MINNEAPOLIS – A decade ago, when Barry Bonds was viewed as the scourge of baseball and booed unmercifully in every city except San Francisco, then-Brewers outfielder Geoff Jenkins said, “I'm not saying anyone wants to be treated like that, but it is the ultimate sign of respect. When you're booed, it means you're good. Real good. People don't bother booing mediocre players.”
Which brings us to A.J. Pierzynski, who is no Barry Bonds, but who has been a pretty damn good catcher during a 19-year career in which he’s posted a .281 average with 403 doubles (one of four catchers in history with 400 doubles), 187 home runs and 907 RBIs (one of 17 active players with 900 or more).
Pierzynski is hated in many cities for a variety of reasons we won’t go into at length here. Suffice to say that over two decades he’s gotten into a few brawls, made more than a few inflammatory comments, reportedly kneed a trainer in the private parts, and playfully (or no so playfully) poked at opponents, umpires, opposing fans and even some teammates. It’s who he is.
Or, rather, who he was was. It’s important to note that Pierzynski really hasn’t done much of that stuff during his two seasons with the Braves. If he’d been a jerk after signing a one-year contract, the Braves wouldn’t have brought him back this season despite the unlikely late-career resurgent 2015 season – he hit .300 with a .769 OPS in 113 games last season, taking over as primary catcher after Christian Bethancourt struggled early.
Anyway, A.J. has been good for the Braves and particularly for the young pitching staff, despite his dimished offensive production this season. A quiet leader who speaks up on occasion in the clubhouse and quite frequently with pitchers. He’s been great helping young guys (and some older ones) cut through the B.S. and get over fears or lack of confidence. He’s perhaps a tad abrasive for the gentler sorts, but listen to Braves pitchers and you will more often than not hear unsolicited praise for Pierzynski after a pitcher has a good game with him behind the plate.
But anyway, we digress.
A.J. is still hated in most every city the Braves go to. Either for some great game or series he had against that city’s team in a crucial playoff race or a postseason series, or some real or perceived indignity he foisted upon a team or player. Or, for how he left a team, which people can be particularly sensitive about, sometimes creating scenarios in their own minds about what kind of character this player or that one showed and how he was liked or hated by teammates (when often, most outside the clubhouse really don’t have a good read on this).
As Juan Uribe said when I asked Uribe last year, only half-seriously, why his pal Pierzynski was booed just about everywhere he went, “(Bleep) A.J. ‘Boooo, A.J.’”
And Uribe really likes him. A lot. A.J. just has that effect on people.
His friends also obviously know he is as thick-skinned as a rhino and can take the insults and boos, so the ones who know him best and feel comfortable around him don’t mind piling on and adding some of their own. But that’s not many folks at all in the Braves clubhouse, because most aren’t nearly old enough to feel comfortable saying anything like that to or about Pierzynski, and the ones that are probably haven’t played with him long enough to feel like they can bust his chops. He can be quite an intimidating dude, thick and broad-shouldered, shuffling through the clubhouse, unsmiling, a few days’ or weeks’ worth of beard on his face, hair looking like he forgot it was there.
Then you (a reporter) ask him a question and he doesn’t hesitate to stop what he’s doing and respond, almost always with a thoughtful and reasoned response and never with some canned answer or cliché that he feels he must say in order not to offend someone. Not a smile, mind you. Rarely that. But so what? I like an honest response to a question, don't much care for a smile, not if it's a fake smile if the person doesn't feel like smiling.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes, the hate. It’s still there. Because most people haven’t gotten to know Pierzynski late in his career, and his reputation as the most hated man in baseball – other players voted him No. 1 in a poll years ago – follows him, whether or not he does much if anything these days to warrant such dislike. And the thing is, he never tries to make people understand he’s not a rotten guy, that he’s matured or mellowed a bit or whatever. He just does his thing, comes to the ballpark every day, arrives early, works hard, meets with his starting pitcher and goes over hitters, etc.
