"Everyone wants a villain," A.J. Pierzynski said. "Look at what LeBron James has gone through the past few years. My teammates get the best kick of it. When we go to Oakland, Anaheim, San Francisco, Minnesota, Cleveland, I get loud boos. Guys on my team can't wait to see that and to hear that."
Pierzynski is 35, and in his 15th season as a major league catcher, the last eight of which he has spent with the White Sox. He does not, in conversation, seem like much of a villain. He is introspective and intelligent: he was a member of the National Honor Society at Orlando's Dr. Phillips High, and before the Twins made him a third round pick in the 1994 draft he had been recruited by Yale. He is a devoted husband and father to two young children. He knows by heart all the back roads to Disney World, he has a room in his house entirely devoted to LEGOs, and he counts among his longtime friends Joey Fatone, who sang baritone for the erstwhile boy band 'N Sync. But boos rain down upon him wherever he goes, and the dislike for him is not limited to fans of teams other than his own.
As with most every collection of several hundred young men, Major League Baseball contains its share of miscreants: drunk drivers, identity falsifiers, drug abusers, domestic abusers, aggravated assaulters, even the alleged perpetrator of a hate crime. Pierzynski is none of those things -- he has never, his mother swears, even thrown a punch -- and yet, in polls commissioned by publications, including this one, over the past half-dozen years or so, he has been voted by his opponents as the player they would most like to see beaned (2006), baseball's meanest player (2011) and baseball's most hated player (2012). "Now, when those polls come out, it'd be a big upset if somebody else won," he said, resignedly.
Antipathy for Pierzynski runs so deep that even though he ranked second among all catchers in home runs and OPS and first in RBIs as mid-season approached, he knew that he would not be selected to play in the All-Star Game in Kansas City. "I said, 'A.J., do you think you're going to make All-Stars?'" recalled his mother, Mary Jane Harrelson, recounting a late June phone conversation. "He said, 'Mom, it's a popularity contest. You think I'm going to make All-Stars?'" Pierzynski did not make All-Stars.
Pierzynski's offense is one that is as simple as it is, in baseball circles anyway, unforgivable: he is aggravating to play against. It is not that he cheats. Any conversation about his malfeasance will include mention of the time he ran to first base on a third strike that was incorrectly ruled to have hit the dirt in the 2005 ALCS, directly leading to a controversial win for the White Sox, and of the time he was punched in the face by Cubs catcher Michael Barrett in '06. The MLB rulebook does not forbid running to first base, nor getting punched in the face.
Pierzynski's reputation is mostly based on his perceived violations of baseball's other set of rules, the unwritten ones. Among the charges levied against him in the case of Baseball v. Pierzynski:
• He runs across the pitcher's mound after he has been thrown out at first base. "I've tried to avoid that," he said. "I try to run around it, or whatever." His attempts have sometimes been unsuccessful.
• He sometimes celebrates after he has made a big play. "He'll catch a guy stealing at second, and then he'll turn around and find the people in the stands he's left tickets for and point at them, like, 'You see what I just did?'" said a pro scout who has watched him extensively.
• He talks too much. "He's always sayin' stuff," explains his manager, Robin Ventura. Adds his mother: "His teachers used to say, 'Oh my god, I hear him in my sleep.'"
• Sometimes, his talking includes loudly cursing from behind the plate after an opposing player has gotten a hit, thereby intimating that the player is not skilled enough to have done so. "I might yell an obscenity if we made a bad pitch," Pierzynski admits.
• After he has made an out, he often abuses his equipment -- particularly his helmet and his bat -- in such a way as to suggest that the pitcher got him out due to luck rather than skill. "Getting out obviously isn't fun," Pierzynski said. "You make an out, sometimes you get mad. Wish I wouldn't."
In other words, Pierzynski is intense, but he fails to appropriately hide his intensity in compliance with baseball norms. "I'm bad at that," he said. "People ask me to play poker, but I can't. I have the worst poker face of all time." The strange thing is that Pierzynski is far from the only player to consistently exhibit such behaviors. "There's a lot of other guys like that, throw helmets," said Ventura. "Paul O'Neill did the same stuff, but he's the nicest guy in the world. A.J. does it, and he's the most hated guy in baseball."
Reputations in baseball, as in life, are easy to acquire and difficult to shed, and a common refrain among those who have played with Pierzynski is that they cannot comprehend why his is worse than that of virtually anyone else. "People like to stamp guys from the beginning," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Pierzynski's teammate with the Twins from 1998 to 2002, and a friend. "One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom."
"He's not any more of a d--- than anyone else," said White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn. "Throw his helmet? Who doesn't? He has this reputation, and once you're labeled as something, you do any little thing and it gets blown up."
"Playing against him for so long, he was probably one of my least liked guys," said Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, of his mindset prior to signing with the White Sox for the 2010 season. "Then my locker was right next to his, and after that he became one of my favorite teammates ever. He's not a baby, but just a guy who is so passionate that he doesn't hold anything back. Until you play with him, you have a misperception of what he is."
"If he were well liked, people would be like, 'He's a hell of a player, the cornerstone of that franchise,'" said one opponent. "Now, it's like, 'He's a d-----." Indeed, cut away his reputation, ill deserved or otherwise, and Pierzynski's story is simple: he is hard working and dedicated, and has successfully played one of the most physically and mentally grueling positions in any sport for a very long time. He has perhaps never played it more successfully than this season, for the first place Sox.
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Pierzynski has long been a competent hitter, and he is unusual among catchers in that he bats lefthanded. Between 2001 and '11, he batted .284 and averaged 11 home runs and 58 RBIs. The power he has displayed so far in '12, though, has been, for him, unprecedented -- he has already hit 23 home runs, surpassing his career high by five, and his OPS of .887 ranks him 11th in the American League -- and the reason for his outburst is something of a mystery even to him. "I hit a home run in Spring Training one day, and I said to my roommate, Doug Mientkiewicz" -- a former Twins teammate who is now a Dodgers coach -- "if I can keep this feel, I'll hit 20 easy.
