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Juan Pierre finally gets his due

During 21/2 seasons with the Dodgers, Pierre has been criticized for his weak arm, low on-base percentage and lack of power, but fans have begun to recognize him as a great player.

July 19, 2009|Kevin Baxter

He has been dogged on blogs and ridiculed on radio. At one point the venom was so bad Juan Pierre surfed the Internet only cautiously. And he wouldn't even listen to talk radio to avoid hearing his name taken in vain.

Then came last Thursday, when Pierre heard something he'd heard only rarely in his 2 1/2 seasons as a Dodger.

It was the sound of cheering. A standing ovation, in fact.

"I heard it," Pierre said. "But I didn't realize they were standing up. For the fans to do that, it means a lot.

"I wasn't expecting it at all. I was surprised. And shocked."

With reason. Since signing a five-year $44-million free-agent contract with the Dodgers before the 2007 season, Pierre has been lambasted for his weak arm, low on-base percentage and lack of power. Never mind his four 200-hit seasons. Or the fact Pierre has stolen more bases than any other active major leaguer.

"Unfortunately, the fans, it's an association with how much money you're getting paid a lot of times," Dodger Manager Joe Torre said. "But knowing him, the money thing really has nothing to do with anything. It's all about his work ethic, how hard he goes about it.

"He means so much to these guys in this dugout. And they know him better than anybody else. Without him, we would have trouble getting through this thing."

"This thing," of course, was the 50-game suspension for left fielder Manny Ramirez, which opened a spot in the lineup for Pierre. And he seized the opportunity, starting all 50 games and batting .318 with 21 RBIs, 31 runs and 21 steals to help the Dodgers expand their lead in the National League West.

That led to talk of an All-Star berth and inspired last week's ovation in Pierre's first appearance at Dodger Stadium since Ramirez's return.

And while Pierre was humbled by both -- "it feels good that they appreciate what you've done," he said -- all has not been forgotten.

"A year ago if something like this would have happened. Two years [ago], it would have meant a lot more to me," he said. "I know what I can do and how I perform.

"Maybe they take notice a little bit more. But basically it's what I've done all my career. Nothing's going to change on my part."

And that's just fine with his boss, Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, who said he never doubted Pierre.

"Did we sign Juan Pierre to hit 35 home runs? Of course not," Colletti said. "He's been consistent. He's done exactly what we felt we were getting."

Which is why Colletti was touched by Thursday's ovation as well.

"I got a lump in my throat," he said. "It was well deserved. I think it shows the great fans we have. And it shows their appreciation for not only a player but a great man."

Despite all that, with Ramirez back, Pierre is likely to spend most of the rest of the season on the bench. Although he started his second consecutive game Saturday, barring injury or another suspension, Torre said he expected Pierre to start only once or twice a week.

Pierre said he has made peace with his role and wouldn't publicly discuss his agent's request that the Dodgers trade him somewhere he can play regularly. That request, however, has not been withdrawn.

In the meantime Pierre will try to ride the momentum of the last 2 1/2 months.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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