Bottom line: A.J.'s a gamer
White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski has gone from clubhouse catalyst to clubhouse cancer to clubhouse cure, writes Wayne Drehs.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Walking off the field during a recent spring training game, the catcher pulls the black mask off his face, looks to his wife and 6-month-old daughter in the front row and asks a question.
"Is she sleeping yet?"
"Yes," his wife responds, smiling at the baby. "Finally."
"Good," the catcher responds, smiling back.
Two hours earlier, the same man stands behind home plate during a team workout. A ball just dropped in front of outfielder Jermaine Dye, and the catcher won't let his friend hear the end of it. "Don't you know how to run?" he yells to Dye. "We run here."
Dye mumbles his rebuttal, but the catcher has one of his own. "What's that Jermaine? I'm sorry -- we don't speak Ebonics," he says jokingly. "I can't understand you."
The other side of A.J. Pierzynski.
On the other side, the major-league catcher. The needling, chirping, constantly carping instigator who has become a lightning rod in major-league clubhouses. It is this Pierzynski who was once referred to as a "clubhouse cancer." This Pierzynski who was at the heart of seemingly every postseason controversy last fall. And this Pierzynski who recently found himself at No. 9 on GQ's list of the 10 most hated athletes in all of sports.
"I'm under the microscope more than any other player besides Barry," Pierzynski said. "If I do any little thing that any other player would do, when I do it, they say, 'Oh, that's just him being dumb.' Somebody else does it and people just look the other way.
"I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me. But it's tough on Lisa and my mother."
So who's the real Pierzynski? Like most of us, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. In the gray area. Not an angel. Not a devil. Just himself. Warmly welcomed in some circles (the White Sox clubhouse), quickly turned away in others (the Giants clubhouse). His wife Lisa, who has known A.J. since high school, believes it's her husband's two strongest qualities that get him in the most trouble -- his intensity and competitiveness.
Like A.J.'s mother, who has an Internet program that notifies her each time her son's name is mentioned in a story, Lisa reads each and every one of her husband's clips.
"No one wants to read something bad about someone they love," Lisa said. "It isn't easy. But I know the way he is. And he's nothing like the way people perceive him. Is he perfect? No. Not at all. But nobody is.
"With A.J., what you see is what you get. And he isn't going to change for anybody."
|“||He's one of those guys who when you play against him, you absolutely can't stand the guy. He drives you nuts. But on your team, you love it. He fits in here. ”|
|— White Sox pitcher Jon Garland|
Now, the guy who spent 10 hours on the phone convincing White Sox general manager Kenny Williams to give him a one-year contract just signed a three-year, $15 million extension to wear, fittingly enough, more silver and black.
What's changed between Minnesota, San Francisco and Chicago? Not a thing. Pierzynski is still the grating chatterbox he's always been. The difference is the eight-year major league veteran finally found a home. He finally found a place where his sometimes fingernails-on-a-chalkboard ways are not only appreciated, but encouraged.
"I think A.J. is like a kid in a grown body," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "Sometimes he says things people don't like. Sometimes he does things on the field people worry about. But he's a gamer. He shows up every day to play. Some people can't handle the truth. We can."
The truth is, in last year's postseason, Pierzynski was everywhere. Standing next to the plate, he hit .262 with three homers and nine RBI. Squatting behind it, he caught one of the greatest team pitching performances in playoff history, headlined by four straight complete games in the ALCS.
But that isn't what most baseball fans remember. No, somewhere in the front of the book on the 2005 playoffs is an entire chapter on A.J. Pierzynski the instigator. Just ask Los Angeles Angels reliever Kelvim Escobar, who has a baseball card of the White Sox catcher in his locker.
"I've never been a fan," Escobar said this spring.
The play everyone remembers came in the bottom of the ninth inning of ALCS Game 2. After striking out swinging, Pierzynski dashed to first base when he thought catcher Josh Paul failed to handle the pitch cleanly. Thinking the inning was over, Paul rolled the ball back to the pitcher and Pierzynski was called safe. Pinch runner Pablo Ozuna stole second and then scored the winning run on a hit by Joe Crede. The play seemed to shift the momentum to the White Sox, who went on to win the series.
