SARASOTA, FLA. — There was a time not so long ago when Steve Pearce didn't really need to check the travel list on the day before a spring road trip. His name was almost certain to be on it along with the other players in camp who were fighting an uphill battle to establish themselves on the major league roster.
Now, he still checks it regularly and has yet to find his name there.
"Steve has graduated,'' Orioles manager Buck Showalter said recently.
He got his major league diploma after his unlikely breakthrough performance last season, but Pearce is still getting used to the idea that he does not have to worry about surviving each roster reduction and visiting every other spring training stadium in South Florida.
"I haven't made any road trips yet,'' said Pearce, 31, who delivered an RBI single in Wednesday's Grapefruit League game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Ed Smith Stadium. "Every time a road trip list gets put up, it's kind of weird not to see my name on it. But I've done it before and I'm just glad that I earned the right not to be on some of the trips."
That doesn't mean he won't ever have to pack his equipment bag and lug it onto a bus this spring, but it does mean that he has — for the first time in his major league career — carved out a major league role that will allow him to leave spring training with some assurance that he'll be getting regular playing time over the course of the regular season.
Everyone knows the story by now. Pearce, who played for the Orioles, Houston Astros and New York Yankees in 2012 before returning to Baltimore in a limited role in 2013, was released by the Orioles last April 27. He rejected a waiver claim by the Blue Jays to re-sign with the Orioles just two days later. The club was lucky to take advantage of a loophole in the waiver rules that allowed the Orioles to get him back after losing starting first baseman Chris Davis to an oblique injury.
Pearce never broke stride after that. His batting average hovered close to the .300 mark for most of the season, and he finished with a .293 average, 21 homers and 49 RBIs, setting career highs in every relevant offensive category.
Perhaps more importantly, he became the player every manager loves to have in his back pocket. Pearce played 51 games at first base in Davis's place and showed up at both corner outfield positions, committing just one error and posting a combined .998 fielding percentage.
He figures to remain in a super-utility role this season and might even expand his defensive repertoire if Showalter gets a chance over the next few weeks to look at him at third base. Maybe it would be nice to be an everyday player who could settle in at one position, but Pearce knows what he brings to the party.
"The reason I've stayed in the big leagues so long is my versatility,'' he said. "I can play a bunch of positions, so I think that gives me the advantage, because I can play everywhere as opposed to just one position. So if some guy goes down or needs a day off, those at-bats are there for me. I can step right in and not hurt the defense in any way."
In a sense, he's the embodiment of Showalter's managerial philosophy. He might be the hardest worker on the team, and he comes to the ballpark every day ready to offer anything and expecting nothing. Showalter values roster flexibility, and he also judges his players on something he calls "want-to." Pearce passes that test every time he steps onto the field or into a batting cage, maybe to a fault.
He has struggled with wrist soreness over the past two seasons because of his obsessive work habits, which is one of the reasons Showalter has sought to make him feel more comfortable on the roster.
It isn't often that a manager has to call a player into his office and order him to stop working so hard, but that's exactly what Showalter had to do.
"Steve, if he wasn't starting, he'd probably be in the cage taking 100 swings during the course of the game to be ready for that one at-bat to help the team,'' Showalter said. "Now, if he's doing that and playing five or six days a week, it's counterproductive. ... That's where I think it helped keep him healthy last year. When a guy has more problems with his wrists when he's on the bench as opposed to when he's playing every day, you know how much work he's doing."
Pearce acknowledged that he can sometimes be his worst enemy, albeit with the best of intentions.
"What [Showalter] could see was that I was doing stuff to my body that wasn't working and wasn't necessarily good,'' Pearce said. "I see that, but this is how I've been programmed. I've been programmed to want to work. To want to get better. I want to be the best ballplayer I can be, and the only way I know how to do that is to work, but sometimes I work too hard and I would hurt myself."
Of course, there's a fine line between reigning in a player for his own protection and chipping away at that part of his athletic persona that drives him to prove everyone wrong who ever doubted him.
"Without a doubt, that's part of who he is," Showalter said."You don't want to take away from who he really is. I've had a lot of players like that, and that's what made them good was knowing they had worked harder and put more preparation into it."
Pearce wants to keep doing that, but he admits that it has been a joy to watch a few of those buses leave without him.
"I've always come to spring training having to show what I can do,'' he said. "You have to be in midseason form on Feb. 15. I had to be ready. Them having seen what I can do is definitely better for me ... that they know, and I don't have to kill myself in spring training."