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Dodgers' Pierre takes blue-collar approach

The speedy center fielder has been putting in long hours since high school days to perfect his trade.

February 26, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, FLA. — 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.

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