"I don't know why [Angels fans] were mad at me," Pierzynski said. "I didn't do anything. They should be mad at Crede -- he's the one who got the big hit."
In Game 4, Angels center fielder Steve Finley nicked Pierzynski's mitt during a critical at-bat, but interference wasn't called. Finley hit into a double play on the swing.
And in Game 5, Pierzynski followed a walk by Aaron Rowand by ricocheting a liner off Escobar. Escobar picked the ball up with his bare hand and tagged Pierzynski, but with his empty glove. Pierzynski was originally called out, but the call was reversed after Guillen argued.
"I'm always in the middle of everything," Pierzynski said. "Story of my career."
Pierzynski's momentum changers all added up to create the ultimate villain for everyone and anyone anti-Sox. Frustrations still linger even now, with the White Sox electing to hold Pierzynski out of last week's spring training game against the Angels. Just in case.
"By the time your contract runs out," White Sox coach Joey Cora joked to Pierzynski during a workout last week, "you probably won't be able to play in any spring training games, you're so well liked."
Even before he became a household name in last year's postseason, Pierzynski's reputation was, well, colorful. Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire once joked that he had two chairs in his office -- one for A.J. and one for everyone else. When Pierzynski left Minnesota, Gardenhire said he thought Pierzynski's grating ways cost his pitchers strikes with the umpires.
After a Pierzynski home run propelled the Twins to a division series victory over Oakland in 2002, A's outfielder Terrence Long said, "I wouldn't want 90 percent of players not respecting me, and that's what he's got working now." A's teammate Billy Koch, now out of the league, called Pierzynski a "jackass."
It's no surprise that Pierzynski is annually among the league leaders in getting hit by pitches.
"You hit a ground ball, he'll step on your bat running down first base behind you," former teammate Aaron Rowand said during last year's playoffs. "He'll give you an elbow at first base. He's just like that. Playing against him, you don't like it too much, but when he's on your team, that's a completely different picture."
Except in San Francisco. There, Pierzynski was accused of kneeing a Giants trainer in the groin, playing cards instead of going over opposing hitters and criticizing his pitchers to the opposition. Less than a month into the regular season, the bad blood boiled over when a teammate labeled Pierzynski a "clubhouse cancer." It took a toll on the former All-Star catcher, as he hit .236 in April while grounding into seven double plays.
"In San Francisco, you could tell, baseball wasn't fun for him," Lisa said. "It was like going to work. It wasn't fun. And how could it be with 42,000 people booing him every single night?"
But it was the criticism inside the clubhouse that hurt most. The incident with the trainer, Pierzynski said, never happened. "Don't you think if something like that happened, in spring training, you would have heard about it? I would have gotten in some sort of trouble?"
Not going over hitters, Pierzynski said, did happen. One time. He was playing cards, he said, and asked Brett Tomko to give him a minute to finish the hand. A minute later, he went back to Tomko to go over the lineup, but Pierzynski said Tomko was so incensed he told the catcher to forget it. A few days later, an anonymous player said in a newspaper story that Pierzynski would rather play cards and watch Twins games than go over opposing hitters.
In the same story came the biggest sting of all -- the dreaded "C" word, attributed to an anonymous teammate. The comments were later attributed to Tomko, which hurt even more, considering Pierzynski thought he had befriended the pitcher in spring training.
Last spring, Pierzynski offered a $100 bounty to anyone who homered off Tomko. And his teammates put a Tomko baseball card in his locker.
"The worst part was that it was a guy I had done a lot of stuff with," Pierzynski said. "I was giving him a ride to the field every day and then all of the sudden, for him to say what he said it was like, 'Where did that come from?'
"I mean, it's not my fault you got off to a bad start. You suck -- it's not my fault. I wasn't off to a great start, either, but I wasn't blaming him for me not getting any hits. I don't believe you blame other people."
