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White Sox's Pierzynski a pain who commands respect

Bruce Snow finally relented. A.J. Pierzynski was the star catcher of his 14-year-olds Dixie League Pre-Majors team in Brooksville, a standout in a program that would produce two major-leaguers and two more Triple-A baseball players.

But Pierzynski yearned to be on the other end of the pitch.

"At one point he was really in my ear constantly about it," recalled Snow, a Brooksville lawyer whose son, Bert, played youth baseball with Pierzynski and in the Oakland system. "He could throw hard but he wasn't polished."

Pierzynski walked the first 10 batters. Snow let him twist.

"He keeps pitching," Snow said, chuckling. "Finally after 10 guys he looks my way and gives me that classic A.J. shoulder shrug and I go get him. It was the only time I ever saw him let his non-baseball instincts take over."

It hasn't happened that many times since. Eighteen years later, Pierzynski is in his 11th major-league season and is an animated, brash, arguably annoying pain in the rump who is generally disliked by opposing fans and players.

But he's also a savvy, talented player who exploits onfield situations that sometimes enrage his detractors while ingratiating himself to his managers and teammates.

"A.J. comes to beat you everyday," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who managed Pierzynski for two seasons before he was traded to the Giants. "No matter how you look at him and how you feel about him. He comes to figure out a way to beat you, irritate you. …

"People don't like him and all those things, but when he's on the baseball field you better respect him because he knows how to play and he knows how to beat you and he'll do all those goofy little things to try and get in your head."

Pierzynski's bottle-job blond hair will undoubtedly inspire bile from Rays fans when his White Sox begin their best-of-five American League Division Series at Tropicana Field today.

They will remember Pierzynski's greatest con this season, initiating contact with Rays third baseman Willy Aybar in the 10th inning of an Aug. 24 game at Chicago when Pierzynski was hopelessly mired in a rundown between second and third. He was awarded third base via obstruction after leaning an elbow into Aybar — which MLB later acknowledged was an incorrect ruling — and scored the winning run.

This is the guy who apparently snookered his way to first base in the ninth inning of a tied Game 2 of the American League Championship Series in 2005, hustling to the base on a two-out third strike that Angels catcher Josh Paul appeared to handle cleanly. Pablo Ozuna replaced him as a pinch-runner, stole second and scored on a Joe Crede single, evening the series at one game. The White Sox won the ALCS in five games and subsequently the World Series.

"There's rules in this game that certain people know and I've had certain situations arise where some certain people didn't know rules and you just try to take advantage of them and do the best you can with them," Pierzynski said. "You're not breaking the rules or 'trying' to take advantage of anything. You're just doing the best you can, and it started I guess when I was young. I liked baseball. I watched baseball and just paid attention. I have a pretty good memory, remember what I've seen.''

Joe Maddon, an Angels bench coach in 2005 who became Rays manager a month after that controversial play, grinned and resisted the bait when asked about seeing Pierzynski again.

"God bless him," he said.

This is the guy former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett punched in the face after Pierzynski collided with him in 2006 then enthusiastically slapped home plate. Barrett was later suspended 10 games.

But this is also the guy who has batted better than .300 four times — .284 lifetime — and withstood a trainwreck collision at home plate on Tuesday to tag out Michael Cuddyer in the fifth inning and preserve a scoreless tie in an eventual 1-0 win that gave the White Sox the AL Central title.

"Some people say he's dirty and all those things," Gardenhire said. "Sometimes he gets away with some things, sometimes he does some things to irritate the c--- out of you. I know he's not the most favorite son in the United States as far as baseball goes, but what I see and when I watch him play, he plays. He comes to get you."

Cincinnati Reds pitcher and youth league teammate Bronson Arroyo said Pierzynski has possessed the same personality since age 12, and Snow sees not the antagonist but the kid with the high "baseball IQ" who irritated 10-year-olds in their Hernando Youth League games. They've remained friends as Pierzynski lives in Orlando, and they attended the 2007 Florida-Ohio State BCS title game together.

"A.J. is a very bright, intelligent person, intellectually, academically," Snow said. "He is a high-character guy, but another thing about A.J. is he is very competitive, and in competition, some characteristics come out in him that some see as brash or arrogant. In the heat of the moment, people on the other side of the moment will not like him."

Pierzynski's family moved to Hernando County when he was 9 and moved after his freshman year to Clermont when his parents, BellSouth employees, were transferred. His mother, Mary Jane Harrelson, is still an executive with the company.

"A.J.'s intelligence level and determination came from his mother," Snow said.

And he still uses both.

On the Barrett collision, "the guy got up and punched him in the face and A.J. just backed off in the heat of the moment," Snow said. "He had the presence of mind not to throw a punch. He always knew how to make the right play."

White Sox's Pierzynski a pain who commands respect 10/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 6:29pm]
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