I’m writing this one through a pierogi, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, mushroom soup hangover.
Thursday night, in Troy, Mich., I received the Tony Kubek Award from the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame. It was a wonderful night with wonderful people: Way too much food, and it goes without saying that I was deeply honored and thankful. Dziękuję means “thank you” in polish.
The other honorees included three-time Olympic medal-winning speedskater J.R. Celski, who is just a sheer joy; the late Bronko Nagurski; and my friend Mike Krukow, who told a wonderful story about his first game in the big leagues. Mike was doing sprints in the outfield with a couple of teammates when someone from the crowd yelled, “Hey, No. 40, what’s your name?”
Krukow was a bit embarrassed, and he ignored the guy. But the next time he sprinted by, again the man yelled, “Hey, 40, what’s your name?” Krukow’s face burned red.
“Listen,” a teammate told him. “If he says that to you again, just look up and yell, “Hey, meat, buy a program.”
Krukow thought that was good, and sure enough when the yell came again — “Hey, 40, what’s your name?” — Krukow shouted back, “Hey, meat, buy a program.”
To which the guy yelled back: “I did, and you ain’t in it.”
Maybe the coolest part of the whole night was getting to know the fourth Hall of Fame honoree, A.J. Pierzynski, a little bit better. Pierzynski joked a couple of times during the event that, as a writer, I probably ripped him. I looked back through some of my old words and … I actually don’t think I ever did.
But I certainly could have. A.J. played the sort of baseball that demanded ripping. He was, as Ozzie Guillen said, the sort of player who, if you played against him, you hated him, but if you played with him, you hated him a little less. He played in the Bill Laimbeer, Christian Laettner, Warren Sapp mode of being just irritating enough to throw you off your game. He’d step on your foot. He’d jog across the mound. He’d make some crack that was just over the line.
One time, after a batter walked, Pierzynski turned to the umpire and said, “Excuse me, can I have a new ball?”
“For what?” the umpire asked.
“I want one you can see.”
The ump, after a couple of seconds of shock, shouted, “You can’t say that to me!”
“What did I say?” Pierzynski asked, innocently.
“You can’t say, ‘Give me a ball you can see,’” the ump said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh, what did you say?”
“I said, ‘Give me a ball you can [bleeping] see.’”
Yeah, that got him ejected — as you can see here:
That was one of six times that Pierzynski was ejected from games, five of them for arguing balls and strikes.
But there were a lot of things — like the time the Cubs’ Michael Barrett hit him after a home plate collision (where Pierzynski actually had the right of way) and A.J.’s teammate and friend, Mark Buehrle, said, “Once Barrett hit him, I think the whole league wanted to give Barrett a pat on the back.”
There were a lot of quotes like that, some of them anonymous, some of them not, some of them joking, many of them deadly serious. Pierzynski was always at the top of the most-hated lists. He was ripped in print so many times that his mother would call him regularly for explanations.
“What’s my role?” he once asked teammate Paul Konerko, who was handing out different roles for different players. Konerko told Scott Podsednik, “You’re a flea,” meaning that he just needed to be a little troublemaker, draw walks, steal bases, score runs.
“What’s my role?” A.J. asked, and Konerko said, “Your role is to get hit by pitches so that they don’t throw at me.”
And I guess, from afar, I just thought of Pierzynski as that guy.
But, looking back, he really is a remarkable story. He was a third-round pick out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., where he was a sophomore when Johnny Damon was a senior. He was just 17 when he was drafted, and he showed some good bat skills right away, but it wasn’t clear what his future looked like — he was a big guy who didn’t hit with a lot of power, he didn’t have much speed, his arm was probably average, his defensive skills were much debated.
And he remembers a minor league manager calling him into the office one day and saying: “A.J., if you want to make it in this game, you need to do one thing.”
‘What’s that?” Pierzynski asked.
“You’ve got to be a prick.”
If this exchange sounds familiar, it should — it’s more or less the exact thing that Roy Kent says to Jamie Tartt on the show “Ted Lasso.” Pierzynski got there first. The manager realized that what A.J. had was a keen sense of the game, an ability to think one step ahead of others and a unique talent for ticking people off.
“That’s what I had to do,” Pierzynski says. And he had a really fantastic career. He played for 19 years and is one of only 10 catchers with more than 2,000 hits. He’s fourth all-time among catchers with 407 doubles. He was a two-time All-Star. He reached the playoffs with three different teams and was a key figure in the White Sox winning the 2005 World Series. He caught a no-hitter and a perfect game.
And all the while, he felt like he had to be THIS GUY, the one people hated, the one who kept everybody on edge, the villain. It wasn’t always easy. He and his wife, Lisa, definitely felt the sting of the criticism. When A.J. was giving his acceptance speech on Thursday night, he was fine until he got to the part about thanking his wife — and he couldn’t help but break down a little bit.
“We’ve been through a lot,” he said after choking up a little.
But he left his mark on the game. It’s probably fitting that if he’s best remembered for one play, it was in Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS. The score was tied with two outs in the ninth when Pierzynski struck out swinging. He began to walk back to the dugout when a thought occurred to him; he’d heard two sounds.
One of those sounds had to be the ball hitting the dirt.
So he started running to first base. The Angels catcher, Josh Paul, who felt quite certain he had caught the ball, rolled it back toward the mound while Pierzynski made his mad dash. Then the umpire called him safe and madness reigned for a while. The Fox crew showed the replay a whole bunch and, led by Tim McCarver, seemed sure that Paul had caught the ball. Mike Scioscia argued furiously.
But there was no replay then … and Pierzynski was safe. Pablo Ozuna came in to pinch-run, stole a base and scored on Joe Crede’s double to win the game. The White Sox did not lose again that postseason.
And it just seems to me that was pure Pierzynski — shrewd, unbridled, agitating and winning. He’s a broadcaster for Fox now, and it’s clear from being around him as much as we were on Thursday that he’s a really nice guy, self-effacing, friendly. When I gave him a copy of The Baseball 100 (just 10 days away and selling fast), he immediately asked me if he was in it.
When I told him he missed by justthismuch, he laughed and nodded. He’s more than OK with his terrific career. Hey, it got him into the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame, and all the pierogi he could eat.