A.J. Pierzynski's career is worthy of a curtain call. - Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE
Baseball's most-hated player used his powers of evil for good for most of his White Sox career, making an indelible stamp on the franchise in the process.
A.J. Pierzynski came to Chicago in need of redemption. He formed his reputation as an unpopular opponent while playing a key role in the Minnesota Twins' revival, but when the Twins traded him to San Francisco before the 2004 season, it wouldn't take long for Giants teammates to start resenting him. By May of that year, he had earned the "clubhouse cancer" label, and at the end of his worst offensive season (in more ways than one), the Giants didn't tender him a contract.
The White Sox needed a catcher, and Hawk Harrelson, who knew Pierzynski all the way back to Pierzynski's days at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, urged Kenny Williams to sign him. The Sox gave him a one-year, $2.25 million trial for the 2005 season, and Pierzynski set out his road to recovery.
I'm not qualified to say if Pierzynski was humbled after the Giants discarded him, and it's certainly hard to imagine him being contrite. What we do know is that Pierzynski meshed well enough with the White Sox to sign three more contracts, ushering in an eight-year reign of stability at the catching position. Pierzynski wasn't really reformed, but the pro wrestling enthusiast refined his "heel" act and rediscovered how to use his jerk-assed powers for (mostly) good.
Pierzynski played the game with an unmatched combination of intensity and shamelessness, and his lack of decorum allowed him to see opportunities other players didn't or couldn't. Can you imagine anybody else selling a nonexistent HBP to help derail a no-hit bid? Does any other Sox player throw out an elbow and sell phantom contact during a rundown to draw an interference call?
And, most memorably, does anybody else take off for first after swinging and missing to end the ninth inning in Game 2 of the ALCS? Pierzynski had nothing to lose but his dignity after Doug Eddings made an apparent strike-three-third-out sign when Pierzynski swung over the top of a sinking pitch. But Pierzynski didn't have that kind of dignity, so when he heard something hit the dirt, he said "what the hell" and ran like hell in his penguin gait to first, and waited to see if his effort was desperately silly, or a no-holds-barred brand of brilliant.
Doug Eddings gave Pierzynski the benefit of the doubt, and that changed the course of the White Sox's World Series run. Instead of being a swing of the bat from trailing the Angels 2-0, Pablo Ozuna's stolen base and Joe Crede's swing of the bat knotted up the series. The White Sox wouldn't lose again that year, and Pierzynski was the one who started that wave.
The rest of his stay in Chicago would feature a highlight-reel of heel turns, solidifying his reputation as an out-and-out winner. In reality, his White Sox career was a little more complicated. While his impudence added some fire to the Sox's on-field product, harmful side effects arose from time to time, and the extent of their impact is hard to decipher for various reasons.
Every so often, Pierzynski would remind fans why he had fallen out of favor with the Giants, and why random baseball players said he wasn't a good teammate. He would routinely show displeasure with pitchers in more subtle ways (hanging his head, firing the ball back to the mound), but occasionally it spilled over into words on the mound, or in the dugout.
And, at least outwardly, he wasn't much for holding himself accountable. He resorted to the "tip your hat" line as much as anybody when he and the offense struggled, whether the pitcher was C.C. Sabathia or Carl Pavano. And he famously threw Gavin Floyd under the bus when reporters asked about the White Sox's perpetual issues with slowing down the running game, despite Floyd's progress in that department over the years.
But these minor flare-ups passed by without much of an incident, for a few reasons.
The majority of the credit goes to Pierzynski, who became the paragon of consistency in his benefits and drawbacks. In every season, he caught at least 1,000 innings. Moreover, look at the machine-like way he cranked out the same seasons, year after year, in some departments over the first seven seasons:
Walks: 23, 22, 25, 19, 24, 15, 23
OPS: .728, .769, .712, .728, .755, .688, .728
Extra-base hits: 37, 40, 38, 45, 36, 38, 38
Caught-stealing percentage: 23, 22, 24, 18, 23, 26, 20
From year to year, everybody on the Sox knew what they were going to get from Pierzynski, whether at the plate, behind the plate, or in the dugout. There were a couple of stretches where he teetered on the brink of a major drop-off -- usually at the end of seasons -- but he would find ways to bounce back.
That made it very comfortable for Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura to pencil him in the lineup nearly every damn day. From 2007 until his only DL stint in 2011, Pierzynski didn't miss more than one regularly scheduled game at a time (a doubleheader once caused him to miss two straight games, but that doesn't really count, because he had to miss one of them). Even day games after night games weren't an automatic day off for him.
