Polarizing Pierre adding pizzazz
After being batted around, outfielder making most of time
CHICAGO -- From the hair not on his head to the power not in his bat, Juan Pierre is not Manny Ramirez.
Another thing Pierre is not is in the midst of: a 50-game suspension. When the Dodgers needed him, he was ready.
Entering play Sunday, Pierre was hitting .394 with a .467 on-base percentage while leading the league in runs (20), hits (37) and steals (nine), and he was tied for second with nine doubles since taking over for Ramirez, all while the Dodgers have gone 13-8.
Yet, of all the players to wear Dodger Blue in recent years, it's hard to name one as polarizing as Pierre, who has few fans among baseball's new-wave number crunchers.
"It's my game," said Pierre, referring to his speed-based style that often lacks walks and generally leaves him with a low on-base percentage. "But they knew what they were getting when they signed me."
What nobody knew when general manager Ned Colletti signed Pierre after the abrupt opt-out loss of J.D. Drew before the 2006 Winter Meetings was that he'd be getting Ramirez's replacement, although through the unpredictable twists and turns that is Dodgers baseball that's what the 31-year-old Pierre has become, at least for 50 games.
"He's the feel-good story," said manager Joe Torre, who has repeatedly been the bearer of bad news for Pierre since he took over as manager.
A month after Torre was hired, he moved Pierre from center field to left to make room for Andruw Jones, with Pierre losing his position to a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Just before Opening Day 2008, Torre told Pierre he wouldn't be starting in left field, either -- leaving Pierre out of his job in lieu of Andre Ethier after doing the job in '07 with a .293 average, 96 runs and 64 stolen bases in 162 games played. When Jones became an obvious bust, Pierre was moved back into the lineup, only to wind up on the disabled list for the first time with a leg injury.
Shortly after Pierre healed and returned to the lineup, the Dodgers' relentless pursuit of a power hitter landed them Ramirez, and Pierre landed back on the bench, which is where he started the 2009 season.
Any other club could have had Pierre over this past winter. Colletti shopped him around, and he even gave Pierre's agent permission to broker a deal. But other clubs demanded the Dodgers pick up the remaining $28.5 million on his five-year, $44 million contract and accept a pittance of a player in return.
Colletti has been criticized for committing five years to Pierre because of the outfielder's one-dimensional offense and below-average throwing arm. But where would the Dodgers be today had Pierre been dumped?
"We weren't going to give him away," Colletti said. "He's a good Major League player."
Better than good so far, on the field and off, Pierre has always had the reputation for being a tireless worker and a mentor to a clubhouse filled with youth, even if some of those younger players have taken away his at-bats.
"I don't know a lot of people who could turn his situation into a positive," said Matt Kemp, who now possesses the starting center-field job Pierre thought he signed up for. "Juan's a different kind of guy. He's helped me a lot realizing that when it's your time to play, be ready. He looks at life in a positive light. You can't help but respect anyone who has handled the situation he's been through. It's the God in him. He tells me, 'We've got a good job, our family's healthy.' You can't let stuff like that get to you."
First baseman Derrek Lee, Pierre's teammate while with the Marlins and the Cubs, said the lack of playing time gets to Pierre more than he lets on.
"It's been tough on him, mainly because he just enjoys playing," Lee said. "Not being able to play just kills him. Right now, I think he's having the time of his life just getting off the bench. I'm happy for him -- he's playing great.
But Lee said Pierre never equated a benching with loss of ability.
"He always knew he could play -- he just needed an opportunity," Lee said. "The hard part for him was just not being able to play. I don't think he worried about whatever negativity was going on. He just wanted to play. You know what he's going to do -- he does it every year. I don't think he was ever down on his abilities."
Torre appreciates that Pierre didn't go south on him and pollute clubhouse karma as a bitter veteran can.
"He's been a pro through this whole thing," Torre said. "He's rising to the occasion of getting the opportunity, which gives you an idea of how ready he is. And he knows nothing is going to change. He knows the situation when Manny comes back. Two years ago, he plays 162 games [in fact, for five consecutive seasons] and now he's a bench guy ever since, and he's never backed off. Even last year when he didn't play, I still used him to talk to the young players. He never said, 'That's your job, not mine.'"
Pierre has been a hard worker for as long as he can remember, and he doesn't seek attention for it. He considers it a necessity.
"Every coach I ever had said to work hard," Pierre said. "People have always said I can't do this and I can't do that. I had to work the way I do to survive.
"The mental stuff, you can only control what you can control. You put all your work in and give it your all and let all the other stuff just be. I didn't let it discourage me. I stayed ready in my mind in case something happens, but I never would have guessed this happened."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. Carrie Muskat contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.