The morning after she was married in her hometown of Alexandria, La., the former Sonya Johnson awoke to the voice of her high school sweetheart and new husband, Rockies centerfielder Juan Pierre, saying, "You ready to go?"
The two weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 wedding had been Juan's only days away from off-season training since October, so he was itching to drive the 1,180 miles from Alexandria back to Denver in time for the start of the Rockies' player-development minicamp. "I had to beg him to stop on the way to rest," says Sonya, who honeymooned in the basement guest room of Rockies vice president of finance Michael Kent.
Pierre, 23, was eager to get started because heading into spring training, he was projected to be a starter in manager Buddy Bell's lineup, a step-up portended by Pierre's successful major league debut last season. Called up from the Triple A Colorado Springs Sky Sox on Aug. 7 (following the trades of Tom Goodwin to the Dodgers and Brian Hunter to the Reds), he hit .310 in 51 games. Only two of his 62 hits, however, went for extra bases (both doubles). In 1,505 at bats in his three-year pro career before this season, Pierre had one home run. "Last year defenses were cheating on me because I didn't have the strength to reach the gaps," he says. "I had to put the thought in their minds that I could hit the ball there."
Intent on quitting the singles scene, Pierre spent most of the off-season working with Rockies strength coach Brad Andress and added 15 pounds of muscle to his six-foot frame. During this spring's exhibition games Pierre, who now weighs 178, had two doubles and a triple among his 25 hits, and on Opening Day he tripled off the rightfield wall at Coors Field. Through Sunday he was batting .286, with the triple and seven singles.
In camp Pierre worked extensively on his outfield skills and bunting technique and honed his baserunning under the eye of first base coach Dallas Williams. "When he learns to do things, he learns to do them right," says Williams. Pierre arrived at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson at six every morning and was regularly the last of the Rockies to leave after exhibition games. His diligence impressed teammates and coaches, whose respect boosted Pierre's confidence.
After stealing 151 bases in 315 minor league games, Pierre swiped seven in only 13 attempts in his two-month stint with the Rockies last summer. This year Bell has given him the green light to run almost anytime.
"I was thrown into the fire last year," says Pierre, who was Colorado's 13th-round pick, out of South Alabama, in the 1998 draft. After two seasons in Class A he began last year with the Double A Carolina Mudcats, and after just four games in Triple A he landed in Denver. "I'm not in awe of the ballparks or the players anymore. I feel like I belong now."
Pierre even directs his fellow outfielders on how to play hitters and confers with them during pitching changes. "I go off Juan," says veteran rightfielder Larry Walker. "He reads the reports, listens well, positions himself well and works his ass off."
At the end of the season, Pierre says he'll have a real honeymoon. "I want to go somewhere relaxing," says Sonya, who has Maui in mind, "but I'm sure Juan will find a way to incorporate some work into it."