Commentary

Given a chance to play, Pierre thriving

Speedster flourishing in the spot previously held by the currently suspended Ramirez

Originally Published: May 18, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The mayor of JuanPierreWood, an idyllic subdivision of Chavez Ravine, believes in giving an honest effort for a day's pay. He's making $10 million this year. If you compute the extra time he logs in the batting cage, the weight room and the outfield shagging flies, it works out to about eight bucks an hour.

The previous mayor -- back when the place was called Mannywood -- was also deadly serious about his work ethic. But he did some bad things and had to go away for a while. He'll return Friday, July 3, at Petco Park in San Diego at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time, for those keeping score at home.

[+] EnlargeJuan Pierre
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireJuan Pierre is batting .465 with 11 runs scored in 10 games since replacing Manny Ramirez as the Dodgers' left fielder.

Juan Pierre knows full well that no matter how many hits he accumulates or bases he steals in the next six weeks -- no matter where the Dodgers stand in the National League West -- many of the fans who filled those Mannywood seats in left field will be stricken with Manny Ramirez fever as the big day approaches.

"The fans have treated me well at Dodger Stadium," Pierre said, "but I think they're patiently awaiting Manny's return. I know that. I'm a fan of the game, too, and I know baseball. But there's no sense worrying about something when you can't control it."

It has been 11 days since Ramirez received a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy, prompting fans to respond with a mixture of anger and sadness, columnists to rage about the ongoing steroid scourge, and Dodgers manager Joe Torre to reshuffle his batting order.

Pierre, inserted into the lineup on May 7, is playing like a guy who's trying to recoup all the hits he lost while missing 43 games in 2008. He's batting .465 (20-for-43) with six stolen bases since replacing Ramirez in left field.

In 83 plate appearances this season, Pierre has struck out twice. In a 12-5 victory in Florida on Sunday, he even received his sixth career intentional walk.

The Dodgers were hoping Pierre could fill a void. For the first 10 games, he's gone all Rickey Henderson on them.

"The way he prepares himself, he's always game-ready," second baseman Orlando Hudson said. "When you see him sitting out for a while and then you look at his numbers and what he's been doing jump-starting the lineup, it's phenomenal."

Torre essentially had two options when Ramirez began his suspension. He could have kept shortstop Rafael Furcal at leadoff and Hudson in the No. 2 hole and plugged in Pierre lower down the order. Or he could have opted for Plan B and gone with a track team in the first three spots.

Pierre spent his first two games batting ninth behind the pitcher. Then Torre changed course May 9 against San Francisco, moving him to leadoff. Under the new configuration, Furcal is batting second and Hudson is hitting third, where he had logged more than 700 career at-bats in Toronto and Arizona.

The new-look L.A. lineup brings to mind the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 101 games with Vince Coleman batting leadoff, Willie McGee hitting second and Tommy Herr driving in 110 runs on eight homers in the No. 3 spot. Torre agreed that Los Angeles' new lineup has some of that old St. Louis appeal, "minus the AstroTurf."

The Dodgers have outscored opponents 40-14 in the first inning this season, so they don't give other teams much room to breathe.

"You stack those guys, especially two of them [Hudson and Furcal] being switch-hitters, and they can cause some problems," Torre said. "When Manny was here, there was a lot of conversation about protecting Manny. 'Who's going to hit behind him?' But the protection part comes from who's on base when he hits."

Pierre isn't exactly Joe Softball Player. From the start of 2001 through the end of 2007, he racked up 1,378 hits -- more than any big leaguer not named Ichiro Suzuki. For point of reference, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Miguel Tejada ranked third, fourth and fifth in the majors during that span.

But all those knocks don't translate into much of an on-base percentage. During the past four years, Pierre hit in the .280 to .290 range annually with an OBP around .330. Those numbers reflect a very competent big leaguer, but they won't save a guy from criticism when he's making $44 million on a five-year contract.

After the Dodgers signed Andruw Jones last year, doled out more playing time to prospects Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp and acquired Ramirez in a July deadline trade, it was inevitable that Pierre would be spending more time riding what he calls the "piney woods."

Pierre played 162 games every year from 2003 through 2007, and his lack of an "on-off" switch made it hard for him to accept all that bench time. He didn't win any public relations points in August when the team asked him to move from left field to center to accommodate Ramirez, and he told reporters, "All I've ever done is be Juan Pierre when I wear this jersey. They're sticking it to me this year for whatever reason."

It was natural to conclude that Pierre was pouting. But he's quiet even during the best of times, so his internal struggles did little to alter the clubhouse dynamic. Pierre, by all accounts, never strayed from his grueling workout regimen or acted territorially around his teammates.

Orlando Hudson The way he prepares himself, he's always game-ready. When you see him sitting out for a while and then you look at his numbers and what he's been doing jump-starting the lineup, it's phenomenal.

-- Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson on teammate Juan Pierre

Ethier is Pierre's regular pregame throwing partner, and he said he never felt a sense of resentment from Pierre as they competed for at-bats.

"He's been there the whole time for us, especially me and Matt," Ethier said. "We've been there elbow-to-elbow trying to compete for playing time in the outfield. But he's never turned his back and been a guy who says, 'Forget those guys.' He's been really accessible."

Torre, who likes to use veteran players to police the clubhouse, found Pierre to be a willing lieutenant in the chain of command last season.

"Matt Kemp was on a roller coaster with his performance, and Juan was always there," Torre said. "If I needed to get a message to Matt and I thought it would be best delivered by Juan, he wouldn't be like, 'Uhh, OK.' He was very open and made sure when he did deliver it, that it was done in the right way."

This year, Pierre has found a new pal in Hudson, who is as gregarious as Pierre is introverted. They crossed paths 10 years ago while chirping at each other in Class A ball, and as self-made players who grew up in the South, they have a lot in common.

Pierre is from Louisiana, and Hudson hails from South Carolina. Pierre roots for the LSU Tigers, while Hudson cheers for the South Carolina Gamecocks. They've talked about baseball and hashed out their college football differences over fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and collard greens at Roscoe's House of Chicken 'N Waffles in Los Angeles.

Hudson smiled when asked who would win a footrace between the speedsters at the top of the L.A. order.

"I think it would be Furcal," Hudson said. "He'd probably edge Juan P., and I would definitely be third. A distant third. Those guys can go."

Before a game in Philadelphia last week, as his teammates lingered in the outfield, Pierre worked up a sweat taking fungoes off the bat of bench coach Bob Schaefer. It's this type of preparation that allows a player to go from bench guy to line-drive machine at the drop of a hat -- or an MLB-issued news release.

For what it's worth, L.A. fans truly seem to appreciate Pierre's earnest approach to the game. Some enterprising Dodger-watchers recently began selling "JuanPierreWood" and "Juan's World" T-shirts online. Word is they're selling like candied yams and collard greens.

Ask Pierre whether he would be happy to just concentrate on baseball rather than doing interviews to share his "feelings" about replacing Ramirez, and he lights up like the Dodger Stadium parking lot during a 10-run blowout.

"Oh yeah, I love the game," Pierre said. "Once they say, 'Play ball,' that's the best part of the day for me. I don't need the glitz and the glamour or to be noticed. I've been invisible here for the last month and a half before this. I would rather just keep it that way."

It's a little too late for anonymity. The circus is on hiatus, and Pierre is making the best of a bittersweet situation, trying to squeeze in as many hits as possible while Dodgers fans count the days until Manny's return.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer