Sam Donnellon: Phillies' Juan Pierre prepares and plays like a pro

Posted: August 31, 2012

THE FIELD was empty save a coach, a groundskeeper and one small man scurrying about gathering baseballs. Juan Pierre had just pushed about two dozen balls from the batter's box to various coordinates of the infield, spraying them uniformly as if diagramming something. Now he needed to collect them and do it again.

This was slightly after 3:30 on Tuesday, and Pierre seemed to be in a slight panic, as if a timer was about to go off before he could finish his preparation.

"Do you do this every day?" he was asked. "Or only when you're playing?"

"I'm playing?" he asked. "The lineup's been posted?"

"Yes," he was told.

"Oh, wow!" he said. "Thank you for that."

This is Juan Pierre. When signed by the Phillies last winter, he was a name with some nice statistics attached. Now? Now he is someone we overtly root for, his work ethic matched in equal measure by grace and unselfishness, and a genuine level of gratitude toward both the game and those who habitat it.

"I've been doing this my whole life," said the Phillies' 35-year-old super sub. "My parents always said whatever we did we should do to the best of our abilities."

James and Derry Pierre prodded it into Juan and his older siblings, he said, but only one of them became almost compulsive about it - batting for hours off a traffic cone on summer days, waking neighbors on winter mornings bouncing a basketball around the block as the sun came up.

"My neighbor said I was his alarm clock," he said. "At 6:30 in the morning, I was dribbling the basketball down the street. I was 9, 10 years old. He said he knew what time it was because he heard the ball bouncing. But as far as the other kids, if they didn't do it I wasn't the guy who would get on someone.

"That was not my style. And it still is not."

Pierre's style is to prepare to play, whether he has been in the lineup 3 days in a row or not for a week. He has a .300 average in 367 plate appearances. The active leader in stolen bases, his 32 this season has already eclipsed his total from last year, when he batted more than 300 times, more as an everyday player with the White Sox.

He is not an everyday player here. And if he re-signs for next season, it will not be as an everyday player. Once, when he first lost his role as a starter with the Dodgers in 2008, he let it get to him, brooded even, he has said.

"I was terrible," Pierre has said since. "I am embarrassed about it."

There is no brooding in this setting. Quite the opposite. Cameras have caught Pierre during games pointing out things to Domonic Brown, often his replacement in left. When he is not playing, Pierre can often be seen at the top of the stairs or on the dugout bench directly behind the protective fence.

"He's also running around the whole time trying to keep his legs loose," said Ty Wiggington. "All game long.

"I think we all have players that we play against that we respect the heck out of," Wiggington said. "When I played against Philly, it was Chase Utley, and before that, Scott Rolen. Just in the way they did stuff. Not because of their stats. Because of the way they play the game.

"Juan is one of those guys. And playing with him has raised the bar even more. I mean, he is as prepared as it gets."

Walk into Citizens Bank Park anytime after 2 p.m. and you are more likely than not to see Pierre doing something, whether it is running in the outfield, running the bases, or laying down bunts. He'll do as many as 150 bunts in April and May, he said, but no more than half of that now.

"It's more of a feel thing to stay sharp," he said. "People say I'm a good bunter. I think I'm a decent bunter. But if I go without bunting for a while, it will show up in the game. I'm not a natural."

Here's what else he is not: a power hitter; an on-base machine; a big arm in the outfield. In another era, an era of huge, multipurpose stadiums with fast-playing AstroTurf, Pierre might have been forgiven more for what the good Lord didn't give him. Maybe, too, if he had arrived before steroid use turned baseball scores into lacrosse scores, there might have been peers to Pierre as there were in the '80s, when stolen-base totals were the most gaudy offensive numbers in baseball.

"My whole career has been played during the steroid era," he said. "Everybody was hitting the ball out of the park. That's what got you paid, that's what got you on 'SportsCenter.'

"The game I play doesn't get you on 'SportsCenter.' "

Doesn't always get you in the lineup, either.

What it does get you, is the respect of those who play the game.

And of those who watch it with a jeweler's eye.


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon. For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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