TORONTO — New Toronto Blue Jays utility man Steve Pearce doesn’t remember exactly when he hurt his elbow last year. The discomfort grew over time; pain came and went; there were good days and bad. He learned how to deal with it. But he does remember the day when his elbow deteriorated to a whole new depth—a cool September night when he knew he couldn’t play baseball anymore until he got it sorted out.
“We were in Boston,” Pearce says, standing and answering questions at the Rogers Centre for the thousandth time, but his first as a Blue Jay. “Ball comes off the left field wall, I go and get it, turn to throw, and I felt a pain in my elbow that was just… I’ll tell you what, I did not want that feeling anymore.”
If you go back and watch the play you’ll see Pearce doubling over and grimacing under intense pain the moment he releases the ball. He paced around the left field grass for a while, clenching his teeth and shaking out his arm, before taking his position for the next batter. Naturally, because baseball is baseball, the very next ball in play was laced straight down the left field line.
It bounced around in the corner, where Pearce ran over to collect it. Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, keenly aware of how much Pearce was suffering, ran all the way to medium-depth left field to give his teammate the shortest possible relay throw. Pearce struggled to even get the ball that far.
The official diagnosis was damaged flexor tendons in his right elbow, which feels much more awful than it sounds and can sometimes be an early indicator of a need for Tommy John surgery. Pearce, fortunately, did not, which meant in his case the injury was a pretty easy fix. The surgeons go in, clean it up. It’s all around the muscles; they don’t have to mess with any ligaments. The hardest part for the athlete isn’t the surgery or the rehab—it’s missing 4 to 6 months of action to let it fully heal.
“That’s actually why I got the surgery when I did,” says Pearce, who went under the knife on September 21. “So I could be ready for spring training.”
Currently, Pearce is on that track. He began swinging off a tee last week and will begin a throwing program this Monday. Even if the latter stages of his rehab bleed into spring training, this year’s camp is extended due to the World Baseball Classic, which he feels will give him all the time he needs to be ready for opening day. The Blue Jays are banking on that as well, especially after signing Pearce to a two-year, $12.5-million deal this off-season to platoon at first base with Justin Smoak and play some games in left field as needed.
Pearce actually feels like he’s ahead of schedule and has been pushing Blue Jays trainers in Dunedin to let him begin ramping up his workload for weeks. Naturally, those medical professionals have been less than receptive to his suggestions. “Yeah, they’re slowing me down. They want me to make sure everything goes well and that I feel great,” Pearce says. “I feel like I’m ahead of the game. But I definitely want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to rush it. I don’t want to have a setback.”
Working out in Dunedin with the Blue Jays high performance department has been eye-opening for Pearce. Highly regarded throughout baseball as an athlete who will take the field and play while suffering from all manner of physical ailments, Pearce is about as old school as they come. When his elbow began bothering him while he was playing for the Tampa Bay Rays last season, he simply played the infield so he wouldn’t have to throw as far and found ways to manage the pain when he swung at the plate.
When the Orioles were looking into acquiring him at the trade deadline to help their playoff push, the Rays provided his full medicals, which demonstrated the injury. Even though the Orioles were aware his elbow was damaged, they still traded for him and asked him to man the outfield because they knew he would play through the pain. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it for Baltimore. In 2013, when Pearce was a part-time player for the Orioles, he hurt his wrist taking an exceptional—some would say excessive—amount of swings in the batting cages and played through it in between two unsuccessful DL stints.
“When you’re a ballplayer, and you’re playing day in and day out, you don’t have the luxury of just sitting around and letting something heal,” Pearce says. “You have to find some ways to deal with the pain. It’s just part of the game.”
Well, not so much anymore. Blue Jays trainers in Dunedin have been stressing motion and flexibility to Pearce throughout the off-season—not just with his injured elbow but his entire body—and have completely revamped the way he trains. The 33-year-old has been getting familiar with kettle bells and resistance bands over the last few weeks, tools he seldom used throughout his first 10 years in the majors.
“It’s definitely a different kind of workout. We’re not really throwing weight around. We’re doing body weight stuff and really specialized movements. I feel like a fish out of water right now just trying to learn all the stuff that they do because it’s completely different,” Pearce says. “But it’s fun and exciting. They really know their stuff. And it’s challenging. I look forward to going every day because it’s something new.”
A more diverse, progressive form of training could be especially beneficial for a versatile player like Pearce who played five different positions last season and will likely be asked to fill a similar utility role in Toronto.
Playing in a different spot every day is much more difficult than it seems, and requires a player to be on top of all aspects of his game and conditioning. If Pearce is manning a corner infield position he has to keep his hips and knees loose to field grounders, and must stay familiar with the way a baseball can react to the playing surface beneath his feet. If he’s in the outfield, he has to keep his legs ready to sprint and his arm adequately stretched out to make throws from a variety of angles.
Of course, increased flexibility and range of motion can only improve Pearce’s overall durability as well. No one’s ever been able to knock Pearce for his work at the plate, where last year he hit .288/.374/.492 with 13 home runs in less than half a season’s worth of plate appearances.
The issue has been getting there. For as willing as he is to play through pain, Pearce’s career has been littered with injuries and trips to the disabled list. A little more work with the kettle bells and less with a heavy-loaded Olympic bar might help Pearce put together just the second 100-game season of his career.
“That’s why I’m all in,” says Pearce, who will be training at the Blue Jays facility in Dunedin daily from now through spring training. “I’m showing up there everyday and I’m like ‘Alright, what are we doing today? What the heck is that? Screw it, let’s do it.’ I think I’m at a point in my career where I’m open to changes. I’m willing to learn. Because I know that if I’m in there and playing my game every day, I can have a great season.”