Pierzynski catches praise, ire
Intense competitor always in the middle of the action
CHICAGO -- The question left Joe Crede absolutely stumped.
And the inquiry had nothing to do with hitting against Houston Game 1 starter Roger Clemens, handling the pressure of the World Series or how he has become such a tremendous clutch hitter during late-inning situations.
Following the White Sox second straight off-day workout on Thursday at U.S. Cellular Field, Crede was standing in front of his locker, surrounded by the media, when he was asked the $64,000 question. Pick a word or even a sentence to describe A.J. Pierzynski, his teammate and starting catcher for the American League champs.
"Oh, man. I don't know if there is a word to describe him," Crede said, as he continued to search for the answer. "That's a good question. I really don't know."
How about a little help for Crede? Pick any of the following words or phrases when it comes to defining the 29-year-old left-handed hitter, and they would be pretty much on the money.
Intense competitor. Fiery leader. Strong handler of the pitching staff.
Defensive gem behind the plate, with a .999 fielding percentage during the 2005 season. An ironman, having caught every inning of every playoff game, after ranking third in that category in the American League during the 2005 season. Clutch postseason hitter also has to be added in, with three home runs and six RBIs during the first two series of 2005, including a two-homer game to open the playoffs against Boston.
Has anything been forgotten? Oh, yes. There's also agitator, lightning rod for controversy and one more, courtesy of pitching coach Don Cooper.
"He's a pain in the [backside], a thorn in the other team's side," said Cooper with a smile. "Heck, he's a thorn in my side from time to time. He's a thorn in everyone's side in here from time to time. But they know he's on our team, and they know how badly he wants to win.
"A.J. kind of reminds me of my brother, in that whenever you say one thing, he wants to take the point-counterpoint. And it becomes more of a discussion. But discussion is just another word for communication."
The story of Pierzynski's arrival in Chicago dates back to the past offseason, when general manager Ken Williams originally listed the somewhat mercurial catcher as not a fit for his team. Countless hours of phone conversations later, Pierzynski had signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal to join the White Sox.
Pierzynski hit .257 during the regular season, with a career-high 18 home runs and 56 RBIs. He showed a flare for the dramatic with a walk-off home run against the Dodgers on June 18 at home, but that moment was only a warmup for the postseason.
With two outs and nobody on base in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie during Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Pierzynski appeared to strike out swinging against Angels reliever Kelvim Escobar to send the game into extra innings. Pierzynski thought the ball might have been trapped by Angels catcher Josh Paul, or that it hit the ground, so he ran to first base.
Paul rolled the ball back to the mound, home plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled the pitch was trapped and there was Pierzynski as the game-winning run on first base, clapping his hands. Pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna scored one batter later when Crede doubled him home, starting the White Sox on four straight victories for the AL title.
Of course, Pierzynski received the expected "warm welcome" at Angel Stadium, the same sort of appreciation he was shown at most visiting ballparks. The anger only heightened when Pierzynski wasn't called for catcher's interference in Game 4 on a Steve Finley double-play grounder and had an out call at first overturned in Game 5, leading to another game-winning run that closed out the series.
He might be painted as the villain in Anaheim, Boston and countless other cities. In Chicago, though, he's a true hero.
"The farther you get in the playoffs, every little move is scrutinized. It's fine if it is on me, it means it's not on anyone else," Pierzynski said of his status as the man in the black hat. "What happened in the last series is over. It all worked out for us. And the best part is that I didn't do anything wrong.
"I'm becoming a villain and I didn't do anything wrong. I just did my job."
Pierzynski adds a bit of attitude to the White Sox that existed before on the South Side but usually stayed neatly tucked away below the surface. The White Sox catcher appears to have set off that particular volcano.
Crede referred to Pierzynski as a smart player, who is sound fundamentally. He also sets the tone in certain games with his hard-nosed, scrappy style of play, according to the White Sox third baseman.
Starting pitcher Mark Buehrle credits Pierzynski with a very sound work ethic in regard to game preparation and going over the opposing team's scouting reports. The latter was a reported shortcoming, although not completely founded, when Pierzynski played for San Francisco last season.
But where Pierzynski's demeanor rubbing off on the team is concerned, Buehrle only could shake his head and politely disagree.
"It's just him. We don't feed off of him," said Buehrle with a broad smile. "It's not a team thing. He's got his own thing, and we just kind of shake our head at it and let him go.
"Then again, [pitching coach Don Cooper] said A.J. and [Chris] Widger were the best two catchers he's worked with in terms of trusting them with the pitchers. Obviously, when your pitching coach says that, it gives you a little more confidence, because all I do is go out there and trust the catchers."
While Pierzynski's teammates talk about the reality of the World Series not quite sinking in and how it's amazing to see the signs and symbols on the field referring to the Fall Classic, it is business as usual for the determined catcher. He doesn't want to hear anything more about the series victory over the Angels. He doesn't want the compliments in regard to his role with the dynamic White Sox pitching staff.
Pierzynski simply wants to win, and now win at the highest level of baseball competition. So, it's actually easy to find a phrase to describe Pierzynski's role with the White Sox.
Let's try the most significant free agent signing of the offseason.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.