A.J. Pierzynski wore catcher’s gear for 19 seasons. Now he is unmasked.
A studio and game analyst for Fox Sports, Pierzynski met with Chicago baseball fans last week for an event at the Metropolitan Club.
He seemed to remember everything from his career that spanned nearly two decades and included stints with the Twins (1998-2003), Giants (’04), White Sox (’05-12), Rangers (’13), Red Sox (’14), Cardinals (’14) and Braves (’15-16).
After he signed with the White Sox, people around baseball predicted they would be no good. Pierzynski recalled going to spring training, seeing pitchers Freddy Garcia, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras and thinking the pundits would be wrong. A hustle play by Scott Podsednik cemented his view.
“The first play of spring training, there was a foul ball down the left-field line,” Pierzynski recalled. “Pods dove into the wall and slid and caught it. I was: ‘All right, this is what we’ve got.’ ”
Here’s much more from Pierzynski:
Ozzie Guillen once said of you, “I don’t think he’s a smart ass; I think he’s an ass without the smart.”
Well, the funny part is people said that about Ozzie when he played, so now he’s just recycling lines.
It takes one to know one?
When he managed, every other team hated him more than we did. We had to be nice to him just to get ourselves in the lineup. I mean, Ozzie would talk with the other teams’ players and he wouldn’t talk to us for like a week if we didn’t win every game. We’d be like, “Ozzie, we haven’t seen you out of your office for seven days. Oh, David Ortiz is over there. That’s why you’re out on the field.”
I love Ozzie, though. He’s honestly a good friend of mine. People think that Ozzie and I hate each other. We don’t. Ozzie was great for my career.
Take me back to when you joined the White Sox.
When I signed, I was like, I can’t believe I’m going to play for the White Sox. I came up with the Twins, and you were kind of taught to hate the White Sox. They were the bully and they had Frank Thomas and all this money. We were the little Twins that had no money, played in the crappy Metrodome, had to cheat and do everything we could to try to win.
Did Hawk Harrelson have anything to do with your signing?
Absolutely. Kenny Williams and I had been kind of going back and forth. Hawk calls me one day and says, “We’ve got to go to breakfast,” and I said, “OK.” When Hawk calls, it’s like the Godfather. You automatically go. So I meet him there like 6 in the morning and he says, “Kenny wants to sign you.”
I’m like, “OK. We’ve been talking.” He’s like, “But he thinks you’re an a—hole.” I’m like, “Well, he’s never talked to me, other than for like 30 seconds.” And Hawk goes, “If you sign this guy, he’ll be you’re a—hole.” Two days later I was a White Sock.
What were your first impressions of Ozzie?
I was like, this guy is going to be great, because he had so much energy and passion for the game. I had come from San Francisco where we had Felipe Alou, who was like the worst manager of all time, not because he was a bad guy. But (son) Moises was playing for the Cubs, so he would sit in his office all day and just watch Moises on the TV and you’d never see him until the game would start.
Ozzie likes people that show up on time, play hard and don’t complain. I never complained except for when Ozzie said something stupid in the paper.
The only time Ozzie and I ever had any problem was we had a crosstown (game) with the Cubs and I wasn’t playing, and I did a radio show and they asked me, “Well, you’re not playing … are you upset?” and I’m like, “Of course I’m upset. I want to play.” And then, of course, Ozzie is like, “(Don’t) MF me.” I’m like, “I didn’t. I just said I was mad I’m not playing. So I’m sorry that I said the truth that I’m mad I’m not playing.”
Let’s talk about some guys in the rotation, starting with Mark Buehrle.
He was the best just because, one, he never shook off. And, two, me hitting was like him pitching: fast, fast, fast, fast. He was like, “Let’s get this over with as soon as possible and we can get to the next one.”
How do you explain his success?
He had balls, first of all. … And the thing about Mark, and I’ll tell this to his face, he was so dumb that he was smart. He never looked at a scouting report. He never cared. He never worried about anything but himself. He was like, “All right, whatever pitch you put down, I’m going to throw the best pitch I can throw, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, so what.” And that was his whole mentality. He was like, “Look, win or lose, we’re going to get out of here quick.” And it worked. I faced him and I’m like, “How can nobody hit this guy?”
Could you hit him?
I hit like .500 against him. (Actually .400 — 10-for-25 with a double.) I mean, he threw a little sinker, a little cutter, a little curveball. But he competed, and that’s the biggest thing in baseball.
Meaning when it’s a 3-1 count, he’ll go after you?
Yeah, he wasn’t afraid of the moment, and that’s a lot. I know there’s analytics; I get it. But if I’m building a baseball team, I want 25 guys that aren’t afraid to get a hit off the closer. I don’t want a guy that hits three-run homers when you’re down seven. That’s the heart of a player. You can’t (compute) that with numbers.
And I try to explain this to people all the time. Baseball players are real people. We have fights with our wives. We have fights with our kids. We wake up and have bad days. We come in and there’s traffic and get pissed off. And you can’t measure that. Can a guy get through that stuff? There are guys I know that come in and they’re in a bad mood and it carries over to the game and they can’t play that day.
