Always the underdog
Former Curve star Pearce, now a World Series MVP, has been overlooked throughout his career
Editor’s note: Steve Pearce is one of the best players in Curve history. In 2007, he hit .334 with 14 homers, 72 RBIs, 27 doubles and a .986 OPS in just 81 games for Altoona.
But Pearce was overshadowed on that 2007 Curve team by former first-round draft picks Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, who were considered much better prospects.
In fact, Pearce has largely been overshadowed throughout his baseball career, despite always enjoying a high level of success.
He never became a major league star after his Curve days. But 11 years later, Pearce became a household name in baseball when he was named MVP of the World Series as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Pearce hit three homers in the World Series, including two in Sunday night’s clincher, and drove in eight runs to earn MVP honors.
Following is a feature the Mirror ran on Pearce, who went by Steven at the time, in 2007 while he was with Curve. As you’ll see in this reprinted story, he was always the underdog, even before he got to Double-A.
From Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker to a teammate at South Carolina drafted in the first round by Oakland, Steven Pearce has been down this road before.
“I’ve always been in the shadows of somebody else,” Pearce, who’s having a big season for the Curve, said.
Pearce has always produced impressive offensive numbers but has lurked in the background of more-heralded teammates.
At South Carolina, there was Landon Powell, a catcher selected 24th overall by the A’s in the 2004 draft.
“Going into South Carolina, I had a really great two years at (Indian River Community College),” Pearce said. “And I’m playing behind Landon Powell. He was the man at South Carolina.”
Pearce was a 5-foot-11, 180-pound shortstop recruited by the Gamecocks after leading Indian River in hitting both years and in the triple crown categories his second season.
Still, he lost the job as South Carolina’s everyday shortstop to Steve Tolleson. Nagging injuries like shin splints and a strained quadriceps limited Pearce’s mobility and forced him to move to first base.
“The pop was outstanding,” Pearce said of his batting prowess. “I had to stay in the lineup somewhere.”
He’s been hitting ever since, and with newfound power.
Pearce had 23 career homers — six in high school, 17 at Indian River — before nearly matching that figure immediately at South Carolina. He ripped 21 homers his first year, due in no small part to bulking up 20 pounds over Christmas break.
Pearce’s workout regimen consisted of squats, curls and a bench press before making the jump to Division I facilities.
“When I got to South Carolina, it was a big-time weight program,” he said. “We had protein shakes and stuff I was never introduced to.”
Boston liked the slugger and drafted him in the 10th round in 2004, but Pearce opted to return to school. His senior year was just as successful as he belted 21 homers, drove in 63 and hit .350 to lead the Gamecocks in the triple crown categories for a second straight season.
He hit 40 homers faster than any South Carolina player ever.
“We did think he had some power,” his college coach, Ray Tanner, said. “Did I think he’d hit 21 (homers) two consecutive years? I can’t tell you I would have forecasted that.”
Pearce was named second-team All-American by Baseball America as a senior, but his draft stock only marginally improved. He slipped down to the eighth round and was selected by the Pirates.
“Obviously, I was upset about (falling that far),” Pearce said. “I thought I had a really good year. To only go down in the eighth round, it was disappointing.”
Pearce began his pro career at rookie-level Williamsport in 2005 and, despite hitting .301 with seven homers in 72 games, didn’t post the kind of numbers he expected.
“Having the success I had at South Carolina, when I got to Williamsport, I was still playing with the same guys pretty much,” Pearce said. “It got frustrating. I wasn’t used to failing.”
Those frustrations came to a head his next season. Pearce recalled having a “great” spring training and thought he was on the verge of skipping a level to join high-A Lynchburg, but the Pirates assigned him to low-A Hickory. “I was like, all right, let me tear that league up,” Pearce said.
It didn’t happen, as his average stood at just .208 through two weeks that season.
“My attitude was terrible,” Pearce said, emphasizing that last word. “It was terrible.”
Crawdads manager Jeff Branson, disturbed by the way Pearce carried himself, called him into his office. Branson tore into the first baseman, threatening Pearce with a demotion to Williamsport.
“That was a big reality check right there,” Pearce said. “It was like, man, I know I can play. Let me clean my attitude up.”
Pearce got the message. The next night against Delmarva, he went 3-for-6 with three RBIs.
“The game after (Branson) ripped into me was when I started hitting and really going nuts at the plate,” he said.
McCutchen, who played with Pearce at Williamsport, said, “You never see him get mad.”
McCutchen and the rest of his teammates have seen Pearce blossom into one of the best first-year Curve players in franchise history. Only two, arguably, have been better.
Nate McLouth was the only player in the minor leagues in 2004 to have at least 40 doubles and 30 steals, and Jeff Keppinger’s .341 average that same year, split between Altoona and Binghamton, won him the Eastern League batting title.
As Pearce watches McCutchen and Walker, the Pirates’ No. 1 and 2 prospects, receive the fanfare off the field for the Curve, he has posted team bests in batting average (.323) and RBIs (48) and the top slugging percentage (.610) in the Eastern League.
“I see what those guys go through with signings,” Pearce said of McCutchen and Walker. “All I’ve got to sign is a ball. They’ve got to sign five balls and 10 baseball cards every single day.”
Pearce also has 11 home runs, only one off the team lead, despite playing in Lynchburg the first month of the season. He hit 11 homers with 24 RBIs for the Hillcats, and his totals of 22 homers and 72 RBIs are both tied for third in all the minor leagues.
“Hitting behind him, obviously there’s no RBI opportunities,” Walker said. “There’s nobody on base when I come up.”
Walker smiled widely and looked over at Pearce’s locker.
“He owes me a lot,” Walker continued. “He owes me some guys on third with nobody out.”
McCutchen, the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, received a $1.9 million signing bonus. Walker was drafted a year earlier in the same position and signed for $1.95 million. But when the MLB Futures Game at San Francisco is broadcast on national TV July 8, it will be Pearce, the Pirates’ No. 6 prospect who signed for a modest $40,000, making his first trip to the West coast to represent the organization.
Pearce’s only other All-Star Game appearance came when he played for Williamsport.
“The whole experience is going to be crazy,” Pearce said. “I’ve made one All-Star (Game) since I’ve been drafted, and I had the greatest time. This is 10 times better than a (New York-Penn) League All-Star Game, so I’m kind of ecstatic.”
“Coming up through the Pirates’ organization, he’s always done exceptionally well,” McCutchen said. “I can’t wait to see him on TV.”
The exposure will be Pearce’s first on a national level, and combined with his emergence this year as a power-hitting, slick-fielding first base prospect, his name will be further thrust into the spotlight.
“I hope people are starting to know who I am,” Pearce said.