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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Juan Pierre playing, and acting, like a pro

Unhappy about being benched last season, Pierre has been 'a pleasure to be around' this year, Manager Joe Torre says, and has made major contributions in reserve role.

August 30, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM CINCINNATI — In this summer's strange journey of swift Juan Pierre, the most compelling moment occurred when he was standing still.

It was the first day of the season. He was slumped over in the visiting clubhouse in San Diego. The hard bench awaited. A long summer beckoned.

He failed to persuade anyone to trade for him. He failed to persuade the Dodgers to play him. He was stuck behind one Hall of Famer and two hellacious kids.

"It ain't right," he said, and you thought, here it comes, a gushing of ego, a drenching of teamwork, the pathetic plea of the fallen.

Except Juan Pierre, for the first of many times, took a stunning turn.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't feel bad, I feel guilty," he explained. "I've been thinking about it. I'm making $10 million and doing nothing. It's like I'm just taking the Dodgers' money."

He shook his head.

"I owe this team something every night, and it ain't right that I can't do that, and I've got to figure out a way to fix it," he said, and from that moment, I have openly cheered for Juan Pierre.

I root for him to beat out the bunt, to dig out the grounder, to startle the catcher.

His team being one of expansive personalities and pride, I root for everything Juan Pierre does that is small.

Because, so far, it has made him huge.

"It has been a real pleasure to be around him," Manager Joe Torre said, and so it was again Saturday during the Dodgers' 11-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Given one of his rare starts, Pierre reacted with what has become a common occurrence.

Three hits. Two runs. Two RBIs. An inning-ending running catch in center field.

After which, he returned to the clubhouse to discover that, oh well, he'd be back on the bench the next day.

"Unless somebody gets sick at the last minute or something like that," he said with a smile. "But that's OK. When they need me, for one at-bat, for one minute, for whenever, I'll be ready."

Last year's problem has decided to become part of the solution. The anger is now being taken out on the ball. The frustration is now being slapped out of the glove.

Remember how Pierre hit .318 while starting all 50 games in left field during Manny Ramirez's suspension?

Even more impressive is that, since going back to the bench upon Ramirez's return, he has hit .329 in 11 sporadic starts, scoring a dozen runs.

"No excuses this year, none of that 'Oh, but I don't play enough' stuff," he said. "If I'm in there, it's my responsibility to make that happen, and I take that very seriously."

To replicate the daily swings he is missing, Pierre is one of the first guys to show up at the clubhouse every day, living out his 7 p.m. dreams in the early afternoon.

To replicate the pounding his body would take in the outfield, he is one of the last guys to leave the clubhouse after games, as he rides the stationary bike until he feels like he has played nine innings.

"Like I said, no excuses," he said.

Not even while pinch-hitting, a job career regulars often find difficult and distasteful. Even here, Pierre has turned potential humiliation into triumph, hitting .353 in 34 at-bats.

"He knows he's not going to play, but he continues to do the stuff he does," Torre said. "He's a great example for everyone in there."

In the first inning Saturday, he was typical Pierre, taking ball one from rookie Matt Maloney, lining a single to center, showing his improved bat speed, then showing his leadership.

After crossing home plate following Ramirez's homer, he hung back and allowed Ramirez to be the first one to run into the dugout.

Many players don't do that. As the Dodgers discovered a couple of years ago, some players forget to even hang around to shake the home-run hitter's hand.

"A guy hits a home run with me on base, it's his moment, he can have it, he deserves it," Pierre said. "I'll always do that."

And when Pierre broke the game open in the seventh inning with a two-run single that was hit so hard, it caromed off the mound and into left field?

He again hid from his pride, lightly pumped a fist to his chest, briefly stared at the sky, and quickly returned to first base.

"I'm not Hollywood, I'm not glitz and glamour, I'm not a guy people notice, and that's OK with me," Pierre said. "For me, winning is enough."

Oh, but Dodgers fans should know he'll never forget the one time they did notice.

In Ramirez's return to Dodger Stadium last month following the drug suspension, the loudest cheers occurred during an appearance by Pierre. A standing ovation for a pinch-hitter in July? It has been the most emotional sound of a heart-stretching season.

"I was shocked, I never heard anything like it before," Pierre said. "I've done the same things before, but it's like they finally recognized them."

Maybe because Juan Pierre also finally recognized them, all those little things, not as statistics but as glue, less gifts than obligations, a $10-million man just trying to earn his keep.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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