Ozzie Guillen probably put it best.
“If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
The man Guillen was referring to reportedly is the Red Sox’ new starting catcher, A.J. Pierzynski. For the better part of 16 years, Pierzynski has ticked off major leaguers left and right, earning him the title of “Baseball’s Most Hated Player” as recently as 2012. It makes for good hardball chatter, no doubt, but when you sift through the negative perception that surrounds Pierzynski, you’ll see that his dubious reputation is probably the least of the Red Sox’ concerns as they prepare to enter the 2014 season with him behind the dish.
The whole “Pierzynski is a jerk” crusade is nothing new. It’s been going on for years, and by now, it’s something that both he and those who have actually formed a relationship with him — like David Ortiz — have learned to deal with. After all, anyone can become a villain in the eyes of the public if the war against the player gains enough traction.
“People like to stamp guys from the beginning,” Ortiz, who was Pierzynski’s teammate in Minnesota from 1998 to 2002, told Sports Illustrated in 2012. “One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom.”
There’s a great deal of truth to Ortiz’s logic. First impressions are certainly something. If someone tells me that you’re a jerk, I’m going into things prepared for the worst. Sorry, it’s just the way my brain operates, and surely, a lot of other brains out there operate in the same manner. (If you, personally, enter every little thing with a clean slate, well, I guess you’re a better human than me.)
First impressions are not everything, however. Just because someone says you’re a jerk and I’m going into things prepared for you to be a jerk doesn’t mean that I’m actually going to end up thinking you’re a jerk at the end of the day. You know what I mean? Sure, you might be working on a short leash with me, but I’m not writing you off completely based on what someone else says. And, really, all I can ask is that everyone else give me the same leeway when they hear that I’m a jerk — which is probably often.
But moral values and what not aside, we mustn’t look any further than the 2013 Red Sox for proof that everything isn’t always as it seems. Perceptions change, often for the better.
Jake Peavy, whose now famous duck boat purchase was inspired by Jonny Gomes, told the Boston Herald shortly after the Red Sox’ World Series celebration that he didn’t always view the outfielder in a positive light. In fact, he hated the guy.
“He was literally the first person I saw when I walked into the clubhouse,” Peavy reportedly said of his first day in Boston. “And I have to say I didn’t have the fondest of thoughts in my head about Jonny Gomes. Just playing against him, I thought he was a lot of show.
“I wasn’t crazy about him at all. But I soon found out he has this talent for bringing out the best in a team. When you don’t play with guys, you don’t get to know them.”
Peavy got to know Gomes. Peavy’s teammates got to know Gomes. And Boston sure as hell got to know Gomes, whose passion and grit made him a fan favorite despite any preconceived notions.
“I told them Jonny Gomes might be my favorite player in the big leagues,” Peavy said on Aug. 3 after an all-out effort from his once-hated teammate.
Oh, how things change.
Is the perception of Pierzynski suddenly going to change in Boston? Probably not on a league-wide basis, mainly for the reasons that Ortiz outlined. But the perception of him could change amongst Red Sox fans, who will now watch their team go to battle alongside one of the league’s biggest “villains.”
“I don’t know what people expect me to be like,” Pierzynski told ESPN The Magazine earlier this year. “I think the media can decide you’re either a bad guy or a good guy, and they can keep pounding it until everyone thinks it’s true. I get tired of the crap. Every day you read the newspaper, you have to hope that somebody didn’t say something or write something that’ll make you have to defend yourself.”
Pierzynski’s right. His reputation isn’t sparkling. But these days, whose is? If there are any concerns — and there should be a few — about the Red Sox’ reported signing of the mercurial backstop, they should lie mostly in what he brings to the table on the diamond.