Steve Pearce had worn just about every uniform there was to wear. Except for the one he always dreamt of wearing.
Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Pearce and his two younger brothers were fed a steady diet of Boston sports. Their father was from Massachusetts, born and raised in the town of Rehoboth, about 50 miles south of Beantown. As such, he was a lifelong Red Sox and Patriots fan who couldn’t help but pass along that passion to his kids.
Steve was the eldest and most fanatical of the three Pearce boys, but Chad and Kyle weren’t far behind. Whenever they’d play Wiffle ball, they were always the Sox. Even though Steve was a right-handed shortstop obsessed with Nomar Garciaparra, he always hit lefty in those games, using the ultra-light plastic bat to practice his swing from the opposite side. He was always Mo Vaughn.
Years passed, and Steve Pearce got really good at swinging the bat, be it plastic, aluminum or wood. He got so good at swinging it that, in 2005, the Pittsburgh Pirates saw fit to draft him in the eighth round. He made his big league debut in 2007 and spent the next five seasons playing for the Bucs. That is, when he wasn’t hurt.
Every time Pearce felt like his career was gaining some momentum, an injury would crop up. At the end of the 2011 season, the Pirates decided they’d had enough of Pearce’s on-again, off-again relationship with the disabled list and cut ties. It was the beginning of his on-again, off-again relationship with, well, a lot of teams.
On June 28 of this year, when Pearce was traded from the Blue Jays to the Red Sox, he became the sixth man in major league history to play for every team in the same division. He also became the second person to play for every club in the American League East. More importantly, as far as the Pearce brothers were concerned, he became the first member of the family to play for the home team.
CHAD AND KYLE were always the first two phone calls.
In January 2012, when the Twins signed Pearce to a minor league deal, he called his little brothers to share the news. A couple of months later, when Minnesota dumped him before Opening Day and the Yankees picked him up, he speed-dialed his siblings again to let them know. Each of the other four times he changed teams that year — the Yankees dealt him to the Orioles, who lost him on waivers to the Astros, who traded him back to Yankees, who lost him on waivers to the Orioles — he always made sure to ring his bros first.
In January 2016, Chad and Kyle were the first ones to hear about it when their big brother, after three years in Baltimore, signed as a free agent with the Rays. Just like they were the first to know when he got traded back to Baltimore that August. And when he inked a two-year deal with the Blue Jays that offseason. But all those phone calls paled in comparison to the ones Pearce made this past June.
“The best part was telling my brothers,” says Pearce of breaking the Boston news. He speaks with a slight Southern twang, the kind that might come in handy if a ballplayer were to ever find himself in an AL East clubhouse (or four) where concealing his New England roots could theoretically make his life just a little bit easier. “They always pulled for whatever team I was playing for, but deep down they were always Red Sox fans. To be able to tell them the news that I got traded to the Red Sox, that was a great feeling for me. They were pumped. They were like, ‘Holy cow, you’re playing for the Red Sox!'”
To be sure, Pearce isn’t the first big leaguer to play for the team he grew up worshipping. Minnesota native Joe Mauer has spent the entirety of his 15-year career with the Twins. Maryland’s own Cal Ripken Jr. was a lifelong Oriole. Tony Gwynn (Padres) and Brandon Crawford (Giants) come to mind as well. But unlike each of those hometown heroes, Pearce’s path to Boston — the sports-crazed city that’s in his de facto DNA — was infinitely indirect and dappled with deprivation.
“There’s a lot of times that baseball isn’t too kind to you,” says Pearce. “You go through slumps, ups and downs, injuries, and to be where I am today, I’m blessed.”
Where he is today is worlds apart from where he was six years ago. Less than a week before the end of the 2012 regular season, the Yankees — who would go on to win the AL East — waived Pearce, robbing him of his first taste of the postseason. Meanwhile, his wife was about to go into labor with their first child, a daughter named Jensen who would be born on Sept. 28. As it turned out, getting dumped by New York was a blessing in disguise.
The day after his wife gave birth, Pearce was claimed off waivers by the Orioles. Although he didn’t crack Baltimore’s playoff roster that year, he wound up spending the next three seasons with the O’s, with whom he developed a reputation as one of the game’s more underrated utility men, a dangerous right-handed bat who could play almost anywhere on the field. In 2014, when Baltimore won 96 games and advanced to the American League Championship Series, Pearce was a key contributor. Splitting time between first base, both corner outfield spots, and designated hitter, he appeared in a career-high 102 contests. He posted a .930 OPS and accounted for 4.5 WAR, second best on the team behind Adam Jones. Says Pearce: “I was able to dig my cleats in and play the kind of ball I knew I could play.” It was also the kind of ball that made Baltimore’s division rivals drool.
Following the 2015 season, Tampa Bay swooped in and signed Pearce, who as an Oriole had tortured the Rays to the tune of 10 homers in 33 games. After the 2016 campaign, the Blue Jays — who watched Pearce hit .333 against them during his time in Tampa — inked him. This past June, halfway through his second season in Toronto, the Red Sox finally came calling.
