Don Fields always knew when Juan Pierre was back home in Alexandria, La., because when he’d pull into the parking lot in front of his gym, there would be Pierre, huddled by the door in the predawn chill.
“He would already be there at 4:30 in the morning,” Fields said.
Jodie White, who runs the recreation department in Alexandria, knew Pierre was home when he’d drive by the high school field on his way to work and find baseballs strewn all over.
“Early in the morning, 5:30 in the morning, he always goes and works out,” White said. “When I need him, I generally drive to Ash Stadium and find him.”
And when Steve Kittrell, who coached Pierre in college at South Alabama, needed to find his center fielder, all he had to do was look out his office window toward the batting cages -- provided he had gotten to work very, very early, that is.
“He was out there religiously every day at 7:30 in the morning, having a workout before his class,” Kittrell said.
All of which proves two things about the Dodgers’ new $44-million man:
1. He’s an incurable morning person.
2. He’s not going to be outworked.
“We preach to our guys every day about Juan Pierre, about how hard he worked,” said Kittrell, who also coached Dodgers outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Marlon Anderson at South Alabama. “Nobody in the big leagues could have worked harder.”
Added former Florida Marlins teammate Dontrelle Willis: “He actually gets me kind of upset because he works out so hard. It’s kind of unrealistic. He’s a rechargeable battery every day.”
Willis isn’t the only National League pitcher Pierre makes uneasy. Over the last four years, no NL player has collected more hits than Pierre, who has averaged 203 a season, leading the league twice. The Dodgers haven’t had a player get that many since Steve Sax had 210 in 1986.
And Pierre has averaged more than 56 steals a season in that span. The last Dodger to do better was Davey Lopes, who stole 63 in 1976, the year before Pierre was born.
“He gives us some added versatility,” Manager Grady Little said. “We got us a good little player that knows what it takes to win. We like what [he] brings to this team.”
And Pierre likes what the Dodgers are bringing him -- namely, a chance to win.
“I just hope to get them over the top,” he said. “I’m going to try to be out there every day, play hard. And the numbers will be there if I’m healthy and out there.”
The third child born to a telephone company technician and a teacher, Pierre’s ties to baseball started at birth when his father, James, a former college player at Grambling, named his son after Juan Marichal, his favorite big league player.
James and Derry Pierre ran a strict household, one in which school was just as important as sports. And their son excelled at both, starring on the baseball field, earning a basketball scholarship to Iowa State and making the honor society his junior and senior years. He also served as class salutatorian, giving a commencement address that, fittingly, talked about how hard work can make up for physical limitations.
It’s a philosophy Pierre has taken to heart. Fields, the gym owner, said he has trained a number of professional football and baseball players, including Roger Clemens, whom he worked with at the University of Texas. But, Fields said, no one worked harder than Pierre, who has taken his one natural gift and turned it into a successful career.
“What he has raw-talent-wise is speed. Unbelievable speed,” Fields said. “And it’s almost like he kind of had to work for everything else. It’s not just the gym. It was out there in the dark, either at night or in the morning, hitting balls.
“He had a goal. He knew what he wanted to do, and he didn’t stop.”
White, who first coached Pierre in a T-ball league, said part of that determination comes from a fear of failure.
“He thinks that if he lets up, they’re going to pass him by,” White said of Pierre, who once took batting practice until his hands bled and another time pulled a car up to the backstop and turned on the headlights so he could hit after dark. “Desire has gotten him where he is right now. You just don’t get any better than his work ethic.”
In fact, stories of Pierre’s tireless preparation have become the stuff of legend. Such as how he shows up at road ballparks as early as eight hours before game time to roll balls up and down both foul lines to see how bunts will react. Or how he watches countless hours of video. Or how he throws balls against the outfield walls to see how they carom.
“We don’t worry about Juan in that area,” Little said.
And although many of his teammates treat batting practice as recess, school is very much in session for Pierre, who takes his normal position in center field and practices getting jumps on batted balls.
“He was the kind of guy that went out and did the little things,” said former Marlins manager Jack McKeon, who compares Pierre to Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame outfielder he drafted and managed in San Diego. “They have pride in their ability, and they want to be the best they can be. He’s a workaholic.”
But praise for those workaholic ways often turns to criticism when Pierre slumps. When he was with the Colorado Rockies, for example, then-manager Buddy Bell threatened to fine Pierre if he came to the ballpark on a scheduled rest day during spring training. And before his last season with the Marlins, Pierre sat out nearly all of training camp because of a calf injury after a winter spent doing extensive workouts under the direction of former NFL star Cris Carter.
Pierre’s weak throwing arm and his aggressiveness at the plate -- he has drawn more than 45 walks only once in his career, resulting in a .350 lifetime on-base percentage -- have led some to argue that the Dodgers may not be getting the bargain they thought they were when they signed the 29-year-old free agent to a five-year contract.
“There aren’t too many guys who are the total package,” said Pierre, who is already working with Dodgers legend Maury Wills to improve his bunting and baserunning. “I’m not a free swinger. I don’t get up there and just try to hack. That’s why I’m in the cage and bunting and doing those little things.
“I’ll continue to work on it, but I don’t want to lose my aggressiveness as a hitter to try to walk more.”
Perry Hill, the Marlins infield and first base coach, said Pierre was the key addition to the team in 2003.
“Every time I talk to Juan Pierre I say thank you because when he came over here, it made all the difference in the world,” he said. “We won a World Series. He was the straw that stirred the drink. ...
“He’s infectious. You can’t help but like him. You can’t help but respect him.”
Willis is certain Pierre, who was a groomsman in the pitcher’s wedding last fall, will have an impact in L.A. -- provided he can handle the freeways, that is.
“Juan doesn’t like traffic,” Willis said of his friend, who has a condo in Marina del Rey but spends most of the off-season at his house in South Florida. “That’s the one thing he can’t stand.”
That could be a problem, because Pierre, unlike most of his teammates, will be dealing with the morning rush even when the Dodgers are playing at night.
“He’ll go to the stadium at 10 o’clock for a 7 o’clock start,” Willis said with a laugh. “He’s definitely a rare guy in what he does. I just figure if I can do a tenth of what he does, then I’ll be ready.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
No National League player has more hits over the last four seasons than center fielder Juan Pierre, who signed with the Dodgers in November. Following are the major league leaders since 2003:
*--* Player Team 2006 2005 2004 2003 Total Avg. Ichiro Suzuki Seattle 224 206 262 212 904 226 Michael Young Texas 217 221 216 204 858 214.5 Juan Pierre Dodgers 204 181 221 204 810 202.5 Miguel Tejada Baltimore 214 199 203 177 793 198.3 Albert Pujols St. Louis 177 195 196 212 780 195 Derek Jeter N.Y. Yankees 214 202 188 156 760 190