Steve Pearce enjoyed the best years of his big league career in Baltimore, and he made it clear at the end of last season that he wanted to remain with the Orioles. When he cleared out his locker last October, he didn't expect his next trip to Camden Yards to be as an opposing player.
Pearce returned to Baltimore this weekend as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. He was scheduled to start at first base and bat fifth Saturday night at Camden Yards in his first regular season game against his former club before the game was postponed. He didn't play in Friday's series opener. Pearce conceded it's still strange to think he's no longer an Oriole.
"It's definitely weird, but I knew it was going to happen because playing for the Rays, I knew we'd be playing these guys a lot," Pearce said before Friday's game. "I showed up and walked down the same tunnel I always have to get down here and now my locker room is just a little bit further down."
Pearce spent the first two months of the offseason waiting for a call from the Orioles that never came, ultimately signing a one-year, $4.75 million deal with the Rays in late January. The Orioles made a concerted effort to retain their key players this offseason, investing more than $200 million to keep first baseman Chris Davis, setup man Darren O'Day and catcher Matt Wieters.
But Pearce wasn't a part of those plans for the Orioles. He acknowledged that at first he was surprised that the Orioles never made him a formal offer, especially since the club indicated it wanted to keep him at the end of the season.
"When I stepped back and looked at it, I knew there were guys who -- exactly like I was -- who were a little cheaper," Pearce said. "I knew they had to make decisions on a couple guys like Christian Walker and stuff like that. I understand. I have no hard feelings when a team goes in a different direction. I've been through it before, so for me, it was just another thing that I have to look forward to."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter isn't quick to heap praise, but he didn't hesitate with Pearce. It was obvious Showalter wanted him back, saying that Pearce's value to the team went far beyond the numbers he put up with the Orioles.
"Such a sincere guy," Showalter said Saturday. "A great teammate, winning player. Always could count on him. You know what you're getting from him every day. He loved to compete, and he loved being here in Baltimore. He's a big part of a lot of the improvement we made, was having people like Steve Pearce around.
"I was looking on the board last night or somewhere, what he hit last year here. Nobody ever really looked at it, the average or the numbers," Showalter said of Pearce, who hit .218/.289/.422 in 92 games for the Orioles last season. "If that's the only thing you evaluate him by, you really missed his contributions."
Pearce said he will have fond memories of his time with the Orioles. His best season coincided with the team's first American League East title since 1997, when Pearce hit .293/.373/.556 with 21 homers and 49 RBIs in 2014, leading the club with 5.9 wins above replacement.
"I loved it here," Pearce said. "Even though I didn't have a good year last year, but '14 was an awesome year, just going to the playoffs and accomplishing what we did. During '14, we had everybody getting hurt and everything we overcame. It was just a magical year. Even last year, we didn't have the best year, but to still finish at .500 wasn't bad. We were in it most of the year. We just had a couple hiccups during the year. I'm going to have many memories with my teammates and I made some great friends and the coaches and everything. I'm going to miss this place, but I've got to shut the door on that part of my life. I'm with the Rays now and I wish those guys nothing but the best."
Pearce's blue-collar work ethic and willingness to play anywhere – he played first base, second base and both corner-outfield spots last season – made him a well-respected presence in the Orioles clubhouse and fit Baltimore well.
He's now playing closer to his hometown of Lakeland, Fla., in front of friends and family for the first time in his career. And Pearce entered the season a .288/.395/.644 hitter with seven homers and 14 RBIs in 23 career games at Tropicana Field.
Showalter still gushes about Pearce's value to the Orioles on and off the field.
"He solved a lot of [problems]," Showalter said. "Need me to play second? Need me to play third? Need me to play center field? Need me to pitch? Catch? There was nothing beneath him. He never forgot how hard it was to get there, and how fleeting it all can be. He never takes a moment in the big leagues for granted. The only thing you ever had to do with Steve is [hold] him up — you notice I can talk about Steve."
Pearce said it has been difficult parting ways. He said his former teammates invited him into the Orioles clubhouse during spring training, and he has gotten a fair amount of ribbing from his new teammates about how close he still is with Orioles players.
"When I saw them during spring training, all those guys were inviting me into the locker room," Pearce said. "I was like, 'Hey guys, I'm not with you anymore.' It's hard. I was really close with a lot of those guys and I still am. I know when I see those guys out there on the field, I'm probably going to catch a lot of flack from my current teammates to cut the cord and all that stuff. But I was here a long time and the guys over there know we accomplished a lot together."
When Pearce does step to the plate as an opposing player at Camden Yards, he said he hopes he will be well received.
"I hope it's not a boo," Pearce said. "I gave Baltimore my all and I hope it's a good [reception] whether it's an ovation or not. Just no boos."