Success seems to follow AJ Pierzynski wherever he goes.
Six years after retiring from Major League Baseball, the same IQ he carried for 19 years is helping another championship-level team in his hometown.
“Catchers do the best [MLB] managers and coaches,” Scott Grove, head coach at First Academy in Orlando, said of Pierzynski’s arrival on board. “You are the quarterback on the baseball field.”
Ahead of the 2020 season, Grove asked Pierzynski if he could help out as an assistant coach. He was halted 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 state championship class 3A.
The Royals are 24-3 this season and won the District 9 Class 3A Tournament title, beating Windermere Prep 10-0 in Thursday’s final. They will host a regional quarterfinal game on Wednesday.
The former Dr. Phillips High School star has had his share of big games – and moments. He was an integral part of two playoffs with the team that drafted him, the Minnesota Twins, in 1994.
In his first year with the Chicago White Sox after signing as a free agent in 2005, Pierzynski made a huge impact on the team by winning his first World Series in 88 years.
One of the key moments in the World Series run was a generally inconsequential third strike in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Anaheim Angels.
The White Sox lost 1-0 in the series and the score was tied 1-1 with two outs in the ninth. Pierzynski retired to seemingly end the inning. But Angels wide receiver Josh Paul didn’t think the pitch was touching dirt and started walking toward the dugout as Pierzynski ran to first in a one-on-one play.
Plate umpire Doug Eddings allowed the third dropped strike. Pablo Ozuna ran for Pierzynski, stole second and scored on a double from 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 tap into an invaluable resource in Pierzynski.
“AJ works with our hitters and shares a lot of knowledge with me,” Grove said. “AJ helped with double cuts and throws, bunt defense, pick-offs and rundowns, the two-hit approach with our hitters, dissecting if a pitcher is tipping pitches. …anything to gain a little edge.
Make up for lost time
So why would a Major League veteran with over 2,000 career successes say yes to being a high school assistant?
“My kids went to First Academy since kindergarten and I always tried to help my son through Little League all the way,” Pierzynski said, referring to Austin, a first-year catcher (of course ) with TFA. “I stay off his travel baseball stuff, but Scott asked me a few years ago if I’d be willing to help out when Austin was on JV as a seventh grader.
“I love baseball, but I really love being around this group of kids. They’re fun, they love baseball, and they love being around each other.
Pierzynski became a model “father of football” after his playing career, with baseball and volleyball replacing the soccer game. Her daughter, Ava, is a sophomore at First Academy, playing volleyball in the fall and beach volleyball in the spring.
“I help out when I have time with my job and my travels,” he said. “Ava plays competitive travel volleyball. We’ve been to tournaments in Indianapolis, Omaha, Tampa, Chicago and she trains an hour in Melbourne. I can’t let my wife drive it all the time, so when we don’t have a game, I drive her there.
“I was blessed to be able to play baseball for a long time and to be able to earn enough money to support my family. Now I have time to spend more time with them. I missed playing baseball a lot. My daughter was born in 2005 [and Austin was born in 2006] and I retired in 2016. During those 11 years, I was often away eight months a year. You can never make it up to me, but now that I have the time and travel less for work, I want to spend as much time with my kids. I love my children and I love being part of their lives.
Austin appreciates Dad being a part of TFA baseball in more ways than one.
“It’s good to have dad around, but it’s hard to juggle being a coach and a father,” he said. “I love having him here and he’s definitely helped our pitchers and receivers with pitch calls and swings.”
With Pierzynski’s career highlights readily available via Google and YouTube, every TFA player knows a lot about their assistant coach. Experiencing the veteran’s knowledge in person is another 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 Pettay, a UCF rookie who bats .462 with 7 homers and 27 RBI. “He’s one of the reasons this year has gone so well for me because we always talk after most at-bats and he always gives a good contribution.”
Pierzynski’s ability to handle pitchers during his MLB career was impressive. He was the catcher when the White Sox set a record four straight complete games in that 2005 ALCS and is one of only 22 catchers in MLB history to catch a perfect game (Philip Humber in 2012).
Pierzynski also contributed to the development of TFA launchers.
“AJ has been a huge help to the team and me personally,” said Isaac Sewell, a Virginia Tech rookie who is 9-1 with a 1.38 ERA. “During our run in the playoffs last year, he often sat down with me and others about approach and work.
“In the semi-final match against [Jacksonville] Bolles, I was overthinking how to throw, but he made it simple by just getting nine outs. As pitchers, we need to disrupt batter timing, and AJ helped us figure out how to pitch with more intent to throw batters off balance and put ourselves in the best position to succeed.
From agitator to arbiter
Pierzynski was seen as an agitator and pissed off as a player. His White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen, once said, “If you play 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 insistently slapped home plate, and before he could grab his helmet from the floor near Barrett, he was punched in the face.
Pierzynski was similar to fellow Chicago athlete Dennis Rodman, who played for the NBA Bulls from 1995 to 1998 after seven years with fierce rival Detroit. Pierzynski was unloved when he was with division rival Twins, but that changed when he played on the south side.
Grove knew about the reputation before asking him to join the coaching staff.
“I knew it, but he was great for us,” said Grove, who also played professional 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 good of the team. The beautiful thing about baseball is that there are different ways to win.
Who knew that the agitator could become a referee?
“Scott is great. I trust him as a coach,” Pierzynski said. talk and we are on the same wavelength. I wouldn’t help if I didn’t believe in what the coaches are doing with the whole program.
And Pierzynski really cares about the program, the school and the community. He was an all-state baseball player at Dr. Phillips, but his wife, Lisa, went to TFA in elementary school before meeting at DP. His family attends First Baptist Church in Orlando, which founded TFA on its campus in 1986.
Pierzynski misses practices and some games due to his job as a Fox Sports MLB analyst and taking Ava to volleyball engagements, but he stays connected from afar.
“I will do something, but I will watch a [TFA] game on my phone, living and dying with every throw,” he said. “I toured and fell in love with it. People can believe what they want to believe, but there’s something about having a Christ-centered school. I believe that children need to respond to something bigger than mom or dad.
“TFA promotes a very egalitarian and inclusive environment where they mix all students and that’s important to me. When you go out into the real world, you are around people who are different from you and you have to be able to handle any situation.
With Pierzynski in the dugout, the Royals are also ready for any situation.
This report was first published at Orlandosentinel.com. Buddy Collings, Academic Content Editor, can be contacted by email at email@example.com.