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The Life

September 18, 2002
Flak Catcher
ESPN The Magazine

Twins: Intro | Infield | Metrodome

He stomps around when he's not hitting and whoops it up when he is. He sometimes skyhooks the ball back to the pitcher after a strike, like Kareem with a chest protector. He's toned it down lately, but opponents have long memories, long enough that a few extra fastballs always end up headed for A.J. Pierzynski's ribs.

A. J. Pierzynski
A. J. Pierzynski can even ruffle feathers on his own team.
Exhibit A: In April, after Bartolo Colon, then with Cleveland, plunked Pierzynski, Matt Lawton, a former teammate and current Indian, suggested nobody was losing sleep over it. "I just get the feeling that a lot of guys over here don't like the Twins and don't like A.J. Pierzynski himself," Lawton said at the time. "I can't say Bartolo was trying to hit him, but I don't think he minded hitting him at all."

Of course, none of this is news to the guys who share a clubhouse with Pierzynski. "A.J. does a lot of things to piss off the other team," says leftfielder Jacque Jones. "We know how to deal with him by now, but a lot of people don't like him."

To which Pierzynski, 25, replies: "If they have to throw at me, they're gonna throw at me. The only thing that matters is what my teammates think."

Well, as you might imagine, some of Pierzynski's teammates can't stand him either. Doug Mientkiewicz calls him a baby. Torii Hunter prefers "smart-ass." To Jones, he's just a knucklehead. They say all this with a smile, thinking how much more they'd hate him if they were playing against him. "He talks a lot, and gets under the skin of opposing teams," says first baseman Mientkiewicz. "Every team's got one, and he's ours."

But as the Twins ready for their first playoff appearance in 11 years, Pierzynski is more than a pain -- he may also be their most important player. Hunter is known for his long-ball thievery in center and closer Eddie Guardado for his steel-toe work ethic. But Pierzynski, the team's third All-Star, is their best hitter and a stellar defensive backstop. Most important, he's also blossomed into an expert game-caller, deftly handling both Minnesota's inconsistent starters and its burgeoning bullpen. And, believe it or not, Anthony John Pierzynski has also grown up a little along the way.

Pierzynski was MInnesota's third-round draft pick in 1994, out of Orlando's Dr. Phillips High (the same school that Boston's Johnny Damon went to). He became part of a gang of homegrown Twins -- Hunter, Jones, Mientkiewicz, Cristian Guzman, Joe Mays and J.C. Romero -- that now form the team's nucleus. Double-A New Britain in 1998? They all excelled, especially Mientkiewicz (.323, 16 HRs, 88 RBIs) and A.J. (.297, 3 HRs, 17 RBIs in 59 games). Pierzynski describes the crew as "one big party," but for him it was one that got broken up before anyone could make a beer run.

The 6'3", 220-pounder coasted into 2000 spring training thinking he was a shoo-in for the retired Terry Steinbach's job. The Twins had tried unsuccessfully to humble Pierzynski before; in the spring of 1998, then-manager Tom Kelly introduced himself as if he'd never heard of A.J. before. There was also a backroom chewing-out by bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek that left a bat splintered. "A lot of people get called up and think everything is hunky-dory," says Guardado, a nine-year vet. "A.J. had to get slapped in the face a little bit."

The final blow was a roundhouse: Tired of his sleepwalking, the Twins woke A.J. up, demoting him to Double-A while his boys went north or to Triple-A. "Nobody likes to be left behind," says Hunter, who broke camp with the big league club that year. "That's when he started listening."

Isolated from friends, Pierzynski tore through the minors in 2000, earning a fall call-up in which he hit .307 in 33 games. He won the job in 2001 and batted .289, then earned this year's All-Star berth by hitting .320 in the first half. He's strictly a contact hitter, with just 6 HRs and 47 RBIs through Sept. 14, but his .304 average makes him the only Twin above .300. "Some guys need a push," says Mientkiewicz. "A.J.'s been on a mission ever since, and now he's an All-Star."

You wouldn't know it from watching him hack at everything with whirlwind cuts that would make Tom Emanski cringe. Pierzynski inexplicably sprays extra-base hits, nailing as many triples as jacks this year. But down the stretch, nothing will be more valuable than Pierzynski's rapport with his pitchers. Early in his career, his batterymates were what Stelmaszek calls "wobbleheads" -- shaking off signs so vigorously they looked like ballpark giveaways. "Now, our staff loves throwing to A.J.," says manager Ron Gardenhire. "He controls the game."

A.J. Pierzynski, coming into his own and making things easier for the Twins? Some admit they never thought this day would come. Although they scoff at the notion that's he all grown up, at least he's tolerable now -- especially since he's hitting .379 in September. "He drove me crazy," says Hunter, "but now I'm starting to like him again."

Torii and the boys shouldn't get too attached. As you might remember, the Twins drafted catcher Joe Mauer No. 1 overall in 2001, and when the hometown hero is seasoned, Pierzynski is history. "They paid him more [$5.15 million] to sign than I've made in my life," Pierzynski says. "Hopefully, I'll be good enough to go somewhere else."

Then we'll see what the Twins really think of him.

This article appears in the September 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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