Twins teammates go back and forth—this much A.J. admits. "We've known each other forever," he says. "We call each other names."
Pierzynski's abrasiveness seems to have been woven into the fabric of the team. At its best, it's an opportunity for comic relief. Presented with the possibility that Pierzynski is merely a harmless smart-ass, Guillen says, "I don't think he's a smartass. I think he's an asswithout the smart." Catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., who joined the team in late July, chimes in, "I don't really know him, but ask me in a month—when I knock him out."
The White Sox do seem weary of being asked to dissect him. Jermaine Dye waved off an inquiry, saying, "I'm so tired of A.J.'s stuff." Asked if it was truly that much of a trial, Dye said, "Every day. Ask around—I'm sure everybody else feels the same way."
Pierzynski confesses a knack for being in the wrong place at exactly the right time, over and over, to the point where he raises his palms to the sky, rolls his eyes and says, "What are you gonna do?"
Take May 20, for example. That was the day Pierzynski ran through Cubs catcher Barrett to score on a sac fly by Brian Anderson. Barrett was blocking the plate without the benefit of the ball, and Pierzynski was well within his God-given baseball rights. Barrett, already feeling the frustration of another lost Cubs season, hopped up and slugged Pierzynski in the jaw.
Buehrle says, "Once Barrett hit him, I think the whole league wanted to give Barrett a pat on the back." (The incident led, indirectly, to Pierzynski's being voted in by the fans as the AL's final All-Star. The "Punch A.J." line was too good to resist.)
Pierzynski believes whenever he is involved in anything controversial, he becomes the story, regardless of circumstance. The day after the Barrett incident, he hit a homer against the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano. As he rounded the bases, he was serenaded by a furious Zambrano, whose combustible personality is well-known. Pierzynski kept his mouth shut, but inflamed the situation by pointing heavenward as he headed for the dugout—a gesture remarkably similar to the one Zambrano makes after each inning.
"He didn't even see me point," Pierzynski says, noting that Zambrano was yelling at third base coach Joey Cora at the time. "I did it real small. It didn't have to do with him—it had to do with something private, off the field. If he hadn't been yelling at me running around the bases, nobody would have said anything. But it was me, so … "
It was an inspired two-day stretch of controversy, that's for sure. He wants to clarify the Barrett situation, too. Pierzynski was initially fined $2,000 by Major League Baseball, but an appeal lowered it to $250, as close to absolution as baseball is likely to come.
But wait … Pierzynski is back to defending himself. He stops and says, "Look, it's all out there—have at it."
Since he takes issue with so much that is written about him, it seems logical to ask him what he would write. "I'd write about baseball," he says. "I'd write about how I play to win, how I'm a winner. It would be nice to read about baseball."
To start, there aren't many like him, a lefthanded hitting, free-swinging, nonwalking, slowfooted catcher who can hit. He is a gap-to-gap contact hitter who follows a group of maulers (Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Dye), and his relative lack of run production—43 RBIs through Aug. 12—has been a constant source of clubhouse ribbing. Pierzynski counters the jabs by saying, "If you guys would leave some runners out there, and if you weren't so slow, I'd have more RBIs."
By Pierzynski's estimation, more than 90% of the 750 players in the big leagues are more talented than he is. Therefore he must seek every advantage. A surge at the plate in early August lifted Pierzynski's average above .320 for a brief time, and his run production picked up as well.
A winner? The numbers back the claim (see page 57). That's why an incident in San Francisco in 2004—the toughest year of his career—still stings. Pitcher Brett Tomko was one of several Giants who anonymously criticized Pierzynski's preparation to a newspaper reporter that April. Pierzynski immediately called a meeting and demanded to know the culprit. Pierzynski, who says Tomko didn't come forward until later, still holds a grudge. "You can say you don't like me as a person, but when you start calling me out as a professional, that's different," he says. "I take pride in coming to the ballpark every day and being a professional. When you question that, we've got trouble."
Tomko, now with the Dodgers, remembers raising his hand and admitting to some of the quotes. He also says this feud is one-sided. "When it comes down to it, I don't think A.J.'s a bad guy,"
Tomko says. "There are things that come out of his mouth that are shocking sometimes. He's a great player. He can hit. It's just all that negativity that's around him all the time. Sometimes it takes away from what he can do as a ballplayer."
Here's how perception can trump reality: At the start of '04, Giants ace Jason Schmidt asked to throw to backup Yorvit Torrealba. Schmidt got off to a poor start, and Pierzynski eventually replaced Torrealba on Schmidt's day to pitch. Schmidt was 15—2 with a 2.93 ERA in the games Pierzynski started, 3—5, 3.88 with Torrealba.
Schmidt comes close to apologizing for the way the Giants treated Pierzynski. "His numbers were great with me, no doubt," he says. "He didn't get enough credit. It's just that when he came in here, we heard all this stuff about him … we just never gave him the opportunity to prove it wrong. I'll always feel bad about that."
But it was in his first month with the Giants that the only truly disturbing Pierzynski incident took place. After he was hit in the groin by a foul ball during a spring training game, Pierzynski reportedly kneed trainer Stan Conte in the groin when Conte asked him how he felt. Pierzynski, who previously denied the incident took place, now says he kneed Conte to give himself some breathing room after three times asking Conte to let go of his chest protector and back away. Giants sources say the story took place as originally reported.
Lately, there are signs of maturity. On Aug. 4, Pierzynski hit a three-run homer off Roy Halladay. In his last at-bat, he hit a ball that Vernon Wells caught halfway up the wall. Asked if he thought it was out, Pierzynski said, "I needed it, because if it went out, Brandon McCarthy would've pitched the ninth and gotten his first save. I wanted that for him." Guillen adds, "Say what you want, but A.J. does whatever is within his power to win."
It's easy to say those words, but how do you illustrate them? In Pierzynski's case, we're in luck. Go back to Game 2 of last year's ALCS, and one of the most disputed calls in postseason history. It led to the winning run, and kickstarted the White Sox on their way to winning the World Series. You remember the scene: ninth inning, two out, two strikes, and Pierzynski has just flailed clumsily at a Kelvim Escobar split-finger. He starts to the dugout, one step is all, and then thinks, It hit the dirt.("I didn't care if they called me out and I looked stupid. I heard two sounds"—here he gives a quick one-two slap on the table—"and to me that meant the ball hit the ground.") And so he runs to first as catcher Josh Paul rolls the ball to the mound.
Doofus, everyone watching thinks.
Doofus, some of his teammates think.
Safe, the umpires decide.
If you watch closely, you'll see he rounded first and took two steps toward second. Paul was off the field and first baseman Darin Erstad was off the field and second baseman Adam Kennedy was headed for the dugout. As Pierzynski turned toward second, he saw shortstop Orlando Cabrera hold his ground and third baseman Robb Quinlan pick up the ball. So, the moment lost, he retreated to first. That's the core and essence of A.J. Pierzynski. The Angels were pissed he ran to first. And he was looking to take second.