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Juan in a million


LOS ANGELES -- I'm looking for Juan Pierre. It shouldn't be too hard. I've been standing in front of his locker since the doors of the Dodgers' clubhouse opened and it should be only a matter of time before he walks in. Yet as the room empties over an hour after the Dodgers dropped Monday's home opener to the Rockies 6-3, Pierre is still nowhere to be found.

"He left," a Dodgers official tells me as they begin to clear out the room. "Everyone's gone."

Suddenly finding Pierre has become a harder assignment than I had envisioned -- at least momentarily. "I bet Juan's still here," says right fielder Matt Kemp, whose locker is next to Pierre's. "He's one of the hardest working dudes I've ever been around. He's the first one here and last one to leave."

Sure enough, Pierre comes strolling into the secluded clubhouse soon after wearing a sweat-drenched T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. While the rest of his teammates have changed and are already on their way home, Pierre is still working out. In fact he's still not ready to go home; he simply took a break to check his cell phone.

"I was just back there working on my chest and triceps," he says. "Now I'm going to go do some ab work."

Before he does that, I ask Pierre to take a break and spare me a few minutes and tell me why he's still working out after the game when he'll be back at the ballpark for another game in 24 hours.

"It's just second nature to me," Pierre says of his training regimen. "It works against you sometimes because you have to let games go. With me it's definitely tough. I know I do take it too seriously but that's what also makes me good; my passion for the game. To step off the gas pedal is hard for me because that's what makes me the player that I am."

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Pierre is being harder on himself than usual at the moment because he wants to prove he's worth the five-year, $44 million contract he signed with the Dodgers in November. While Pierre has stolen more bases and is second to only Ichiro Suzuki in hits since 2001, his numbers have been on the decline the past two seasons and many questioned if Pierre deserved such a lucrative deal. So far he's done nothing to quiet those critics. He's hitting .167 (5-for-30) and has looked shaky at times in centerfield.

"The numbers say it. I got the contract but I believe in my heart that I earned it," says Pierre, who hit .292 for the Cubs last season. "Nobody gave it to me just like that. I've had to work for everything I have in this game and I feel like I got rewarded for it. It's one of those things where you want to get off to a good start, everybody does. It looks bad now because it's the beginning of the season and you look up there and you see I'm batting 1 whatever and stuff like that but it comes with the territory."

It isn't the first time Pierre has gone through a tough stretch, but it's the first time he's had to deal with it after signing a lucrative contract, forcing him to defend his numbers, on and off the field, to reporters.

"I've never really been in this situation because I've never made this much," he says. "But the first time I hit a stretch like this was 2002 with the Rockies where I went a month without doing anything and I didn't know how to handle it because I've always batted .300. I think 2005 was the first season where I never got it going at all in terms of my standards (he hit a career-low .276) but you learn how to deal with it and you know it's going to get better. I never stop believing in myself; whether it's the contract or not. I feel like I earned it. You can go look at the numbers of what other guys are making and what they do and I'm right up there with them."

While Pierre is an old school player right down to his uniform look -- he wears his pant legs high on his calves and shows off his solid blue socks much like Jackie Robinson did in honor of the players in the Negro League -- he's become one of the most popular players in the hip-hop world after his name popped up in a couple of popular rap songs. In the past few years his name was dropped by Jay-Z in "Déjà Vu" (I used to run base like Juan Pierre/ Now I run the bass hi hat and the snare) and Trick Daddy in the "Rubber Band Man" remix (I'm such a player they call me Juan Pierre/ Been ballin' since my younger years like ya boy Cabrera). It's a trend that is still a mystery to Pierre.

"I was surprised when I heard that," says Pierre. "I don't know Jay-Z at all. My sister in Houston called and told me about it and I didn't believe her. So I had to Google the song and listen to it on Amazon or something. I don't know how it happened. He must be a good baseball fan because, to be honest, I'm not a superstar. I really can't explain it."

Pierre may not be able to explain the popularity of his name in rap songs but he's planning on freestyling a rap of his own much like he did after the Marlins won the World Series in 2003.

"That's the plan. It only comes out World Series time," he says. "That's the only way you'll get me back up there doing something like that."

But to get back to the World Series, Pierre says he needs to get back to what he was doing, lifting weights nearly two hours after the game is over in a deserted Dodgers clubhouse. "It's not work," he says. "It's getting prepared and I can never be too prepared."