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MVP Steve Pearce’s improbable journey included some time in Rochester

scottteaser-215x160Over the course of his nomadic, 13-season professional baseball career, World Series hero Steve Pearce has worn the laundry of 20 different teams. And perhaps no season was more challenging for this 35-year-old journeyman-turned-most valuable player than 2012, when he played for four different teams, including one that called Frontier Field its primary home.

No, he didn’t suit up for the Rochester Red Wings during that peripatetic summer, but he did wear the double-knits of the Empire State Yankees. You might remember that was the season the Red Wings agreed to share their home with International League rival Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, whose ballpark was undergoing a massive makeover. Pearce had a productive 53 games for Empire State, with 11 homers, 30 runs batted in and a .311 batting average. That season, he was never in one place long enough for his mail to catch up to him, as he spent 21 games with the Houston Astros, 28 games with the Baltimore Orioles and 12 games with the New York Yankees.

In late June of this year, Pearce was acquired by the Boston Red Sox—the team he originally said “no” to after they drafted in the 10th round him out of the University of South Carolina following his junior season in 2004. Sunday night, his gypsy life came full circle when he socked two home runs as the Red Sox continued their “Team of the 21st Century” campaign with a World Series-clinching victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was the 119th win by the greatest club in Sox history. And it was nice to see the tone set by a guy who, just last season, was playing for the Buffalo Bisons and wondering if his impossible dream would ever come true. When all was said and done, it wasn’t Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez or Chris Sale or even back-from-the-dead pitcher David Price who was named Series MVP. Instead, those honors went to a career .257 hitter named Steve Pearce. On a team of big dogs, he was the underdog who became the lead dog.

“You never know where the game will take you,’’ Pearce said after being showered with victory champagne. “I’ve gone through a lot in my life and in my career to be here, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”

This three-homer, eight-runs-batted-in performance for a championship team was something he fantasized about as a kid growing up in Lakeland, Fla. But it couldn’t have been something Pearce dreamed about during the first two-and-half months of the 2018 season when he was biding time with the underachieving Toronto Blue Jays. A desire to add a reliable right-handed batter to the lineup prompted General Manager Dave Dombrowski to acquire Pearce in exchange for minor leaguer Santiago Espinal.

The Boston newcomer paid immediate dividends, lacing a double off New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia on the first pitch he saw in a Red Sox uniform. Talk about a harbinger. In early August, Pearce further endeared himself to New Englanders by smashing three homers against their hated rivals from the Big Apple. In all, five of Pearce’s seven homers would come against the Yankees. And the power surge continued in the World Series as he joined Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the only players with back-to-back games with a homer and at least three RBIs.

“That’s pretty good company to be in,’’ Pearce said.

Pretty good company, indeed, for a guy who briefly called Rochester home.

***

When he first arrived on the Syracuse University campus in 2016, Dino Babers preached “faith without evidence.” Two-and-half years later, that faith has been rewarded with plenty of evidence. For the first time since 2001, the Babers-coached Orange men have cracked the Top 25, with a 22nd ranking in the Associated Press college football poll. At 6-and-2 and with an offense cranking out a video-game-like average of almost 44 points per game, SU is bowl eligible. With four games remaining, including two in which the Orange will be favored, they have an opportunity to win at least eight games and earn a bid to a truly meaningful bowl, instead of one of the ones that reward mediocrity.

Babers has greatly upgraded the roster, and things could get even better next year because red-shirt freshman quarterback Tommy DeVito has the talent and comportment to be great, and the porous defense should be much improved. And this all begs the several-million dollar question: Will SU be able to come up with the mega-bucks necessary to ward off the poachers from struggling programs in the cash-rich SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 conferences who would love to see Babers work his magic for them? It would be great to see Babers stay and build something really special at SU, the way Ben Schwarzwalder and Dick MacPherson did decades earlier. Sadly, we all know this is big business. The offers could be hard to refuse.

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We may be watching the worst Buffalo Bills offense in the franchise’s 58-season history. At the midway point, the Bills are averaging a fraction below 11 points per game, which is on pace to supplant the 1977 team, which averaged 11.4 points en route to a 3-11 finish. Interestingly, this putrid production is occurring during a season in which NFL scoring is at an all-time high. The Bills rank last in passing and second-to-last in total offense. They are a minus-six on the takeaway-giveaway chart and have gifted two pick-sixes to the opposition. And, in the process, they’ve squandered some outstanding efforts by a Buffalo defense that ranks sixth overall and has played well enough to be better than 2-6.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.

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