Backstop was front and center
CHICAGO -- Don't particularly care for A.J. Pierzynski after the Red Sox began the defense of their World Series title by watching the White Sox catcher hit two of Chicago's five home runs and a double while scoring four times in a 14-2 pounding that had 40,717 in US Cellular Field believing they were watching a revival of the South Side Hit Men?
You're not alone. White Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand admitted to some trepidation about how Pierzynski would fit on this club after general manager Kenny Williams signed him as a free agent in January. It wasn't only because on his last team, the Giants, some teammates anonymously called him ''a cancer" and said that when asked by a pitcher to go over hitters, he refused to leave his game of cards. And it wasn't just because Pierzynski's mouth appears permanently locked in the open position from first pitch to last, exhausting those forced to listen.
''There were a lot of questions about him," Rowand said. ''We played against him all the time when he was with Minnesota. Playing against him, you don't like him too much. Nobody on this team liked him too much when he was on Minnesota.
''You hit a ground ball, he'll step on your bat running down first base behind you. He'll give you an elbow at first base running down the line. He's just like that. Playing against him, you don't like it too much, but when he's on your team and doing those types of things for you, that's a completely different picture.
''Everybody on this team has taken to him and his personality and definitely what he does on the field because he's a gamer and there's nothing you can take away from that."
Learn a little more about Pierzynski, and he might even grow on you, as he did with the White Sox. He was born in Bridgehampton on Long Island, where his grandfather played on the Bridgehampton White Eagles, and family lore has it that one of the batboys was that son of a potato farmer, Carl Yastrzemski. When Pierzynski was a kid, his family moved to Florida, where he went to the same Orlando high school, Dr. Phillips, as Johnny Damon, graduating a couple of years after the center fielder.
And when he was with the Twins, he used to have home run hitting contests in batting practice with David Ortiz when Ortiz was still more Giant Benchwarmer than Big Papi. He says he won more than his share, too.
''We had fielding contests, home run hitting contests," Pierzynski said. ''We'd do it for a Pepsi. Whoever won it had to bring a Pepsi from the cooler to the other guy. It was nothing big. Just basically to make up a competition and talk smack back and forth between David and I.
''David's a great guy, a good friend of mine. David and I have gone back and forth for years. He's the best. I love him."
Pierzynski was behind the plate in the first inning when Ortiz came to the plate with Edgar Renteria aboard on a double. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had said the day before he wasn't going to let Ortiz beat him, but the White Sox went after him, even with first base open, and Ortiz went down swinging. Manny Ramirez tapped out on the next pitch, and Jose Contreras, his catcher said, had himself a major confidence boost.
The White Sox, meanwhile, soon had a 5-0 lead when, with two runs already in and two runners on, Pierzynski hit his first home run of the day, a three-run shot that came one pitch after he'd bunted foul on the first pitch. No, he said, he couldn't recall that ever happening on the same at-bat.
''I don't hit enough home runs for that to happen," said Pierzynski, who had never hit more than 11 in a season before hitting 18 this season. ''It was a situation where I was trying to get us a run. [Third baseman Bill] Mueller was playing me way back.
''I came up in Minnesota, where we played small ball to the max and TK [manager Tom Kelly] and Paul Molitor used to ingrain that in our heads. If the guy is playing back and if you can get an easy RBI, an easy hit, go for it."
Pierzynski said he was mad at himself when the ball rolled foul.
''After that, I gave myself a slap at the foot of my bat," he said. ''I had to turn the page and try to find a way to get a hit, to get the guy in. Luckily, it was the next pitch, it was a home run, and I could move on fast."
Lucky, too, for the White Sox that Pierzynski was able to persuade Williams to sign him.
''I had to talk to him about 10 hours," he said. ''I almost had to talk him into it. It wasn't like it was an easy thing to get done. But the more Kenny and I talked, the more we realized we were on the same page. What I brought, I hope, was some leadership, a lot of fun, and some wins. It's been a good year so far. Hopefully it will be a great one."
Pierzynski after the game was wearing a T-shirt that on the front said ''Ozzie Ball Means" and on the back read, ''Heart, Brains, [courage]."
Pierzynski a problem? Hardly, Guillen said.
''We keep him under control," the manager said. ''We have to. As a manager, you can control that, but this kid's been great."
Pierzynski joined Ted Kluszewski as the only players in White Sox history to go deep twice in a postseason game. Big Klu did it in Game 1 of the 1959 World Series, which also was the last time the White Sox had won a postseason game at home. Pierzynski smiled when told Guillen said that he occasionally has to rein him in.
''I thought I've done a pretty good job this year in terms of staying out of trouble," he said. ''But Ozzie takes a lot of the heat for a lot of the guys in here.
''For me personally to come here and have him as a manager, a guy who will stand up and tell you when you [stink] and tell you when you need to shut up and tell you when you need to do this, and also be there when you're going good, it's a great blessing for me because he's been amazing."