A.J. revisits memories in first trip back to Chicago
Catcher played eight seasons, won World Series on South Side
CHICAGO -- A.J. Pierzynski picked up important words of advice from former teammate Mark Buehrle before returning to U.S. Cellular Field as part of the Texas Rangers on Friday night.
Make sure he goes into the visitors' clubhouse and not the familiar environs of the home clubhouse.
"I knew better. I was making sure I didn't make the same mistake as Mark," said Pierzynski with a laugh. "Mark told me what it was like when he came back, and he was emotional about it.
"I'll be the same way. This was home for a long time and it's unfortunate, but things happen and I ended up in a pretty darn good place."
Pierzynski, 36, has played previous games as a visitor at U.S. Cellular Field. He caught parts of six years with the Twins, where the career .284 hitter was not exactly the most beloved of opposing players.
Those feelings all changed in 2005, when Pierzynski joined the White Sox as a free agent and the White Sox captured their first World Series title in close to nine decades. Pierzynski served as the team's starting catcher for eight seasons before he joined the Rangers as a free agent and departed in a less-than-popular move for fans on the South Side.
Gone, but definitely not forgotten. The White Sox prepared a video tribute for Pierzynski, and he received three standing ovations from the 31,891 in attendance during the Rangers' 11-5 victory. In some ways, his grinder, competitive attitude always will leave him attached to the White Sox.
"It was hard to keep my emotions in check. Even Alex [Rios) was like, 'Wow, that was pretty cool,'" said Pierzynski of the White Sox video tribute played on the center-field scoreboard after the top of the first inning. "I tip my hat and thank the White Sox organization, from the video people to the front office to everyone involved for that. It was special. I have nothing but respect and admiration for everyone here and it just continues to grow every time I'm here."
"Obviously, A.J. is A.J., but the guy comes to play and he's a great player. It was definitely a good eight years when he was here." said White Sox captain Paul Konerko, the only player still with the White Sox from the '05 team, of his colorful former teammate. "Number 1, it's [that] nothing keeps him out of the lineup. I mean, as a catcher goes, even now and throughout his career, he catches way more than most starting catchers do. He works hard every day he comes in. There's a lot of chances to sit out games. And he just doesn't do that. It's not because those things aren't happening. There's no way to play as long as he has and just be lucky that he hasn't been banged up. It's impossible, and he has been and he still gets out there."
While the return of Pierzynski on Elvis Night received the most attention, it was a veritable ex-White Sox and Cubs reunion with the Rangers in town. Catcher Geovany Soto, pitcher Matt Garza and utility infielder Jeff Baker all were previously part of the Cubs, while outfielder Alex Rios, and pitchers Neal Cotts and Jason Frasor suited up for the White Sox.
Cotts played a huge role out of the bullpen for the '05 White Sox, just as he's doing currently with the American League West-leading Rangers. Rios was traded to the Rangers two weeks ago, in exchange for Leury Garcia, who currently is on the White Sox active roster.
The return prize for Pierzynski and Rios, who hit fifth and sixth respectively, was to face one of the game's top southpaws in Chris Sale.
"It's going to be intense," said Rios of facing Sale. "Hopefully, I see the ball well tonight and we can do some damage. It's going to be nice to face one of the aces of the team you were on."
"No matter coming back as a player, as a fan 20 years down the road, I think it's still going to bring back memories of an exciting time we had [in '05]," said Cotts, who lives in Chicago but hasn't been back to U.S. Cellular since his playing days. "It's exciting to come back."
Pierzynski shared the same line of thinking as Cotts when picking the World Series championship as his greatest moment in Chicago. He still has good friendships made from that team, and as he pointed out Friday, it's a special group of guys that came together to do special things not seen in close to nine decades in the city.
His daughter and son were both born while Pierzynski was with the White Sox, making Chicago really the only baseball home they had ever known. Pierzynski and his wife, Lisa, had to explain to their kids before the series that they couldn't go to the White Sox family room during the game because Pierzynski no longer played for the White Sox.
Texas stands as Pierzynski's on-field home now. But it seems as if the catcher, who faced the White Sox in Texas at the end of April, will always be considered part of the White Sox family.
"Maybe it was my wrestling career, I don't know. Because they used to have wrestling at the old Comiskey, so maybe it was that," said a smiling Pierzynski of his connection to the fans. "I've always said that from Day 1 here they welcomed me with open arms. I remember walking into SoxFest the first time after I had signed and they were great. From Day 1 to the last day I was here, they've been nothing but awesome."