“It was bittersweet,” says Pearce, who was surrounded by Jays teammates at Josh Donaldson’s charity bowling event when he learned he was on the move once again.” It’s the kind of “good news, bad news” call that, after swapping unis nine times over the past seven seasons, he’s grown to appreciate. “It’s gratifying knowing that other teams want you.”
For Pearce, it was especially gratifying knowing that the team that wanted him this time around was the very one he and his brothers spent their childhood daydreaming about. Funny thing is, as much as joining the Red Sox has meant to Pearce, he’s meant just as much to them, if not more.
DAVE DOMBROWSKI DAMN near had a heart attack.
It was Game 4 of the ALCS, and the Boston general manager was at Minute Maid Park, eyes bulging out of his head as Steve Pearce flipped over the railing and onto the concrete steps of the first-base dugout in an effort to catch a foul pop in the seventh inning. Although Pearce hadn’t done much up to that point in the game, going hitless in four trips to the plate, he’d done plenty to help the Red Sox get to that point in the season.
In early August, with incumbent first baseman Mitch Moreland slumping badly, Pearce powered Boston to a key four-game sweep of the Yankees by hitting four jacks, three of which came during a statement-making 15-7 rout in the opener. In the AL Division Series against New York, with Moreland nursing a balky hamstring, Pearce started three of four games and hit .333 for the series. In Game 3 of the ALCS against Houston, with the score tied at 2 and the series tied at 1, it was Pearce’s sixth-inning homer off Astros reliever Joe Smith that seemed to tip the scales in Boston’s favor. So when Pearce decided to go dugout diving the next night, the heart of Red Sox Nation skipped a collective beat.
“I definitely held my breath,” says Dombrowski. “He’s a very important part of our club.”
The importance of Pearce and his right-handed bat should be on full display over the next week or so, as the Red Sox face a Dodgers club whose World Series rotation features three lefties (Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill). But even if Pearce goes off in the Fall Classic and helps lead the Sox to their fourth championship this century, the odds of him returning to Boston next year are slim. After all, he’s not a franchise player like Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez. He’s not young and affordable like Andrew Benintendi or Rafael Devers. He’s not under club control for the foreseeable future, like Jackie Bradley Jr. Instead, Pearce is a 35-year-old glue guy on an expiring deal, the kind of player that floats from clubhouse to clubhouse, never seeming to stick in any one place for very long, but fitting in seamlessly wherever he goes. In other words, he’s Kelly Johnson 2.0.
“Love that guy,” says Pearce of Johnson, the retired utility man who’s the only other person ever to play for all five AL East clubs. As fate would have it, Johnson completed the circuit in 2014, when he was traded to the Orioles and joined forces with Pearce. “Awesome dude. I really enjoyed playing with him.” Four years later, a very similar scouting report follows Pearce around wherever he goes.
“Great teammate, great guy,” says Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts of Pearce. “I never knew him when he was on the other side, but he came on our side this year and he’s been a warrior.”
“Veteran guy that’s been in this situation before,” says Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “As soon as he walked into the clubhouse, he fit right with the group.”
That ability to blend in helps explain why, despite his productivity over the past few years, Pearce can’t seem to hold down a steady gig, why he just can’t seem to escape the clubhouse carousel.
“He’s got good makeup and he does his job well, so he’s a guy that comes to mind,” says Dombrowksi, describing the typecasting mentality that’s led to Pearce making the rounds in the AL East. “And yet, unless you’re winning, he’s the type of guy that’s probably expendable at times because he’s not your foundation type of guy. That’s why people are open-minded to moving him.”
For now, though, Pearce is still rocking a Red Sox uni, and loving every minute of it.
BATTING PRACTICE HAS just ended. It’s Game 5 of the ALCS, and Pearce stands in the third-base dugout at Minute Maid Park, attempting to make sense of the good fortune that’s led him to this moment.
“It’s a dream come true,” he says. It’s such a surreal experience he talks about it in the third person, as if it couldn’t possibly be happening to him. “This is the team you grew up rooting for. Then you end up joining them. Then you’re in the playoff run.”
In an hour, the Red Sox will take the field and proceed to beat the Astros 4-1, a win that propels them to a World Series appearance, their first since 2013 and the first of Pearce’s 12-year career. When the Fall Classic kicks off at Fenway Park on Tuesday, his little brothers will be there to watch him act out the wildest of their childhood fantasies.
He won’t be wearing Mo Vaughn’s No. 42, the one he imagined himself wearing during the Wiffle ball days back in Lakeland, because nobody wears No. 42 anymore. He won’t be wearing Nomar’s No. 5, like he did in high school, because that already belonged to second baseman Ian Kinsler by the time Pearce arrived in Boston. And he won’t be wearing 28 — the number he was handed in Baltimore right after his daughter was born on the 28th, the one that worked out so well he took it as a sign and clung to it in Tampa and Toronto — because some guy named J.D. already had dibs on it. Instead, he’ll be wearing 25, the number he was issued upon joining the Red Sox.
Not that Pearce gives a hoot about the number on the back of his jersey. After all, it’s what’s on the front of the jersey that matters most.
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