(MCT) — SURPRISE, Ariz. — It takes one to know one.
A.J. Pierzynski has found a good match in new boss Nolan Ryan. The Hall of Famer who is president and part-owner of the Rangers loves that his new catcher is an instigator who doesn’t mind aggravating opponents when it helps win games.
“Remember when Alex Rodriguez said ‘I’ve got it’ on that pop-up (while he was running the bases)?” Ryan said. “Everybody criticized Alex, said it was bush league. I liked it. That was the way we played when I got to the big leagues. You looked for little things, little advantages, like the hidden-ball trick. If you could help your team win, you’d do stuff, anything. Now it’s about what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to act, and nobody likes to stand out.”
Ryan loved how Pierzynski reacted after it seemed he had struck out to end an inning in the second game of the 2005 AL Championship Series, hustling to first base as Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball to the mound and his teammates jogged off the field.
Umpire Doug Eddings and Pierzynski were the only people in the park who felt the ball had hit the dirt on its way to Paul’s mitt, but it turned into a key play in the White Sox’s championship run.
“Not many players would have (run to first),” Ryan said. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. That was a heads-up play. If somebody’s in the game mentally like that, I want him on my team.”
Ryan wasn’t popular with opponents when he pitched. He intimidated hitters by pitching inside, retaliating quickly to protect himself and his teammates and, some say, scuffing the ball with the tacit blessing of umpires, who didn’t want to cross a legend. He compares Pierzynski to another icon from that era.
“People hated Pete Rose,” Ryan said. “Opponents always hated him. He was the least liked guy in the game, but it was because he came to play every day, came to win. He was a gamer. He would do anything to help a team win. And that’s what I think you get with A.J.”
When Pierzynski became Minnesota’s regular catcher in 2001, the Twins hadn’t been to the playoffs in nine years and had gone through eight consecutive losing seasons. They won 85 games that year and then won the division the next two. The White Sox had been perennial runners-up until signing Pierzynski and won the division two of his first four years, including the magical ride in ‘05.
This should be Pierzynski’s ninth/ year in Chicago, but rookie general manager Rick Hahn turned that job over to Tyler Flowers after expending his limited resources on Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd. The Sox are going to miss Pierzynski as he joins a Rangers team that is at a post-Josh Hamilton crossroads, trying to remain a force after losing World Series in 2010 and ‘11.
The other day Pierzynski kidded with manager Ron Washington that he should stop wearing a World Series jacket because it was two years old, but nothing matters to the Rangers except getting a third chance.
“There are a lot of good players here, good people, and they’ve done special things,” Pierzynski said. “They’ve made the playoffs the last three years. You talk to people about it, you can feel the disappointment. They had the opportunity to go to the World Series but didn’t win. Two strikes away, two different times (against the Cardinals in 2011) and it didn’t happen. There’s going to be a lingering effect from that. But the cool thing is they still think they can get back and win it.”
Pierzynski is 36 and coming off a career year, as his home run total jumped from eight to a career-high 27. Even Ryan says he had seen him as “an opposite-field singles hitter” before the turnaround, which was so startling it fueled speculation about PED use.
The rumors would seem to be a backhanded compliment to his conditioning work, which he has attacked seriously for years. He has gotten into better shape as he has aged and is intent once again on catching 1,000-plus innings, which he has done for 11 straight seasons.
The Rangers have had seven primary catchers and 24 catchers overall in the decade since losing Ivan Rodriguez, with former Cub Geovany Soto the last to arrive. Soto appeared to be in line to be the regular this year before general manager Jon Daniels used money initially earmarked for Zack Greinke or Hamilton to upgrade behind the plate.
“We brought A.J. in here because of his durability,” Ryan said. “We haven’t had a true workhorse catcher in a long time.”
Pierzynski will face the White Sox on Tuesday at the Rangers’ complex in Surprise and says he’s looking forward to a chance to visit U.S. Cellular Field, although that won’t come until August. He had wanted to stay with the Sox but will make almost as much with the Rangers this season ($7.5 million) as he did in his last two in Chicago ($8 million). It’s a credit to his professionalism that he never complained about his relatively low salaries, just as it is that he runs out grounders and sometimes even strikeouts.
Don’t be surprised if one of his old teammates knocks him off the plate, even if he insists he will be.
“Jake (Peavy) will yell at me and then say he’s yelling at himself,” Pierzynski said. “He does that to hitters all the time. But I hope nobody (drills me). I hope I never did anything to cause that.”
Nah. No way. Right?