- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For a player who allegedly has a limitless capacity to make people hate him (more on that later), A.J. Pierzynski's ties to the Boston Red Sox, past and present, offer an intriguing alternative: terms of endearment.
Surely, having a shared history with Yaz, Johnny Damon and David Ortiz won't hurt Pierzynski's chances of being welcomed by Sox fans as he begins his 17th season in the big leagues as the team's primary catcher.
The Bridgehampton White Eagles were a semipro baseball team on Long Island started by Carl Yastrzemski Sr., who managed the team and played short. Four Yastrzemski brothers played on the team. The batboy was 8-year-old Carl Yastrzemski. One of their teammates was another player with Polish roots and family members who, like the Yastrzemskis, were potato farmers: Anthony Pierzynski, A.J.'s grandfather.
"I'm not sure what position he played,'' A.J. Pierzynski said Sunday. "I never asked him. That's kind of weird.''
Yaz's uncle, Chet Yastrzemski, pitched on that team. He once wrote that Anthony Pierzynski, like his grandson, was a catcher.
"I met [Yaz] when I was with the Twins and he was working in the minor leagues,'' Pierzynski said. "When my grandmother [Sabina] came to town, he would always talk to her.''
A.J. was born in Bridgehampton, but his family resettled in Florida. In high school at Dr. Phillips in Orlando, he played with Damon, who was a senior when Pierzynski was a sophomore. Did he ever envision Damon becoming a cult figure?
"He was obviously Johnny Damon, but he was like a flat-top -- crew cut, strait-laced,'' Pierzynski said. "I didn't see him becoming what he became. I never thought he'd grow the hair, grow the beard, the whole thing. Best thing he ever did.''
All these years later, and Pierzynski lives around the corner from Damon. "Johnny hasn't changed at all toward me or the people we know,'' Pierzynski said. "He's still the same guy, still acts the same, still Johnny. He's great. He's big time, though, so I'm not at his level. Not invited over.''
Pierzynski, of course, is joking. He remains friends with Damon, just as he never stopped being friends with Ortiz, who came up through the Twins' system at the same time as Pierzynski. The first time they were teammates was here in Fort Myers, with the Miracle, the Twins' Class A team. They staged competitions against each other, Pierzynski said, almost on a daily basis.
"We'd have a home run derby, and then a ground-ball [fielding] contest at first base,'' Pierzynski said. "It was pretty equal. He got called up first, and I stayed. But we played together again later on.''
Those are all good baseball roots, right? So how is it that any time someone conducts a poll among players to determine which ballplayer is the most worthy of contempt -- The Player You'd Most Like to See Beaned, The Meanest Player, The Most Hated Player -- Pierzynski is a perennial winner?
"At this point,'' Pierzynski says, "I want to win. If I keep winning, no one else will have to deal with it.
"Those things are funny because they're always anonymous and there's always some anonymous quote from some guy I probably don't even know who's probably never even said hello to me. They always have an opinion. One of them last year was Player You'd Least Like Your Daughter to Marry. Well, OK, I'm married already. Whoop-di-doo. People just recycle the same stuff. No one ever asks me my answer to that stuff.''
All right, so maybe the proverbial, where there's smoke, there's fire comes into play here. Pierzynski is an agitator of the highest order, forever looking for an edge. After the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 and Pierzynski ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, writer Tom Verducci wrote, "Like ammonia, mace or Simon Cowell, Pierzynski is a professional irritant." His manager with the White Sox, Ozzie Guillen, famously said you hate him when he's on the other team, and hate him less when he's on your side.
Red Sox catcher David Ross, who will be sharing time behind the plate with Pierzynski this year, had heard all the stories. That Pierzynski would step on your bat as you were running to first base, or run across the mound on his way back to the dugout, or give you an earful while you were trying to hit. He admitted to a bit of apprehension.
"I thought about that,'' Ross said, "but I like to give everybody a clean slate, the benefit of the doubt. I try not to prejudge people, which I take a lot of pride in. You always hear things in the game and different teammates, but it was like coming in here last year, hearing that this team was in disarray and had all these problems, and this is one of the best groups I've ever been around.
"Same thing with him. It's been great. It's easy. He's easy to get to know. He's done so much in the game too. He's caught perfect games, he's caught no-hitters, he's won a World Series, he's been an All-Star, he's done a lot of things.''
Ask Pierzynski if he would recast the conventional narrative of his career if he could, and he shrugs.
"I don't know, it's been pretty good,'' he said. "I can't complain. A whole lot of things kind of worked out. People are going to say what they're going to say, so no reason to fret or worry about it, get upset about it. It's not going to change.
"A lot of things, I don't know if I've actually ever done what they say I've done. Sometimes I think the legend is more than what has really happened. And it's never been something where I've thought, 'I'll do this on purpose.''
Some people have trouble, he said, separating what happens on and off the field. Even some players.
"When we're on the field, stuff happens that isn't real life,'' he said. "It's our job to try to win games and it's our job to do whatever we can to help the team win that game. "It could be my best friend I could be facing. Mark Buehrle. I'm trying to beat him and he's trying to get me out. We might go out after the game and have a beer or have some dinner, but for those three hours I'm trying to win a game. That's a different animal.''
Besides, there's enough material to construct a competing storyline. Last August, when Pierzynski returned with the Rangers to Chicago after eight years with the White Sox, he was greeted with a stirring standing ovation while a four-minute video paid tribute to him on the stadium scoreboard. The Texas beat writers voted Pierzynski their "Good Guy Award." And the Twins, his original team, made a strong push to lure him back this winter; they wanted him not only to catch, but for his leadership qualities.
"That wasn't as easy a decision as people think,'' he said. "There were other teams too. It was hard just because of the relationships I have with a lot of people in Minnesota. I went back and forth on it a few times, but in the end I made the right decision coming here.''
Pierzynski has proven to be remarkably durable in his career. Part of it, he said, is good genes, part of it is good luck. A lot of it is abiding by the catcher's code that you play through injuries.
"There have been many times I probably shouldn't have played,'' he said. "In September 2011, I played with a broken wrist. We were in a pennant race. I wanted to play.''
Pierzynski is 37. Ross turns 37 on March 19. Only two teams in big-league history have had catching duos that old, the Expos in 1992 (Gary Carter and Rick Cerone) and the Cubs in 1940 (Al Todd and Gabby Hartnett).
"I think it's more of a mindset -- you just have to want to get out there and do it,'' Pierzynski said. "A lot of catchers have had long, successful careers. Henry Blanco's still catching, and he's like 45 years old (his listed age is 42). Both Pudges [Rodriguez and Fisk] caught forever. There are guys who can do it. I just think sometimes guys are given up on too early. That's the way the whole game's going, teams pushing young guys.''
Pierzynski is grateful that he has played long enough that his kids, ages 8 and 7, are old enough to appreciate what their father does.
And yes, that's endearing too.
Don't believe everything you've heard. There's a lot to like with A.J. Pierzynski.