JOLIET – Former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen famously said of A.J. Pierzynski, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
Pierzynski, the love-him-or-hate-him catcher for the Sox’s 2005 World Series champions, was at the Sullivan Center on Wednesday night as the featured speaker at the annual University of St. Francis Brown & Gold banquet, the school’s primary athletic fundraiser.
Pierzynski, a .280 career hitter who finished with 2,043 hits to become the 10th catcher to top 2,000, spent 19 seasons in the major leagues before announcing his retirement March 28. However, he already had been a part-time Fox TV postseason analyst for several years, and beginning with the 2017 season, Fox has him on board as a full-time analyst.
The incident with Cubs catcher Michael Barrett on May 20, 2006, and the dropped-third strike in Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS are two memories of Pierzynski that will live forever.
On a flyout, Pierzynski tagged up and tried to score. He ran into Barrett, knocking him down, then slapped home plate with his hand. Barrett then grabbed Pierzynski and punched him in the face. A benches-clearing brawl was the immediate result. Pierzynski, Barrett, the White Sox’s Brian Anderson and the Cubs’ John Mabry were ejected. Barrett was suspended for 10 games, Anderson for five and Pierzynski was fined.
“I really haven’t seen him,” Pierzynski said when asked whether he and Barrett are Facebook friends. “That’s just one of those things that happened. I really don’t care about it.”
As for the dropped third strike, the Angels were up one game to none in the ALCS, and Game 2 was tied 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Pierzynski swung at strike three, and plate umpire Doug Eddings raised his thumb to signify he was out.
Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball to the mound, and the rest of the Angels headed for their dugout. Pierzynski took a step toward the third-base dugout, then realized Paul might have trapped the ball, so he headed for first base.
The umpires ruled him safe, and Joe Crede followed with the game-winning RBI double. The Sox went on to win the next three games on the road to win the ALCS, 4-1, then swept the Houston Astros in four games in the World Series.
Somehow, Pierzynski found ways to put his team in position to win.
The 2005 Sox went on their postseason run with starting pitchers who toiled deep into games, as often as not throwing complete games. These days, after a starter goes four, five or six innings, the manager is anxious to summon his bullpen.
“I hate it the way it is now,” Pierzynski said. “Guys are throwing well and managers are in such a hurry to pull them and get to the ’pen. It’s like they have new toys out there and can’t wait to play with them. Even the Astros this year, they brought in [Justin] Verlaine in relief, which he wasn’t accustomed to, and he gave up the go-ahead home run.”
It wasn’t only Guillen’s willingness to stay with his starters that Pierzynski liked. He said he truly enjoyed playing for him.
“Ozzie’s great,” he said. “He’s on another planet sometime, on a whole different level. But to me, he was great. We had our ups and downs, we had our fights. It was like we were a married couple. But you always knew where you stood with him. He was always up front. We had a good connection, back and forth.”
The biggest moment of Pierzynski’s long career, of course, was winning the World Series with the Sox. Recently, ESPN reported something about Chicago not having a World Series champion in roughly forever before the Cubs won it last year. Pierzynski criticized ESPN over the oversight.
“I think I got in trouble for saying something about that the other day,” Pierzynski said with a wry smile. “It was great for the White Sox fans to win with the torture they have to deal with [from all the Cubs’ fans].”
The catcher’s favorite pitcher to catch was one of the Sox’s World Series heroes, Mark Buehrle. “He was quick, he never shook you off and I could have caught him barehanded because he never threw hard enough,” Pierzynski said.
These days, the velocity is up all over baseball.
“When I came up, one guy in the league threw 95, and we’d talk about how hard that guy throws,” Pierzynski said. “Now if you’re not throwing 95, you’re not any good.
“When I came up, the big thing as a hitter was you don’t strike out. That philosophy has changed. Home runs are more valued than [lack of] strikeouts. If you hit 30 homers and strike out 150 times, you’re a star. With all the strikeouts now, games are taking longer than ever.”
Pierzynski’s final season was spent in Atlanta, where Minooka graduate Mike Foltynewicz is on the Braves’ staff.
“I like Mike,” Pierzynski said. “He has a great future, a great arm. I wish I had his arm. He has some learning to do in terms of handling it emotionally, but he is learning. I have great respect for him, and I really like his family, too.”
Pierzynski was asked if there were pitchers he liked to face.
“I couldn’t wait to face Jon Lester, and [Zack] Greinke was another one,” he said. “Mariano Rivera was the worst one to face. He threw one pitch, and you could never hit it. If you did, he broke your bat. He broke a lot of mine.”
With that, it was time for Pierzynski to pose for pictures and mingle with the crowd. The banquet was about to begin.
The USF Brown & Gold faithful were in for a fun night.