A.J. Pierzynski stood on first base with that familiar bemused look, like the kid in the back of the classroom with no idea--no idea!--whence that flying eraser originated. His Chicago White Sox teammates razzed him from the dugout nearby, oblivious to the tension of an eighth-inning tie in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. "Why is it always you?" shouted infielder Geoff Blum.
"I would have gotten on him too," first baseman Paul Konerko said after the game, a 6-3 White Sox win, "but to get on A.J. you have to get in line."
Like ammonia, mace or Simon Cowell, Pierzynski is a professional irritant. He has been called a jerk, a cancer, a provocateur, various unmentionable body parts and, most recently and affectionately by his third set of teammates in three years, Captain Chaos. To become the White Sox catcher, all it took was getting himself run off the San Francisco Giants (costing him about $2 million), 10 hours of candid phone conversations with a wary Chicago general manager Kenny Williams and a talking-to by White Sox announcer and family friend Ken Harrelson. In other words, for a salvage operation of a team that led the league in wins, starting pitching and baggage, he was a perfect fit.
That Captain Chaos found a sweet home in Chicago was never more apparent than in the ALCS against the Los Angeles Angels. Pierzynski made possible both the series-changing run in Game 2 and the series-clinching run in Game 5 as only he can do: by somehow reaching base on plays in which he was called out. You can look it up in your Polish-American dictionary: The Angels got Pierzynskied.
"Even when I don't do anything, I do something," Pierzynski said three days after the White Sox had eliminated the Angels, as Chicago players, coaches and fans awaited the outcome of the National League Championship Series to find out their opponent in the World Series.
Pierzynski channeled the Zen master of catching, Yogi Berra, in more ways than malapropisms: The 28-year-old also became the first catcher since Berra in the 1956 World Series to catch four straight complete games in a postseason series.
Indeed, the first White Sox pennant since 1959 was won in a decidedly retro fashion. Chicago used only five pitchers in the ALCS, just as it did when it won its last World Series way back in 1917. The Sox deployed just one relief pitcher, lefthander Neal Cotts--and only for two outs in Game 1 at that. Chicago rendered moot the closer, the specialized bullpen, the DH, the computer, maple triple-dipped lacquered bats and the rest of the conveniences and contrivances of the modern game, including the bullpen telephone. The Sox might as well have worn wool uniforms and grown handlebar mustaches.
After Jose Contreras came up just short of nine innings in a Game 1 defeat, Chicago's Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Contreras all threw complete-game wins. Only once before--and not since before there was a Mother's Day, commercial airlines, the Model T, Bibles in hotel rooms or Take Me Out to the Ball Game--has a team won four straight postseason games with four starters and no relievers. That would be the Cubs in Aught Seven.
"That's something you're never going to see again," Pierzynski said of the four-star performance.
Said Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy, "If they take that pitching staff into the World Series the way they've been throwing, nobody's going to beat them. They played perfect baseball. When they executed, with the stuff they have, we had no shot."