Pierzynski believes the entire San Francisco situation was failed from the beginning. He went to the Giants not knowing anyone on the team and his unique personality simply didn't jell with what he describes as a walk-on-eggshells clubhouse perpetuated by the personalities of Felipe Alou and Barry Bonds.
"When you walked in there, everybody was on pins and needles," Pierzynski said. "No matter what you said or what you did, everybody was always looking to, not talk about someone, but whisper, 'Can you believe he did this? Can you believe he did that?' There wasn't a lot of joking around, there wasn't a lot of camaraderie. Felipe doesn't say a word, then Barry does his own thing. It works its way down. Everybody is so afraid to be themselves. It's just a different atmosphere.
"The best thing that ever happened was me getting out of there."
When the Giants released Pierzynski in December of 2004, finding a new team wasn't easy. The Sox especially had little interest in Pierzynski and his baggage. When Pierzynski's agent called Williams, he simply said, "No." When Williams asked Guillen for his opinion, the manager concurred.
"I told him, 'Hell no,'" Guillen said. "'I don't want that headache on my team.'"
But Pierzynski and his agent believed Chicago was the perfect fit. The catcher knew the division; he was familiar with several White Sox players; and perhaps most important, he knew how to beat the Sox's biggest nemesis, the Twins. Pierzynski spent 10 hours on the phone with Williams, convincing him that he wasn't the person the rumors made him out to be.
Williams and Guillen did their research and talked to colleagues around the league. Sox announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson suggested the team give Pierzynski a shot.
"Hawk said, 'You're going to love this kid. He's a gamer. He'll do everything he can to help you win games,'" Guillen said. "Hawk was right."
Pierzynski signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Sox and from the very beginning, sensed things were going to be different. Led by the loudmouth ways of Guillen, the clubhouse was looser, the players were more relaxed, and Pierzynski was on a team with a group of guys (Carl Everett, Jose Contreras, Crede and Dye to name a few) whose careers were also in question.
It made for an environment in which Pierzynski could be himself and not fear the ramifications.
"When I came in, I didn't want to ruffle any feathers," Pierzynski said. "But after seeing Ozzie, it was a perfect fit. With him, it's pretty much game on. Everyone and everything is fair game. And we have a great bunch of guys who aren't afraid to just be themselves."
In his first season in Chicago, Pierzynski hit a career high 18 homers and masterfully handled the Sox pitching staff. His .999 fielding percentage led AL catchers and he was third in innings caught. The entire season, Pierzynski said, Buehrle and Jon Garland shook him off only once. And just last week, Williams said in a story that acquiring Pierzynski has been one of his best moves as general manager.
"He's one of those guys who when you play against him, you absolutely can't stand the guy," Garland said. "He drives you nuts. But on your team, you love it. He fits in here."
It's another warm spring morning in the Arizona desert and A.J. Pierzynski has just finished his first round of batting practice.
"Run the bases," an assistant coach tells him.
"But I thought we were doing it like the season," Pierzynski responds. "We don't run during the season."
"Run the bases," the coach repeats, his voice growing louder.
"Run the bases," the coach yells.
"Run the bases," Dye adds.
Pierzynski drops his bat, puts his head down and shuffles off toward first base. But not without getting the last word.
"I don't get it," Pierzynski says. "I'm just going to get pinch-run for."
Two hours later, the Sox are taking on the Rockies in Tucson. Pierzynski is behind the plate when Colorado first baseman and former Florida Gator Ryan Shealy steps into the box. Pierzynski, a huge Gator fan, stands up with all of his gear on, sticks his arms out and does the Gator chomp. In the middle of the game. After the inning, Guillen asks what the hell that was. "The Gator chomp," Pierzynski says.
The White Sox manager turns around, looks over the dugout, spots Lisa in the front row and shakes his head. She shakes her head, too, and looks into her daughter's stroller and smiles.
"Babycakes," she says, "your daddy is a nut case."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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