CLEARWATER, Fla. – Juan Pierre doesn’t need to be reminded that he had a hand in one of the most memorable Tampa Bay Rays plays of 2011.
It occurred last April 9 in Chicago, when the fleet outfielder and former Marlins playmaker came to the plate in the fourth for the White Sox. Pierre proceeded to rip a bases-loaded shot toward the right-field corner, looking like an easy triple and perhaps even an inside-the-park grand slam.
Yet seemingly out of nowhere, Rays’ legend-in-the-making Sam Fuld closed the gap in a full sprint, dove horizontally above the grass and made perhaps the best of his many highlight-reel catches of the season.
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“Tell Sam Fuld he owes me some RBIs back,” the 34-year-old veteran said recently with a grin crossing his youthful face. “He actually owes me about five, cause he got me on another great catch coming in on a ball in St. Pete.”
The two will have a chance to talk all that over in person Thursday when the Rays play the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater for the first time this spring. You can find the 13th-year major-leaguer in Phillies camp this spring, playing the unfamiliar role of trying to make a big-league team as a non-roster invitee.
That might seem odd for a man who boasts a lifetime batting average of .296, has more than 2,000 hits, ranks as the leading base stealer among active major-leaguers with 554 and is coming off a .279 season in 639 at-bats for the Sox.
But Pierre, whose distinguished career has included stops with the Rockies, Marlins, Cubs, Dodgers and White Sox, embraces the challenge. And perhaps not surprisingly, he’s been more than up to it this spring with a batting average of .295 (13 for 44) on a Phillies team looking for a return to the World Series.
“I’m ready to play whatever role they want me in,” he said. “I just wanted the chance to make a team. If they need me to come off the bench, I’ve done that before in my career in L.A. I’m not even concerned about that. My main goal is to try to make the team and help out in any way I can.”
His presence has been helpful with the lingering Achilles injury to All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard. That’s made 6-foot-6 outfielder John Mayberry Jr. a likely candidate for some action at first, creating an occasional hole for Pierre to play in left field alongside starters Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence in right.
The left-hander is also a natural as a pinch hitter, boasting a career batting average of .311 (28 for 90). He’s had particular success overall at the Phillies’ home of Citizens Bank Park, batting .307 (39 for 127). And if manager Charlie Manuel is looking for veteran leadership, he’s got that in Pierre.
Among his impressive list of major-league accomplishments: He was a key member of the Marlins’ 2003 World Series championship team, has stolen at least 40 bases in nine different seasons (with a career high of 68 only two years ago) and his 2,020 hits stands at 22nd among active players — with four seasons notching 200 hits or more.
Who wouldn’t want this guy on the roster? Beyond his statistical achievements, the man with the memorable name — Juan D’Vaughn Pierre (his dad was a huge Juan Marichal fan; his mom liked the rhyme of Juan D’Vaughn) – is known for his easygoing style, intense work ethic and team-first mindset.
“We know what Juan can do,” Manuel said Saturday in Fort Myers, where the Phillies beat Boston 10-5 and Pierre collected two hits. “He had good numbers last year, and Juan has a great attitude.”
Pierre was aware that his role would likely be limited with Philadelphia when he signed, but he was delighted to have a chance to contribute to a perennial contender.
“I know I can still play,” he said. “But I know the situation coming in, so I’m not worried. There weren’t too many teams I had a choice to sign with, trust me. There just wasn’t a market out there for me this year. I’m OK with that. And I’m glad to be here, because this is a team that wants to win. This is a championship-caliber team, so to be a part of it is great. It’ll be great to pitch in any way I can.”
Pierre didn’t have a home until the Phillies signed him in late January, only a few weeks before pitchers and catchers were to report in Clearwater.
“When they called me, it was so late in the offseason, I was thinking, ‘Why are you even calling me?’ ” he said. “They’re a championship team with or without me. But I was happy for the call, and I understand the role they want me in. They’re a great bunch of guys here. They have a lot of young players I’ve been talking to and guys I’ve respected playing against all these years — J-Ro (Jimmy Rollins) and Victorino. So it’s good to pick their brains a little bit and see how they go about their business.”
There are plenty of Phillies who could learn from Pierre, too. For one thing, he’s kept himself in top shape with a muscular 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame. And then there’s that stellar resume that he has quietly forged all these seasons. Born in Mobile, Ala., and raised in Alexandria, La., Pierre went on to play baseball at the University of South Alabama, where he was 1998 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.
He wasn’t drafted by Colorado until the 13th round in ’98, and the Rockies dealt him to Florida in 2002 along with pitcher Mike Hampton (a Brooksville, Fla., native). In 2003, Pierre hit .305 in 668 at-bats, stole a league-leading 65 bases and led the majors with the lowest strikeout percentage (5.2 percent). He batted .301 in the playoffs and .333 in the World Series to help the Marlins beat the favored Yankees.
Playing in South Florida, Pierre was embraced by the Haitian community, since many people assumed he was Haitian himself. But that wasn’t the case; the Pierre lineage had deep generational roots in Louisiana. Still, Pierre graciously accepted the support, quoted at the time as saying, “If someone’s rooting for me, it’s all good. It means they respect my game,”
Looking back now, what makes Pierre proudest?
“It’s that I’ve always come to the park every day to play,” he said. “I didn’t care about numbers; I just wanted to play and give it my best. I had stretch where I played 162 games each season (five years in a row from 2003-2007). Last year, I played 158 — and the four times I didn’t play, I wanted to play.
“That’s No. 1 — it’s been a blessing to be healthy over a long career. It didn’t matter to me if I was facing a lefty pitcher or a righty. Anybody who ever played with me, they could say, ‘He came to play every day.’ “
Given all he’s achieved, Pierre would be justified in wanting an expanded, everyday role now. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“Not at all — I’ve busted my butt my whole career, but nobody owes me anything,” he said. “I’m just thankful to still be able to put on a uniform. That’s how I look at it. And the numbers speak for themselves. Everybody knows my numbers — 29 teams knew my numbers, but for one reason or another they didn’t want me, which is fine. I’m not a guy who says, ‘Oh, I should be starting.’ ”
In fact, Pierre learned to play a backup role with the Dodgers in 2008, when the team staked its fortunes around younger players and free-agent slugger Manny Ramirez. He went from hitting .293 in 162 games in 2007 to playing 119 games in ’08, yet still hitting .283 when called upon.
“It was a similar situation, and I accepted the role,” he said. “I’ve just come to a point where I just play the game hard and am just thankful for any day I have in the big leagues. In my heart I know I can still play every day, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll be ready and in shape when they call my number.”
The Phillies, at least, know the numbers that come with the distinctive name.