If you watched Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, as the Boston Red Sox clinched the championship, two things were clear.
1. Former South Carolina star Steve Pearce was playing the best baseball of his life en route to earning MVP honors.
Pearce was traded to Boston midway through the 2018 season along with cash for a minor leaguer, and he wasted little time in becoming a postseason folk hero for his favorite team.
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Had things gone a little differently in 2004, it may never have happened.
That was the year Pearce was drafted in the 10th round by the Red Sox after hitting .346 with 21 home runs and 70 RBIs for the Gamecocks. As a junior, Pearce was in the same position hundreds of draftees are in every year, and the vast majority choose to sign with pro clubs, knowing if they wait another year they will lose leverage — and lots of money — in contract negotiations.
Pearce, however, turned down his childhood team and came back to Columbia for one more season.
“Quite honestly, I was surprised,” said Ray Tanner, his coach and current USC athletic director. “We made a pretty good run in the College World Series in 2004, but I fully expected him to sign, and when he said, ‘I’m coming back,’ I said, ‘Steve, you sign as a junior, you don’t have leverage as a senior.’ I explained everything to him.
“He said, ‘I understand. I’m coming back, I like this. Maybe we can come back to the Series and win it.’ And I went, ‘Nobody would love to have you back more than I, but this is not a path that most young people take.’ He said, ‘That’s the path I’m taking.’ I was overjoyed that he came back as a coach, that I got the chance to have him on my team again.”
His teammates knew how unusual his decision was, and while they were glad to have him back, they still teased him for making such an odd choice.
“We kinda all gave him a hard time because the Red Sox were his dream team,” said Davy Gregg, a member of those 2004 and 2005 squads. “That’s the team he wanted to go to, and he turned it down for his senior year, to come back and play at South Carolina again. That kinda shows his loyalty and support ... how much he cared about his teammates.”
Pearce’s senior season was just as good as his junior campaign — a .358 batting average, 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in six fewer games. In the 2005 draft, he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates, starting a 13-year long sojourn through professional baseball that included stops with eight franchises and more than 20 teams in the minor and major leagues.
Gregg thinks Pearce was able to stick it out through that long, winding path and keep finding work because of his positive influence as a teammate and his consistent work ethic.
“He was one of the best teammates you could ever imagine. If you won, if you lost, he was still supportive, and if you had a bad game, he would still come up, pat you on the back, tell you how good you were, kinda build you up,” Gregg said.
“He’s definitely put the time in, put the hard work in, and I think the professional teams see what kind of caliber player he is and just being a journeyman player in the big leagues, teams know how good he is, so when one team gives up on him, another one sees the value he shows as a teammate and a baseball player and another team will snag him up.”
For Tanner, Pearce’s longevity and success, compared to the countless other talented baseball players he coached at USC, is the result of his level-headedness and self-belief, traits Tanner says he shares with his Red Sox teammate and former Gamecock Jackie Bradley Jr.
“Those guys, when they came here and started playing for me, there wasn’t a situation where they didn’t believe in themselves,” Tanner said. “There was never any arrogance or conceit, but there was self-confidence that, ‘I can play this game, I can be successful at it.’ It’s a hard game. Baseball’s a hard game, it will humble you like no other sport, and they both had confidence in their ability to perform. When they didn’t perform, they still had that confidence. ... Those guys cherish those moments to perform at difficult times.”
And in the most high pressure of situations, both delivered — Bradley Jr. was named ALCS MVP after collecting two home runs and nine RBIs, while Pearce had three home runs and eight RBIs in the World Series.
“They’re still the same guys that they were (in college), and I think that leads to putting them in the position to be successful,” Tanner said. “They’re never too high, they’re never too low. The theme for Boston (this season) was, ‘We’re a bunch of guys that get along well, we have a selfless clubhouse.’ You have two guys in our former Gamecocks who epitomize that.”
Now that the pair are World Series champs and Pearce is gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, their profiles have skyrocketed — Gregg joked that he could now tout a World Series MVP’s support in his campaign for the local school board.
“He commented last week on Facebook. I’m running for the school board in the town I’m living in, and he commented on my school board post, he said, ‘I’ll support you, I don’t even know what you’re running for, but I’ll support you,’ ” Gregg said.
And USC fans can expect to see both players back on campus in the near future, Tanner said.
“We’re going to get them back as soon as we can, certainly respecting their time off to be with their families,” Tanner said. “But we’re going to try to get them back as quick as we can. I saw (President Harris Pastides), and he said, ‘Get our guys back.’ I’ll be working on that.”