FORT MYERS, Fla. — A.J. Pierzynski. The Most Hated Player In Baseball.
I couldn’t wait to talk to this guy.
The new Red Sox catcher fills up a room. He has the résumé and the reputation.
Pierzynski has been in the big leagues since 1998 and played with the Twins, Giants, White Sox, and Rangers before signing with the Red Sox. His grandfather played on the Bridgehampton White Eagles with Carl Yastrzemski’s dad. A.J. played on an Orlando high school team with Johnny Damon and teamed with David Ortiz and Doug Mientkiewicz as a minor leaguer with the Twins in the mid 1990s.
He hit a couple of homers off the Red Sox when the White Sox swept Boston in the 2005 American League Division Series. He loves professional wrestling and has been a member of Fox’ postseason baseball broadcast team for four years.
And now, at the age of 37, he is here to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the Red Sox’ everyday catcher.
According to a 2012 Men’s Journal poll, Pierzynski is the Most Hated Player in Baseball.
“I just laugh at it,’’ he said. “I think it’s cool. I’ve won it a bunch of years in a row. They just change the title around. They change a couple of words.’’
True. In various other polls, Pierzynski has been cited as “Player You Would Most Like To See Beaned” and “Meanest Player’’ in baseball.
“I think I’ve won it before so it’s just an easy answer,’’ he added. “But I think A-Rod took over for me this year.’’
Is there a trophy that comes with the coveted “most hated” distinction — something that gets passed along from year to year like the Stanley Cup?
“No,’’ said Pierzynski. “You just get awkward questions by media people every day.’’
Pierzynski is a wise guy. He’s the consummate provocateur. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci described him as “a professional irritant.’’ He can be hard-headed with teammates, and grating on opponents. He runs over the pitching mound after making outs. He sometimes steps on the hitter’s bats.
He has been known to show up opponents. He has been in a couple of fights (notably a brawl with Cubs catcher Michael Barrett after a collision in 2006) and he got into it with Justin Morneau when Morneau thought Pierzynski intentionally stepped on his foot. Angels fans still hate Pierzynski for his trickery when he struck out in the 2005 ALCS but fooled everyone by running to first base as the Angels ran off the field, claiming the catcher didn’t catch the third strike.
“Wait till you hear them greet me in Anaheim,’’ he said.
Pierzynski represents a slight departure from the Red Sox acquisition model of 2012-13. After a winter in which general manager Ben Cherington emphasized the signing of “character guys,’’ the Sox now have a legitimate baseball “character,’’ a guy out of “Bull Durham.”
Remember when Danny Ainge was an NBA guard? You loved him if he was on your team. You hated him if he played for the other team. Pierzynski might be a little like Ainge.
“When I play for those three hours, it’s about playing, it ain’t about being friends,’’ said Pierzynski. “Your best friend in the world can be out there pitching, I’m trying to get a hit off him. It’s about getting a hit or trying to win.
“After, we can go out and get a beer or dinner. But for those three hours, it’s about trying to beat that guy’s ass and go to the next day.’’
Pierzynski folklore includes a spring training tale from Arizona when he was with the Giants in 2004. As the story goes, Pierzynski was accidentally struck in his private parts, and when Giants trainer Stan Conte came out to ask him how he felt, Pierzynski responded by kneeing the trainer in the groin.
“That’s not true,’’ said Pierzynski. “That’s one of those urban legends. I never actually kicked him, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you that.
“I’ve actually seen him since and he’s said, ‘I don’t know how that came about because I didn’t tell anybody and you didn’t do it,’ so that’s OK. Whatever. More, when I write a book one day, I’ll have a lot of good stories.’’
It’ll be fun watching him when Sox starters shake him off. Pierzynski is famously hard-headed, and his battles with the similarly wired Jake Peavy were epic when the two played together in Chicago.
“You have to do what the pitcher says,’’ said Pierzynski. “Ultimately, it’s their game and their ball. But you have to have a little bit of hard-headedness in you, if you believe in something. Peavy and I always got into it, but that’s just him.’’
Any hard feelings from his days playing against the Sox?
“I’m sure Lackey’s hit me a couple of times on purpose,’’ he said, as John Lackey passed by, chuckling, in the JetBlue clubhouse. “But I’ve never really had a bad run-in with the Red Sox. We never played them a whole lot. Usually that stuff gets in the division more because you see them so much.’’
Wow. The Red Sox-Yankees games just got better. The Red Sox now have the Most Hated Player in Baseball.