Punch out: A.J. wins AL Final Vote
White Sox backstop Pittsburgh-bound for All-Star Game
CHICAGO -- He's been called an agitator, an instigator and some other words that children under the age of 18 shouldn't be reading or saying.
His manager, Ozzie Guillen, says that you hate you hate him if you go against him, and you hate him a little less if he's on your team.
But for all the controversy usually swirling around A.J. Pierzynski, the White Sox catcher must be given the credit he deserves. Pierzynski handles one of baseball's best pitching staffs with great skill, and plays at an intense pace every day he takes the field. He also has come up with a fair share of big hits during his short tenure with the White Sox -- just ask Yhency Brazoban or Ryan Dempster for first-hand, game-winning home run references.
Apparently, Pierzynski's style of play holds greater weight with the fans than some of the unceremonious fanfare following his name. That particular reasoning would explain Pierzynski's victory in the Monster.com All-Star Final Vote competition on MLB.com, as he officially became the 32nd player on the 2006 American League All-Star team, edging out Minnesota's Francisco Liriano in one of the closest competitions in the history of this event.
Pierzynski received 3.6 million votes, a few hundred thousand short of teammate Scott Podsednik's winning total during the 2005 Final Vote. His strong showing is a credit to White Sox fans, who voted for Pierzynski countless times online, and the White Sox electoral machine, who came up with the perfectly-themed "Punch A.J." campaign.
Maybe the next step for Brooks Boyer and Scott Reifert, who spearheaded the grassroots politicking, is reelection for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, one of the city's staunchest White Sox supporters.
"We have a good track record," said Boyer, the vice president of marketing, with a laugh when asked about further campaign help from the organization. "We like these three-day things. They are quick and over. It was everybody, it really was. It was a big organization effort."
"I just have to thank the fans who voted, and also the PR Department for getting it out there," a humbled but pleased Pierzynski said. "They did a great job, coming up with a good slogan and everything. I can't thank them enough."
Cleveland's Travis Hafner finished third in the AL Final Vote, followed by Detroit rookie Justin Verlander and Baltimore catcher Ramon Hernandez. The Dodgers' Nomar Garciaparra grabbed a slightly more comfortable Final Vote victory in the National League, beating out Milwaukee's Chris Capuano.
Adding Pierzynski gives the White Sox a Major League-best seven All-Star representatives, not to mention Guillen and his entire coaching staff. Along with the fans and the team itself, some credit for Pierzynski's victory must go to pitcher Mark Buehrle, one of those seven South Siders headed to Pittsburgh on Monday.
The White Sox southpaw is not exactly a big fan of public speaking, although he's a solid quote and faces the media after every start, win or lose. But it was Buehrle who spoke to the fans at U.S. Cellular Field last year, encouraging them to get out the vote for Podsednik. He did the same for the "Punch A.J." campaign on Monday.
According to Buehrle, though, he's not thinking about branching off into a different business.
"That's the last thing that's going to happen," said Buehrle with a smile. "My wife got here the other day and said that someone told her that her husband was becoming quite the public speaker. But don't get used to it. It will be a rarity. That's the only time I get out there and do it."
"Buehrle needs to go on the motivational circuit because he gets fans going and gets the votes," Pierzynski added.
Upon receiving the official word, Pierzynski was able to share the good news with his wife, Lisa, who he said "was cross-eyed from looking at the computer screen" and voting so much. She also has been there with Pierzynski during the trials, tribulations and many successes of his career.
But where Pierzynski is concerned, this special moment could not come without a little good-natured ribbing from his teammates. After all, Pierzynski would do the same if the situation was reversed.
There was talk of how some sort of wild event is bound to take place at the All-Star Game, now that Pierzynski is involved, even if Pierzynski has nothing to do with the shenanigans.
Guillen added that the "most hated guy is going to win" and that "it's hard when nobody likes you and you have the most votes." He was kidding, of course, for the most part.
It took Chris Widger, who works with Pierzynski behind the plate, to really and truly sum up the starter's accomplishment.
"I guess it is true what they say," said Widger, looking at Pierzynski with a wry smile. "Good guys really do finish last."
Pierzynski grabbed the on-field microphone before the start of Thursday's series finale against Baltimore and sincerely thanked the fans for "Punching A.J.," and then "Punching A.J." over and over again. He also received a standing ovation during his first at-bat in the second inning, tipping his helmet to the applause.
Detractors can say whatever they want about Pierzynski. But now, they must also call him a World Series champion, a two-time All-Star and clearly a man of the people.
"Obviously, the home vote is what carried me," Pierzynski said. "The White Sox fans and the people who watch us and root for us around the country -- I couldn't be prouder with the way they voted.
"It means a lot to me, especially to be going in this way. It's a little vindication for all the bad stuff that certain people have written about me.
"The best thing about the All-Star Game is you get to hang out with your teammates and represent, not only your organization, but the city and represent the team that won the World Series last year," Pierzynski added. "You think you go once, you get to go every year. To get the chance to go back now is even more special than the first time."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.