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A.J. Pierzynski will win over Red Sox fans

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 3, 2013 08:14 AM

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Well, I guess he'll have to be our jerk now.

Believe it or not, that's meant as a compliment, sort of. A.J. Pierzynski, the veteran catcher who, as first reported by CBS Sports's Jon Heyman, has agreed to a one-year deal with the Red Sox, is the quintessential love-him-on-your-team, want-to-punch-him-in-his-smirking-face-if-he's-an-opponent player.

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That's not necessarily a bad thing. Perception changes when a polarizing player joins the team you root for, and that's understandable. It's one fascinating aspect of how fandom works.

There's actually no greater example than Jonny Gomes, who was best known by Fenway fans before this season as the guy who went haywire on Coco Crisp during a brawl a few years ago. Now, he's regarded as our bearded, slugging mensch.

Consider Randy Moss for the Patriots, or Bryan Cox a few years before. Corey Dillon, even. Or, in a smaller sense, how Jordan Crawford is reinventing himself for the Celtics now.

Imagine what we'd think of Brad Marchand had he been a Canadien for life. Hell, we'd love that diving, gifted weasel P.K. Subban as a Bruin, right?

Pierzynski is, I admit, a fairly extreme example of this phenomenon. His peers have voted him the most hated player (or some variation) in baseball more than once, which is rather remarkable considering Alex Rodriguez plays baseball.

The two most famous plays of his career are 1) Pulling a fast one on the umpire to reach base on third strike that was incorrectly ruled to have hit the dirt in the 2005 ALCS and 2) getting punched in the face by Cubs catcher Michael Barrett.

"If you play against him, you hate him,'' his former manager Ozzie Guillen once surmised. "If you play with him, you hate him a little less."

(There is a hilarious clip of former White Sox coach Jeff Cox telling a story in the clubhouse about Guillen and Pierzynski on YouTube. I'm not linking to it because of -- well, because of typical baseball clubhouse language. But a search for "Ozzie Guillen and AJ Story" will get you there.)

Guillen's relationship with Pierzynski was complicated, but it's also clear he has a lot of affinity for him. He's always been quick to credit Pierzynski for his role on the White Sox' 2005 championship team.

And the "bad teammate" narrative? That just isn't true. It does not require a lengthy search to find quotes from former teammates who unequivocally vouch for the guy.

Consider these comments from an August 2012 feature Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter wrote on Pierzynski:

"Playing against him for so long, he was probably one of my least liked guys," said Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, of his mindset prior to signing with the White Sox for the 2010 season. "Then my locker was right next to his, and after that he became one of my favorite teammates ever. He's not a baby, but just a guy who is so passionate that he doesn't hold anything back. Until you play with him, you have a misperception of what he is."
Chris Sale, who has in his first year as a starter become a Cy Young candidate -- he is 15-4, with a 2.65 ERA -- believes he knows a primary reason for his, and the staff's, success. "I put everything on A.J.," Sale said. "I don't call my own game, I don't ever shake him off. Whatever fingers he puts down, that's what I'm throwing. I've never shaken him off. Never."

And then there is one person whose endorsement matters around here. David Ortiz played with Pierzynski for parts of five seasons with the Twins. They became teammates for the first time way back in 1997, for the Single A Ft. Myers Miracle. Ortiz has always vouched for Pierzynski.

"People like to stamp guys from the beginning," said Ortiz in the SI story.. "One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom."

There's no doubt Ortiz would advocate for Pierzynski now. It's fair to presume pitching coach Juan Nieves and starter Jake Peavy, who both worked with him in Chicago, are cool with reuniting with him here.

Pierzynski has a reputation as a smart, prepared game-caller whose most obnoxious acts seem to stem from one thing: he's competitive as hell.

"He's a tough guy, a dirt bag,'' one unnamed baseball ops executive told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press this week when the Twins were in on the bidding on Pierzynski. "Wherever he goes, he wins."

That sure sounds to me like someone who will fit into the culture of this Red Sox clubhouse. Besides, there are strong enough leaders there as it is to endure a cantankerous personality like Pierzynski's without it having a negative effect.

(He has had the reputation of being overly tough on young players. That will need to cease immediately if it's true. If he wants to act that way, he can go play for the Miami Dolphins.)

I'm actually more wary of how he'll fit baseball-wise. The pros? He's extremely durable, having played at least 128 games every year since 2002. He's a lefthanded hitter, which meshes well with the righthanded David Ross, who should play more than the typical backup. He won his first Silver Slugger award two years ago, smacking 27 homers in his final year in Chicago. And perhaps the most important thing: he's been a tremendous postseason player, putting up a .300/.372/.520 line in 30 games and 114 plate appearances.

But there are also a few cons beyond, you know, the everyone-wants-to-punch-him thing. He's not the type to grind out an at-bat. He had just a .297 OBP last year, earning just nine unintentional walks in 529 plate appearances. In his 16 full and partial seasons, the only season he's had an adjusted OPS higher than departing incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia's 118 last season was during his huge and perhaps aberrational 2012 season. And while he has little trouble throwing out mouthy sportswriters ...

... he's never going to be confused for a Molina brother defensively, though he did throw out a career-best 33 percent of attempted base-stealers last season.

It doesn't take a lengthy search on various social mediums this morning to come to the conclusion that Red Sox fans don't like this move. That's no surprise. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a popular player who played a significant part, especially during the regular season, on a championship team.

I wish Saltalamacchia had stayed, but now that he's moving on, maybe to Miami, I wish him well and hope his career continues on an upward trajectory. Having arrived here with his promising career in jeopardy because of the throwing yips, he deserves all the credit in the world for becoming a worthy heir to Jason Varitek. He'll be missed.

But the Red Sox' willingness to let him go rather than offer a three-year deal tells us a couple of things: They're still not completely sold on some aspect of Saltalamachhia's game, and they have great confidence that prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart will live up to their billing. That's encouraging, though I still wonder if there's some underestimation going on regarding how long it often takes catchers to develop.

For this year, at least, the bridge to Vazquez and Swihart is Pierzynski. While we're going to wish he'd work a walk once in a while, it makes a heck of a lot more sense than bringing in the likes of J.P. Arencibia.

Pierzynski may be abrasive. He is an antagonist. But he's abrasive and antagonistic for the right reasons -- he wants to win, and it's not coincidence that his teams usually do.

You're going to like him. You may not believe it now, but you will. He's our jerk now.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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