Nothing bothered Buehrle. The game is on the line. Who do I want out there? I want Mark Buehrle out there. I want El Duque out there. I want guys that believe they can do it and also can do it.
Who is the hitting equivalent of Mark Buehrle? If your life was on the line and they didn’t permit you to hit, but they permit somebody you played with to hit, who would you put up there?
Who from the White Sox? (A member of the audience suggests Frank Thomas.)
No, not Frank. Joe (Crede) had a lot of huge hits. And Jermaine (Dye). But I’d want it to be me because I lived for that. I always wanted to be up in the ninth inning. Strikeout, popout, at least I could deal with that.
I want to ask about other guys from that Sox team. Jon Garland always acted like he was too cool for us (reporters).
He acted like that with everybody. “Hard Gar” … because he thought he was tough and he would just be like, “Grrr.”
Podsednik, was he on the shy side?
I don’t know that I’d call Pods shy, but now he’s doing TV, so it’s weird for me. It’s like Frank. Frank hated the media and now Frank is on TV. I’m like, “Frank, you hated the media. Now you’re one of them.” He’s like, “Yeah, well, you know.”
How about being teammates with Frank?
He had his Frankenstein shoes that he’d lumber around in and we made fun of him because he said his feet hurt too bad.
Wait a minute. What are Frankenstein shoes?
He had those shoes that had the bottoms on them that were like this tall, and he sounded like a dang elephant coming through the room. They put these extra cushions in his shoes, so it looked like he was on lifts, and he runs funny anyway, so it was like he looked like Frankenstein running around. And he hurt his feet, whatever it was, and he played like 20 games (in ’05). But Frank was great. I’ll say this, every time we won and he wasn’t ever there with us (on the road), but as soon as we landed, he was like the first one there with champagne.
I know Frank has an up-and-down history with the media and fans. He has done some dumb stuff, complained about his contract, all that. Deep down, Frank is like the biggest teddy bear you’ll ever meet.
The thing you have to understand about Frank — and Frank is one of my really good friends; I mean, I work with him at Fox — is that once something gets in Frank’s head, you can’t get it out. You could tell Frank, “Frank, the sky is blue,” and if Frank thinks the sky is green, you’re not changing his mind no matter what you tell him. It doesn’t matter what. He won’t budge.
He built a 20,000-square-foot house and he put “35” in the middle in marble. I’m like, “Frank, you know you’ll never be able to sell this, right, unless the next guy who’s (No.) 35 wants to buy it,” and he’s like, “Oh, nobody will care.” I mean, that’s Frank. I mean, Frank loves Frank.
Is part of why you love baseball the clubhouse culture of getting on guys? You can’t hammer guys in most workplaces.
I think sports in general, you get on guys because you’re friends and you’re with them so much that every little thing is like, yeah, you can make fun of anybody for anything. Nothing is off limits (except) family stuff. If it’s not like super personal, it’s fair game. But if you give it, you’ve got to be able to take it.
Who would give it back to you?
(Paul) Konerko, obviously. But he gave it back in a way where it’s like passive-aggressive. It’s not, “You suck.” He’ll say something and it’s not like a dig, but you know that it is a dig. He’ll say it in a roundabout way and … you have to think about it. You’re like, “Well, I do suck.” I can’t explain it because it’s like a 20-minute dissertation.
When Joe spoke, you knew that he meant it. Joe was the worst if you ever got into … if anyone ever messed with Joe, Joe was the guy if you did something to him, if you pulled some stupid prank on him, (you were worried) he would blow up your house.
I’m glad I never messed with him. Who else was interesting on that team? Did you get to know El Duque?
Yeah, you’re a pitcher and you’re a catcher — you’re with them so much. So El Duque was funny because he was like the most emotional person I’ve ever played with in my life. He cared more than anyone I’d ever been around. He genuinely cared, cared to a point where he would cry, and I’m like, “Dude, it’s OK.”
The only other person I ever saw do that was Alexei Ramirez, and that’s because he sucked. I mean, he was great. I loved him. Any time anyone yelled at him, he cried, and then we couldn’t yell at him anymore. But El Duque cared. He cried because he cared.
Let’s talk about Josh Paul and Doug Eddings.
It still hit the dirt, by the way.
Did you purposely delay running to first?
Yes. Here’s what happened. When I was in San Francisco the year before, I was catching and Bronson Arroyo was hitting. He struck out. There was a guy on second, no outs. He struck out on a ball in the dirt and I didn’t tag him because he went back toward the dugout. Then he ran to first and he was safe, and I’m like, “Wait … he went to the dugout,” and they’re like, “That doesn’t matter. He never got called out.” They changed the rule after that play.
So I heard (two thumping sounds), which normally means it hit the dirt and the glove. As I go back to the dugout, I see that Josh Paul isn’t going to tag me. So if you see the replay, you see me take a step, and I’m actually looking at him, and in my mind it’s like, “As soon as he lets go of the ball, I’m going to first.”
The (Angels) are coming off the field, and the umpire, I think he panicked. I don’t think he really knew what happened. So by then it was too late, and he’s like, “Well, he’s on first … safe.” Mike Scioscia went all crazy, but the thing is, what Greg Walker always says: I’m the only one stupid enough that would’ve run because if I’m called out, I don’t care, I just run off the field anyway.
