LOS ANGELES – Every afternoon it is was as new as it was going to be, this baseball thing, life in L.A., in Dodger Stadium, surrounded by people who believed he's not very good at this.
And every night it was as good as it was going to be, baseball in L.A. at Dodger Stadium, surrounded by people now sure he's not very good at this.
Juan Pierre is not a good leadoff hitter, capable center fielder or wise investment. He's not a winner.
That is what they are sure of.
Yet every team he has played for has made him the leadoff hitter, the center fielder, and paid him plenty of money to do it. When he led off and played center field for the 2003 Florida Marlins, they won a World Series and he was 10th in the MVP vote. That was then.
And when I told a scout I still wanted to like Juan Pierre the player, he told me, "Don't."
When I told him I couldn't dismiss a player who worked longer, cared more, played harder than all but a handful of others in the league, he said, "Seriously, don't."
So, that's it.
Apparently, we don't like Juan Pierre anymore. He doesn't hit for power and he doesn't get on base. He takes odd routes in the outfield and, when he and the Dodgers are lucky, covers the mistakes with speed. He throws poorly. He does steal bases and he does hit singles.
And, for that, he'll be paid $44 million through 2011.
When center fielders Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones and Ichiro Suzuki come on the market, the Dodgers will have four more years of Pierre. When Matt Kemp is ready to play a big-league center field, the Dodgers will have 3½ more years of Pierre.
They'd browsed through the last free-agent class of outfielders, crossed out Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee when they balked at coming to the West Coast, rejected Gary Matthews Jr. on fluke potential, Dave Roberts on injury potential, and Kenny Lofton on age potential.
So, here he is.
I don't care. I like to watch him play. I like him on base, when he is. I like his first seven years after the All-Star break, when he's batted .318, when his on-base percentage is .361. I like a player who runs hard, no matter what, every time.
I don't care who pays him or how much they pay him, not when he's on first, and El Duque can't unravel fast enough to help Paul Lo Duca in the least.
"He attacks the game like nobody else," Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly said. "So far, he's having trouble. Everybody knows it. But if he's my horse, I'd go to the win window with him. … It's June. He'll grow on you."
He is a slap-hitter on a team that does not hit home runs. He is a base stealer on a team that does not take many pitches. He is a center fielder between a near-rookie in right and a near-40-year-old in left. There have been better fits.
Worse, said the scout, "He's one of the reasons they're not very good."
It is postgame, getting late. The clubhouse is a whir of vacuum cleaners, a maze of folding chairs and piles of emerald- and chocolate-stained uniforms. Pierre is just back from the weight room. He had an infield hit, two walks and a stolen base, scored a run, caught every reachable ball in center field, and the Dodgers had won the first of a three-game series against the New York Mets. He'd batted second, where manager Grady Little seems to like him most.
"I wish I could have more nights like tonight," he says, his eyes coming back to life. "I would like that."
The walks had been identical. On 3-and-1 counts, he had followed the ball into Lo Duca's mitt and was halfway to tossing his bat away when umpire Larry Poncino asked him to stay. Only then, with another pitch, did he reach base. Even ball four can be tortuous.
"This is a six-month, 162-game season," said Pierre, one of a couple players who, over the past four years, would know. "I never lose faith in my ability to play the game. As long as I bring that to the yard every day, I'm fine with that."
It seems he is.
Through June 14 last season, his first and only with the Chicago Cubs, he was batting .241, his on-base percentage was .283 and the Cubs were losing a lot. The fans there didn't like it and Pierre, in center field, and Jacques Jones, in right, heard about it.
"I loved him," Jones said. "He was awesome. He kept me going."
Screamed from the bleachers, shouted from the newspaper racks, the criticism hardly touched Pierre, Jones said. He finished batting .292, with an on-base percentage of .330, with 204 hits. He showed up early every day, played all but about six innings all season, and turned away from the babble, right through to the miserable end.
"I've never seen anything like it," Jones said. "I wish I had some of that."
A year later, Pierre is batting .279, up 10 points from a week ago, with an on-base percentage of .310. He's batted first, batted second and, twice lately, batted eighth. He's not hitting the way he'd like, the way scouts and fans want him to, knows he's not getting on base often enough, knows every baserunner goes first to third on singles to center.
"I'm not a guy who can throw the ball from the wall to home plate," he says.
He won't apologize for his game, because it's every bit of what he's got. The Dodgers wanted him. Here he is. All of him. Every day.
"I know I have limitations," he says.
He knows he can help. He knows his baseball in L.A. at Dodger Stadium isn't yet what it is going to be.
Until then, he says, "I'm OK with it. I can live with it."
- Juan Pierre