Q&A: A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski is, in his own words, “not what people think.” But that only applies to off the field. The ChiSox catcher readily acknowledges being Public Enemy No. 1 between the white lines, an irascible gamer who cares far less about making friends than he does about winning. The 14-year, big-league veteran doesn’t mind that perception, just so as long as fans realize that he’s not a villain in street clothes. He may share traits with Ozzie Guillen — and get along with Barry Bonds — but he also stops to smell the roses. Behind the mask, big, bad A.J. Pierzynski is just a regular guy who likes to have fun.


David Laurila: Who is A.J. Pierzynski?

AJ Pierzynski: I’m not what people think I am, for one thing. A lot of people think I’m a rough-and-tough and mean person. I’m just a normal guy who likes to have fun and is lucky enough to play baseball for a living.

DL: Where does that perception come from?

AJP: From all of the stuff people have written and said about me. And that’s fine. It’s not a bad perception to have on the field. But off the field I’m just a normal guy. I’d like people to know that.

DL: How do opposing players view you?

AJP: People have said that they don’t like playing against me, but that’s just because I try to win. I want to win. I play as hard as I can and I’ll do anything I can to help my team win that day. Sometimes that frustrates people. I’m not the first one to run out and give hugs to guys, and things like that. My job is to try to win and be friends away from the game.

DL: Does that make you a throwback, maybe a modern-day Ty Cobb?

AJP: I don’t know. I can’t categorize that. That’s for you and other writers to talk about.

DL: What kind of career have you had so far?

AJP: A better career than I ever thought I’d have. To have played this long, and to have accomplished a lot of the things I have, like all-star games and playoffs, the World Series…. I’ve had a really long career, a great career. I’ve made some money. I’ve been in the same city, Chicago, for seven years now and it’s a great place to be. I’m very, very fortunate.

DL: Seventeen years ago you were 17 years old and just starting your professional career. What was that time of your life like?

AJP: I tell people all the time that the minor leagues were the greatest time. Everyone was poor and trying to just get by every two weeks on their measly $850 a month. That was before taxes. You make friends that you’re still friends with now. You stay in contact with them, because those are the guys you really bonded with. You were all going through the same struggles and the same ups and downs, especially in the low minor leagues.

DL: Did you have any idea how professional baseball really worked when you were first starting out?

AJP: No, I didn’t. I thought that I did, but I really had no idea how it worked. That’s especially true for this level — the politics and the other things that are involved.

DL: Have you had a better career with the bat or behind the plate?

AJP: I’d like to say it has been equal, but I’ve done some things offensively that are pretty cool. But like I said, I’ve had a better career than I ever thought I’d have, so it’s tough for me to say. I think that both have been pretty good. I was fortunate enough to win a World Series with a great pitching staff, and I’ve gotten a bunch of hits, so it’s all been more than I expected.

DL: Was the 2005 championship team the best you’ve played on, or did it simply get hot at the right time?

AJP: It has to be the best team; we won 99 games and went 11-1 in the playoffs. I think we won 16 out of our last 17 games. Yes, it was the best team I’ve been on. We did some things. We had four complete games in the ALCS and that will probably never be done again. Add the World Series win at the end of that and it would have to be.

DL: How much of a student of the game do you consider yourself?

AJP: I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a big video guy. I watch the game and I watch the highlights. I watch other games and try to pick stuff up from them, but I don’t watch a lot of video of hitting and stuff like that. I just try to do my job and let the other things fall into place.

DL: Mark Buehrle said he almost never shakes you off. How do the two of you approach opposing lineups?

AJP: By now I’ve been around long enough that most of the time I know.… I’ve faced a lot of these guys a hundred times, so I have a pretty good idea of what the hitters are doing, especially the veteran hitters. We’re in Boston right now, and guys like Pedroia, Youkilis and Varitek, I’ve faced them. We do our scouting report every series — we do sit down — but I think that a lot of times, calling a game is just feel. It’s, “Hey, do you know what? I see this guy doing this.” Or we have a guy who did something in the past, so it’s, “Let’s try this.” Buerhle is able to throw four pitches at any time and that gives you a lot of options as a catcher.

DL: Who is the most interesting pitcher you’ve caught?

AJP: El Duque ranks right up there. He would give me signs from the mound, I’d put down the sign he wanted, and he’d shake me off. That was always fun. But he was great. He ranks right up there, without a doubt, just because of his motion and everything that went into him. There is also the competitiveness he had.

