Success seems to follow AJ Pierzynski wherever he goes.
Six years after retiring from Major League Baseball, the same IQ he carried through 19 years is helping another championship-level team in his hometown.
“Catchers make the best [MLB] managers and coaches,” Scott Grove, head coach of The First Academy in Orlando, said about bringing Pierzynski aboard. “You’re the quarterback on the baseball field.”
Before the 2020 season, Grove asked Pierzynski if he could help as an assistant coach. It was cut off after eight games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but last year, in Pierzynski’s first full season as an assistant, TFA (31-1) won the Class 3A state championship.
The Royals are 24-3 this season and rolled to the Class 3A District 9 tournament title, beating Windermere Prep 10-0 in Thursday’s final. They will host a region quarterfinal game Wednesday.
The former Dr. Phillips High School standout has had his share of big games — and moments. He was an integral part of two playoff runs with the team that drafted him, the Minnesota Twinsin 1994.
In his first year with the Chicago White Sox after signing as a free agent in 2005, Pierzynski had a huge impact on the team winning its first World Series in 88 years.
One of the key moments in the World Series run was a usually inconsequential dropped third strike in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Anaheim Angels.
The White Sox were down 1-0 in the series and the score was tied 1-1 with two outs in the ninth. Pierzynski struck out to seemingly end the inning. But Angels catcher Josh Paul didn’t think the pitch hit the dirt and started walking toward the dugout while Pierzynski ran to first in a heads-up play.
Home plate umpire Doug Eddings allowed the dropped third strike. Pablo Ozuna pinch-ran for Pierzynski, stole second and scored on a double by Joe Crede to give the Sox a 2-1 victory.
He made winning plays for winning teams. One thing First Academy has been good at is winning, and its players can draw from an invaluable resource in Pierzynski.
“AJ works with our hitters and shares a lot of knowledge with me,” Grove said. “AJ has helped with double cutoffs and relays, bunt defense, pickoffs and rundowns, two-strike approach with our hitters, dissecting if a pitcher is tipping pitches. … anything to gain any little advantage.”
Making up for lost time
So why does a Major League veteran with more than 2,000 career hits say yes to being a high school assistant?
“My kids have gone to First Academy since kindergarten and I’ve always tried to help out with my son in Little League all the way up,” Pierzynski said, referring to Austin, a freshman catcher (of course) with TFA. “I stay out of his travel baseball stuff, but Scott asked me a couple years ago if I’d be willing to help when Austin was on JV as a seventh-grader.
“I enjoy baseball, but I really enjoy being around this group of kids. They’re fun, they enjoy baseball and enjoy being around each other.”
Pierzynski has become a model “soccer dad” after his playing career, with baseball and volleyball replacing the soccer part. His daughter his, Ava, is a sophomore at First Academy, playing volleyball in the fall and beach volleyball in the spring.
“I help when I have time with my work and traveling,” he said. “Ava plays competitive travel volleyball. We’ve gone to tournaments in Indianapolis, Omaha, Tampa, Chicago and she practices an hour away in Melbourne. I can’t have my wife drive her all the time, so when we don’t have a game, I’ll drive her over there.
“I was very blessed to be able to play baseball for a long time and being able to make enough money to support my family. Now I have time to spend more time with them. I missed a lot playing baseball. My daughter was born in 2005 [and Austin was born in 2006] and I retired in 2016. For eight months a year during those 11 years I was gone a lot. You can’t ever make up for that, but now that I have time and don’t travel as much for work, I want to spend as much time with my kids. I love my kids and enjoy being a part of their lives.”
Austin appreciates Dad being a part of the TFA baseball in more ways than one.
“It’s good to have Dad around, but it’s hard to blend being a coach and father,” he said. “I love having him here and he’s definitely helped our pitchers and catchers with pitch calling and swings.”
With Pierzynski’s career highlights available readily through Google and YouTube, every TFA player knows plenty about their assistant coach. Experiencing the veteran’s knowledge in person is a different story.
“AJ has been for me — and I feel like I can speak for others when I say this — a great person to look up to,” said TFA senior Greg Pettaya UCF recruit who’s batting .462 with 7 home runs and 27 RBI. “He’s one of the reasons this year has been going so well for me because we always talk after most at-bats and he always gives good input.”
Pierzynski’s ability to handle pitchers during his MLB career was impressive. He was the catcher when the White Sox set a record with four consecutive complete games in that 2005 ALCS and he’s one of only 22 catchers in MLB history to catch a perfect game (Philip Humber in 2012).
Pierzynski has helped with the development of TFA’s pitchers, too.
“AJ has been a tremendous help for the team and me personally,” said senior Isaac Sewell, a Virginia Tech recruit who is 9-1 with a 1.38 ERA. “In our postseason run last year, there were many times that he would sit down with me and others about approach and doing a job.
“In the semifinal game against [Jacksonville] Bolles, I was overthinking about how to pitch but he simplified it to just getting nine outs. As pitchers we have to upset the timing of the hitters, and AJ has helped us understand how to pitch with more intent to getting hitters off balance and putting ourselves in the best position to succeed.”
From agitator to arbitrator
Pierzynski was considered an agitator and edgy as a player. His White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
The most famous example is when Pierzynski ran over Chicago Cubs’ catcher Michael Barrett to score on May 20, 2006. Pierzynski slapped home plate emphatically, and before he could grab his helmet off the ground near Barrett he was punched in the face.
Pierzynski was similar to another Chicago athlete, Dennis Rodman, who played for the NBA’s Bulls from 1995-98 after seven years with fierce rival Detroit. Pierzynski was disliked when he was with the division rival Twins, but that changed when he played on the South Side.
Grove was familiar with the reputation before asking him to join the coaching staff.
“I knew about it, but he’s been great for us,” said Grove, who also played pro baseball with nine years in the minors after being drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1987. “He’s a good listener. We don’t agree on everything, but we sit down and come together for the betterment of the team. The beautiful thing about baseball is there’s different ways to win.”
Who knew the agitator could become an arbitrator?
“Scott’s great. I trust him as a coach,” Pierzynski said. “You’re not going to agree with somebody 100 percent on stuff, but when we have a disagreement, we talk about it and get on the same page. I wouldn’t help if I didn’t believe in what the coaches are doing with the whole program.”
And Pierzynski truly cares about the program, school and community. He was an all-state baseball player at Dr. Phillips, but his wife his, Lisa, went to TFA through grade school before they met at DP. His family his attends The First Baptist Church of Orlando, which founded TFA on its campus in 1986.
Pierzynski misses practices and some games due his Fox Sports MLB analyst job and taking Ava to volleyball commitments, but he stays connected from afar.
“I’ll be doing something, but I’ll be watching a [TFA] game on my phone, living and dying with every pitch,” he said. “I did a tour and fell in love with it. People can believe whatever they want to believe, but there’s something about having a Christ-centered school. I believe children need something bigger to answer to than mom or dad.
“TFA promotes a very equal, inclusive environment where they intermix all the students and that’s important to me. When you get out in the real world you are around people that are different from you and you need to be able to handle all situations.”
With Pierzynski in the dugout, the Royals are ready for all situations, too.
This report was first published at Orlandosentinel.com. Varsity Content Editor Buddy Collings can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.