As we head into 2011, Big League Stew will honor one birthday boy per week — players will be culled from both past and present — by taking a longer look at his career highlights and lowlights. First up is a notorious catcher from Chicago's South Side.
Anthony John Pierzynski turns 34 today. He's been in the league since the Minnesota Twins brought him up as a 21-year-old catcher for a cup of coffee in 1998. That was the same age at which Joe Mauer(notes) got his first taste of the big leagues in 2004, the year after the Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski(notes) to the Giants in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history: Pierzynski for Joe Nathan(notes), Francisco Liriano(notes) and Boof Bonser(notes). The Giants chucked him after just one season, and he wound up playing for Ozzie Guillen on the South Side of Chicago in 2005.
Though he'd rubbed teammates and managers the wrong way for years, he seemed to click with Ozzie, who explained:
"If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less."
He's been behind the plate at U.S. Cellular Field ever since.
There's a reason the Giants wanted him, though. It really is difficult to find a catcher who can hit well, and while he's no Mauer, A.J. has been one of the better catchers in the league for a decade. He has 120 career home runs, a feat managed by just 47 other catchers. And as he continues his climb up the all-time ladder, we wish him a very happy birthday.
Best year 2003: .312/.360/.464, 11 HR, 74 RBI
This was his career year, and the Twins knew it, trading him at the peak of his value in one of the biggest trade heists in baseball history. The Giants compounded their mistake by non-tendering him after just one season of decent production, but they didn't have much of a choice. He couldn't fit in with teammates and, on one occasion, kneed the team trainer in the groin.
Worst year 2010: .270/.300/.388, 9 HR, 56 RBI
If not for the fact that top Sox catching prospect Tyler Flowers(notes) had an awful year in AAA, Pierzynski would probably be on another team or searching for one right now.. In his contract year, Pierzynski posted the worst numbers of his career, and he had to rally hard after a first half in which he hit .247. As it was, the White Sox had no better options behind the plate, so they swallowed hard and offered him a two-year, $8 million extension. But this may not be the last low point. Thirty-four-year-old catchers don't typically improve with age, so the Sox may have just thrown good money after bad. He's guaranteed the money, but he isn't guaranteed a roster spot.
Claim to fame "Punch A.J." — the successful campaign to get A.J. Pierzynski on the 2006 AL All-Star Team, as the White Sox rallied their fans to punch A.J. on the ballots. The movement, of course, got its name after he famously got into a donnybrook with Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett(notes), where Pierzynski ran over Barrett on a play at the plate and Barrett responded by slugging him in the jaw. Pierzynski's teammate Mark Buehrle(notes) responded:
"Once Barrett hit him, I think the whole league wanted to give Barrett a pat on the back."
Outside of baseball Pro wrestling. He appeared on Spike TV's Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in 2005, jumping into the ring and slammed home plate over another wrestler's head while wearing a White Sox jersey. On ESPN's Cold Pizza in 2006, he challenged the WWE's John Cena to a match, though Cena turned him down. In 2009, he appeared alongside Bob Barker in a WWE Raw segment called "The Price is Raw." Could anyone possibly be surprised that baseball's biggest heel secretly wants to be a pro wrestler?