Did you ever talk to Josh Paul about that?
I have not. He wrote a book. About catching. I wonder if that made the book.
Ouch. Did you ever talk to Doug Eddings after that?
Yeah, he was banned from Anaheim for a while because of that play. But there was a shirt that they sold in Anaheim that said, “I got to first base with Doug Eddings,” and there’s a picture of it.
After you won the World Series, I notice that you didn’t let Bobby Jenks jump in your arms.
I said, if he jumps on me, I might not get back up. You have to plan for that kind of stuff. Plus I knew that if I jumped on him, I’d get in all the pictures. He jumps on me and my face would be covered. If I jump on him, everyone sees me.
How did it go after Buehrle’s no-hitter (in 2007)? Who jumped on whom?
We just kind of hugged. I think we were both in such shock.
Because he threw 85 miles an hour. It’s like, how does this happen? When it happened, it was so spontaneous that we just kind of hugged in the middle of the field. He was like, “What do I do now?”
What about the second one?
I didn’t catch the (2009) perfect game. Mark and I had lockers next to each other. It’s a day game against the Rays and he comes in late. He’s like, “Oh, I didn’t get my Monster energy drink,” and I’m like, “Shut up, dude. I don’t want to hear it.” And he’s like, “No, I’m serious. I didn’t get my Monster. I can’t pitch.”
And I go, “Just shut up and go out and throw another no-hitter,” and he goes, “I already did that.” And I go, “OK, well, go out and throw a perfect game.” He goes, “You know what? (Screw) you. I’m going to.” This is a 100 percent true story.
That’s how you motivated him?
I’m literally like, “I hate you. I hate you so much right now.” After the game, if you watch, everyone kind of like piles around him and I’m like the last one out because I was in the locker room and he wouldn’t let me come out.
OK, Cubs versus White Sox. A.J. and Michael Barrett. Let’s go.
First of all, I blame Rich Hill for walking me. Second of all, I blame whoever the left fielder was (Matt Murton) for sucking at throwing. And then finally, I blame Michael Barrett for hitting like a girl. No offense, ladies. It was more of a push than a punch. I’ve been punched plenty of times.
I’ve signed more pictures of that than of anything. I always tell people I’m famous for striking out and getting punched. People ask me to sign the picture with Barrett, and I’m like, “I don’t care.” Things happen. It’s cool. Stuff happens in life and you can either laugh at it or you can get mad for no reason.
Was baseball better when collisions were allowed?
I love collisions. I think it was fun. As a catcher, that is what I signed up for. I knew this is my plate and I’m going to stop you at any cost from getting there.
Are you going to manage?
Are you going to hire me? People ask me all the time. You can’t just be like, “I want to be the manager.” What I’m doing now is perfect for me. I’ve got a 12-year-old girl (Ava) and 11-year-old boy (Austin) at home (in Florida), and they have a lot of stuff. My daughter plays volleyball and she travels all around the country. My son plays baseball and other sports. So it’s constantly going.
So people are like, “Oh, are you going to take over for Hawk when he’s done?” I’m like, “No.” They’re like, “Why not?” I’m like, “Because I don’t want to do that for 162 days. That’s too much.” So it would have to be a perfect situation of a team coming to me and saying, “We want you to be the manager.” Would I want to? Absolutely. But am I knocking down people’s doors to do it? No.
You’ve said that Robin Ventura had the respect of the players, but they didn’t fear him.
And I think every team needs a guy … in ’05 we had Carl Everett. Crazy Carl. If someone did something stupid, he’d say, “F you.” And you’re like, “You’re dang right.” And then everyone would go to Konerko and he’d be like, “Well, you know,” and give like a 20-minute dissertation on why what you did was wrong. There are different ways to go about it, but every baseball team needs that guy that everyone is afraid of to keep people in line.
Your take on the Adam LaRoche controversy?
(Almost) every team I was ever on was great about having kids in the clubhouse. Ozzie was great. Bring them in. He wanted kids, especially after we lost, because he’s like, “Kids will cheer up all the people being down.” Robin was great. I went to Texas, awesome, they let my kid shag (fly balls during batting practice). He got catching lessons from Pudge Rodriguez.
And then I go to Boston. We had kids on the field every day. But then we’re terrible. No one is hitting. (Manager) John Farrell comes in, “Oh, we’re banning kids. They’re a distraction.” So then it was like mutiny. Guys were mad. David Ortiz is like, “I can’t bring my kid into the park? What the heck is going on?”
I went to Atlanta for my last two years, and they had a strict no-kid policy. No kids anywhere. So I kind of started sneaking my kid into spring training because spring training in Atlanta was in Orlando, where I lived, so it was like 10 minutes from my house.
So I get the Adam LaRoche kid thing. And from everything that I heard, (Drake LaRoche) wasn’t a distraction, he wasn’t in the way. He was helping in the clubhouse. But I also feel like Adam was just looking for a reason to retire and go home.
Was it Jimmy Rollins who complained?
I try to stay out of White Sox business.
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