But other factors made him comfortable, too. By winning a World Series in his first season, Pierzynski earned a lot of cred, and he wielded it in a veteran-heavy clubhouse, to the chagrin of some rookies. Brandon McCarthy, for instance, singled him out in this retaliatory HBP on Aug. 10 ...
... and I'm guessing Pierzynski was picked for a reason. We're short on specifics, because they were mostly glossed over in favor of adulation.
It helped that Pierzynski had a major cheerleader in Harrelson, and for eight years, we heard the extent of Harrelson's fandom, even if inconsistencies or omissions were the only way to support his claims.
For instance, Harrelson frequently referred to Pierzynski as the team's best baserunner. He certainly showed the most derring-do on the basepaths, and his creativity led to a number of memorable bases taken through unusual means. But his aggressive style often crossed the line into carelessness, like the numerous times he would get caught between first and second trying to take an extra base on a throw that was guaranteed to be cut off. He ran into plenty of unnecessary outs, but plays like that interference call were far more memorable.
Likewise, Harrelson lauded Pierzynski's ability to "put down the numbers," and there's certainly anecdotal and statistical proof that he could call a good game. But Pierzynski received plenty of huzzahs when a pitch sequence worked to perfection, and none of the blame when an ill-advised 0-2 fastball turned into a run-scoring hit.
Harrelson didn't care to correct himself, and the media mostly reinforced those impressions (he is a great quote). So that left the debunking to us, which isn't a particularly pleasant exercise.
Most of all, the Sox hadn't really fielded a challenger to Pierzynski's playing time. Toby Hall presented the specter of a threat -- and boy, did Pierzynski bristle at the thought -- but he separated his shoulder during spring training and was never his former self afterward. Ramon Castro brought some thunder off the bench during his stay as a backup, but he was happy going along for the ride.
Tyler Flowers was the first guy to emerge as even a possibility to succeed Pierzynski, and from all indications, Pierzynski didn't go out of his way to make Flowers comfortable. Flowers talked around the issue, but left enough room between the lines to indicate that Pierzynski didn't much care for the very idea of him. They eventually straightened it out enough, and while it's understandable that Pierzynski wouldn't want to welcome Flowers, that's the kind of thing where more professionalism would be warranted.
But Pierzynski was professional more in the hitman sense -- he had a job, he was going to do it his way, and he didn't have much patience for those who got in his way.
Though Pierzynski's prickliness presented a few problems over his White Sox career, we can't speculate on any cumulative effect. That the Sox kept bringing him back suggests his production won out, and enough to ward off concerns about his age, too. He outdid himself in 2012, setting career highs in the slugging stats (including 27 homers) at the age of 35. He continued to compartmentalize his aging solely to the defensive side of his game, but his power surge more than offset the decline in his mobility behind the plate.
His revival made his return a necessity for a large subset of fans, but it's probably the right time to part ways. It's difficult to imagine a graceful decline, because when has that word ever been used to describe Pierzynski? And no, adding "dis" in front of it doesn't count.
At some point in the future -- and 36 is a dangerous age for catchers -- his hitting won't be enough to offset his pitch-blocking, nor his occasional tendency to show up pitchers. If and when that happens, his manager could have his hands full, not unlike Felipe Alou in San Francisco back in 2004.
The White Sox and their fans won't have to see it. Pierzynski leaves on a high note. His reputation is not only intact, but unexpectedly close to sterling as far as the South Side is concerned. He will be remembered for stealing first, getting punched in the face and the other moments only he could have ignited, and the less flattering aspects of his tenure will lose the little significance they had. If the timing works out, he could be an incredible White Sox TV analyst.
In the interim, it's Flowers' turn to try to own the position. I don't envy him, because unless he cuts his strikeout rate and plays a key role in a postseason appearance, he is likely to be scrutinized far more harshly in areas where Pierzynski received free passes. Flowers' game doesn't resemble Pierzynski's one bit, and in this case, it might be a lack of familiarity that breeds contempt.
Even then, that Flowers has this uphill climb only enhances Pierzynski's impact on the franchise. Given the baggage he carried into the organization, it was easy to imagine his White Sox career ending abrupty and ingloriously. Instead, the biggest problem he posed to the White Sox was trying to find somebody who could fill his shoes.