"I'm not very mechanical. Paul Konerko's the most mechanical hitter I've ever seen. He's unbelievable. I'm more of a feel guy. I just know when I'm right, and I had that feeling."
Pierzynski's late career discovery of a power stroke is viewed as a bonus by the White Sox, who value him even more for the eight years of stability and durability he has provided them at a position at which those qualities are difficult to find. Since Pierzynski came to Chicago in 2005, he has caught some 256 more innings than any other big league catcher. That means that Pierzynski has spent roughly 28 more games, and 84 more hours, than anyone else having his knees worn, his appendages bruised by foul tips, his hands battered by 95 mile-per-hour fastballs. "I've been playing first the whole time, and that seems tough to do," said Konerko, who was briefly a minor league catcher, and who is the only longer-tenured member of the White Sox. "He was obviously born with a body that can withstand it, but at the same time he's doing circuit training before every game, doing a bunch of stuff to keep up on it."
While his durability stems partially from nature, partially from luck and partially from his commitment to physical maintenance, it's also a result of the same stubborn intensity that leads opponents to despise him. While catchers usually like to play three or four innings in Spring Training games and call it a day, to save themselves for the regular season, Pierzynski refuses to ever ask out. It's a characteristic of which his former manager, Ozzie Guillen, was aware, but one that Ventura, who is in his first year as the White Sox's skipper, had to learn. "He asked me three or four games in, 'Do you want your fourth at-bat?'" Pierzynski said. "I said, 'Yeah.' Eventually, I told him, 'Hey, don't ask me, I'm going to say yes. If you want me out of the game, tell me.' Ozzie knew that. Of course, in Ozzie speak, it was, 'Get the f--- out of the game, you're done.'"
"You describe him as a grinder," said Ventura. "Every day, over and over again, you're getting the same guy." Grinders, though, are worthless if they are not also skilled, and Pierzynski has long been an analytical and intuitive handler of Chicago's pitching staff. This year, the White Sox's staff has been in a state of nearly constant flux -- 23 different pitchers have made appearances, and 11 have made starts -- and yet still it has a cumulative ERA of 3.98, sixth-best in the American League.
Chris Sale, who has in his first year as a starter become a Cy Young candidate -- he is 15-4, with a 2.65 ERA -- believes he knows a primary reason for his, and the staff's, success. "I put everything on A.J.," Sale said. "I don't call my own game, I don't ever shake him off. Whatever fingers he puts down, that's what I'm throwing. I've never shaken him off. Never."
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Sale, of course, is one of the few people in Major League Baseball who has never shaken his head at A.J. Pierzynski. In '04 Pierzynski reached free agency for the first time after a largely disharmonious year with the Giants -- a year that was made even worse because it quickly became apparent that the now famous trade that had brought him there from Minnesota, which, in return, received Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano, was at best an unbalanced one. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams was initially reluctant to sign him. "I had to get on the phone with Kenny for two hours, just basically do a job interview and convince him that I wasn't this crazy maniac I was being portrayed as," Pierzynski said.
"I just had some concerns about some things that had been said, through the rumor mill, and I needed to see about them for myself," said Williams. Have those concerns been alleviated? "He's still working on it, that's all I'll say."
Williams is joking. "I'll sum it up for you: if we didn't bring him on board when we did -- though I can say it about a lot of our players -- I don't believe we'd be walking around here with a championship ring from 2005, and have been in position to chase other championships. And I don't think he would be as good as he is, if he didn't play the game as emotionally, as intelligently, as he does."
Indeed, one question that remains up for debate is whether the on-field extracurricular activities that annoy opponents so much are simply an unintended by-product of Pierzynski's competitive drive, or amount to something more calculated. Pierzynski generally insists on the former. "Look, I'm not the most talented guy in the world," he said. "I can't throw as hard, I can't hit the ball as far, I can't run fast. The only thing I can do is compete, and give everything I have on any given day. I don't know what other people are thinking, or are worried about."
Those close to him, though, believe there's more to it than that: that Pierzynski, an avowed fan of professional wrestling (and even a competitor -- he has appeared, a few times, in the ring for the TNA circuit), has, to great effect, fashioned himself as baseball's leading heel. "He's always trying to get guys off their games, with some of the antics he does," said Putz.
"Any time a team is focused on one guy on the other team that's driving them crazy because of his mannerisms, it's probably taking them away from focusing on stuff they need to," said Ventura. "If he's got them thinking about that, he's won."
"I think his mind operates a little quicker than most people's," said his mother, Mary Jane.
Pierzynski, his reputation entrenched, knows that he might never again play in an All-Star Game, even if he is to repeat this year's offensive production, in Chicago or elsewhere (he will be a free agent at season's end). While that knowledge bothers him, as he'd like his children to have the experience, it does not bother him too much, as there are worse things for an aging catcher than a mid-season break. "I'd been home one day since February," he recalled. "I could spend four days at home, relax, recharge for the second half and hopefully a playoff run." He spent his time off taking his children to Disney World, and helping his son rebuild past LEGO projects they'd completed together, including their Millenium Falcon, which cost nearly $3,000 and comes with 5,195 pieces, each of which Pierzynski had glued together using a hot glue gun.
A.J. Pierzynski might technically be the most hated man in baseball. But he also seems to be a man who has used everything within him to succeed, for his team and for himself and for the family he loves, and in the process he has earned the admiration and respect of those who really know and rely on him. "We've all done things we wish we wouldn't have done," he said. "But look: I want to win the game." Isn't that what counts?