DL: How similar are Ozzie Guillen and Ron Gardenhire?

AJP: Well, they both think they’re funny. I’ll give them that. They think they’re funny in the media. Other than that, they’re kind of opposites. Gardy is more calculated in what he says and does, and Ozzie is more of a loose cannon, you might say. As far as knowing the game and believing in their philosophies, they’re similar in that respect. But they’re kind of opposites as far as their personalities go.

DL: Which of them thinks more like you do?

AJP: Ozzie. Everyone would say Ozzie, without a doubt, because people say that I’m crazy like Ozzie. People have compared us in the past and I don’t know if that’s good or bad for him, or if it’s good or bad for me.

DL: At the outset, you said that you aren’t who people think you are.

AJP: I think that Ozzie is kind of the same way. He has this perception in the media, but if you get to know him, Ozzie is this nice, family-oriented guy. Because of what he says, and the way he acts, people misconceive him at times.

DL: Who is more similar when it comes to approaching the game?

AJP: In that respect, I’m probably more like Gardy. I believe in the fundamentals, pitching and defense, and just getting the job done. Ozzie does too, but I think that having come up as a Twin, that’s kind of ingrained in me. I think that’s the way you should do it — including staying as level-headed as possible. That’s more Gardy’s style than Ozzie’s.

DL: Is there a specific “Twins way” of playing baseball?

AJP: I don’t know how it is now, but there was when I was there. The guys that I came up with, like Torii Hunter, Mientkiewicz, Guzman… you had to do it a certain way, or they wouldn’t call you up; they wouldn’t even play you. Even in the minor leagues, they’d go, “Hey, you won’t play if you don’t do it a certain way.” It was kind of the Twins way and it has led to great success at the big-league level. They’ve put out a lot of players who have had great careers.

DL: How did getting traded from the Twins to the Giants impact your career?

AJP: I tend to look at it, like… at the time, I had obviously come up as a Twin. It was my first team and all that I knew, so I was disappointed when I went there. Then I realized that I was getting a chance to play with probably the best player of all time, Barry Bonds. Looking back, it also led to me getting here, to Chicago, so it was a great thing. I’ve been here seven years and had a great run, so it was the best thing. What’s the famous quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times?” It was a few things molded into one, but it ended up working out the right way.

DL: Is Barry Bonds misperceived?

AJP: Barry and I never had a problem. I always got along with Barry very well. Barry is Barry and if you take him for being Barry, you’ll get along with him fine. He was a great hitter. I tell people all the time that he is the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen, and that there is nobody even a close second. He was just that good. He was an incredible player. If I could have one person up in a big situation, with the game on the line, I’d want Barry Bonds up there and not even think about anyone else.

DL: The White Sox are sometimes portrayed as a poor second cousin to the Cubs in the Chicago market. How do the players view that?

AJP: We don’t look at it like that. We’re the White Sox. We play for the White Sox and our fans are awesome. They support us through thick and thin. We know that our fans are diehard to the core. They’re about baseball and [they] want you to play hard, and they want you to win. That’s kind of the White Sox way.

DL: If you could have played in any other era, what would it have been?

AJP: From what I’ve heard, the 1980s were the time to play. Apparently, according to all of our coaches, they didn’t throw split-fingers, they didn’t throw cutters or changeups, they just threw fastball-curveball. If you believe them, that was the time to play. But looking back, it would have been nice to see some of the early guys, from the 1920s and 1930s, like Babe Ruth, because of the numbers they put up. It would have be interesting to see how you’d stand up against those guys.

DL: Is baseball fun for A.J. Pierzynski?

AJP: It’s fun between the lines. The outside stuff, a lot of times, you can do without, like the travel and the media and the questions. But once the game starts, it’s still the same game I’ve played since Little League. It’s a little more competitive, and obviously there is more pressure, but it’s still fun and the best job there is.

DL: Do you ever allow yourself to think about how lucky you are to do this for a living?

AJP: Oh, all the time. You have to do that, or you’d drive yourself insane. It’s one of those things where you look at it and say, “Hey, I get to do this. People would kill to come out here and take batting practice, and we get to do it every day.” Like I said, it’s the best job going. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Well, he doesn’t SOUND like the spawn of the Devil.