Then he goes out, hears varying degrees of boos in almost every road ballpark when his name is introduced, shows no emotion in response, and goes about his business.
But don’t think he doesn’t notice, even if he doesn’t show it. I say this because Tuesday night, there were very few boos at Target Field when he was introduced. There might actually have been as many cheers as boos, at least from my vantage point in the pressbox.
This surprised Pierzynski, who has heard the boo-birds for years whenever he returned to Minneapolis, the place where he began his career and played parts of six seasons through 2003. Particularly when he returned with the White Sox, whom Pierzynski helped win a World Series in 2005, his first season in Chicago, when he had 18 homers and 56 RBIs. The next year he was an All-Star with a .295 average and .769 OPS in a career-high 140 games, and he played for the White Sox through 2012.
Why did they hate him after he left Minnesota? Well, that’s no so clear, other than a combination of his personality – he was the kind of guy you loved having on their team but hated when he was on any other team – and the fact that he prospered after leaving the Twins. Nevermind that the Twins made the decision to go with young Joe Mauer at catcher instead of Pierzynski.
The Twins took A.J. in the third round of the ’94 draft, selecting him higher than some expected after they’d failed to sign first-round pick Jason Varitek the previous year. After four years in the minors and two seasons as a major league backup, A.J. became the Twins starting catcher in 2001, and they won consecutive division titles in 2002 and 2003, with A.J. making the All-Star team in 2002 when he hit .300 with a .773 OPS in 130 games.
The next season, 2003, he had then-career bests of .312 average, 35 doubles, 11 homers and 74 RBIs. But with 2001 overall No. 1 draft pick Mauer waiting in the wings, ready to go, the Twins traded A.J. to the Giants for reliever Joe Nathan and minor league pitchers Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano. Nathan and Liriano went on to do big things for the Twins, while Pierzynski lasted one season with the Giants before going to the White Sox as a free agent.
So you would think that Twins fans, considering what they got for Pierzynski in that trade and the fact that, well, he was traded and didn’t leave as a free agent, would’ve welcomed him home with applause during those following seasons. But you would be wrong. They did not. Most booed him. Loudly. Probably didn’t like the arrogance they perceived – he gave off that vibe, no doubt – and the fact that he went on to bigger things with the White Sox in the same division, playing the Twins so frequently.
But now, four years after he played for the White Sox, and in first visit to Minneapolis as a visiting player since May 2014, Pierzynski heard a different sound from a good-sized crowd at Target Field in Tuesday’s series opener, a 2-0 Braves win in which he had a double and scored Atlanta’s second run. He heard … wait, what? … a smattering of applause.
“It was kind of weird they didn’t boo me,” Pierzynski said after the game, his 10-year-old son Austin standing nearby as reporters interviewed the aging catcher. A.J. smiled. “Then again I think no one in the stands remembered that I played here it was so long ago. There was actually some claps, which was a little bit different.”
He added, “I’ve always enjoyed playing here. People have always been good to me -- away from the field obviously. In the town, the city. It’s the first time my kids have been here, and they’ve been able to have a good time yesterday, see some people, see Minnesota.”
And not see or hear dad get insulted and booed by the masses at the ballpark. What a trip, indeed.
• In our last day in Minneapolis, I’ll close with this one from another of my all-time favorite bands that hails from the Twin Cities. Ladies and gents, the mighty Husker Du.
“DON’T WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE LONELY” by Husker Du
I'm curious to know exactly how you are
I keep my distance but that distance is too far
It reassures me just to know that you're okay
But I don't want you to go on needing me this way
And I don't want to know if you are lonely
Don't want to know if you are less than lonely
Don't want to know if you are lonely
Don't want to know, don't want to know
The day you left me, left me feeling oh so bad
Still I'm not sure about all the doubts we had
From the beginning we both knew it wouldn't last
Decisions have been made the die has been cast
The phone is ringing and the clock says four A.M.
If it's your friends, well I don't want to hear from them
Please leave your number and a message at the tone
Or you can just go on and leave me alone