The first time Silvestri met Sean Pierce, not long before the season began on June 16, the kid impressed him by saying, "I don't know much about the game. Any information that you could give me would be welcome." Pierce was a two-year starter in football at San Diego State. He played wide receiver and returned kicks, and people told him he resembled Wayne Chrebet of the New York Jets because, as a possession receiver, he hauled in every pass thrown his way and because his heart helped him overcome his lack of size. Pierce is 5'9" and weighs 190 pounds, but already Silvestri likes him so much that he's given him an extra two inches. "Five-eleven," says the manager. "He's not that small."
Pierce landed his deal with the Dodgers after starting only half a season on his college baseball team. His speed and toughness impressed the scouts, who also liked the fact that he hadn't played the game long enough to develop bad habits. Pierce never sulks when Silvestri lectures him on how to correct stupid mistakes. "The other night he pulled up at home plate when he should have run through and knocked the catcher into the nickel seats," says Silvestri. "I said, 'Sean, it's clean to hit him; that's good, clean baseball. Hey,' I said, 'you're a football player. I want to see some contact.' "
Because of the language barrier, Silvestri has had much less to say to Astacio, although his displays of enthusiasm communicate how he feels about the pitcher. Of the 30 players on the club's roster this year, 13 are Latinos—from Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Silvestri's assistants (pitching coach Hughes, hitting coach Brian Traxler and strength coach Brent Trosclair) speak "baseball Spanglish" only, and the team doesn't employ an interpreter. One day in July, Silvestri tried to express to Astacio, whose fastball is consistently clocked at 92 mph, how pleased he was with the kid's progress. "I think you have a good chance to be a big league pitcher," Silvestri said. Astacio's eyes betrayed only the vaguest comprehension. "My job is to get the most out of these guys and to make them believe in themselves," the manager says, "but he might not understand a damned word I'm telling him."
Tonight A Mexican pitcher named Edgar Lizarraga starts the game for the Dodgers. After only four innings he's given up five runs on eight hits. Had things gone better, Hughes might have put in Astacio at this point, but instead he pads the next two innings with relievers in need of work. The Dodgers' only run has come from Pierce, in the bottom of the first. After drawing a lead-off walk, Pierce scored when right-fielder Jos� Garcia doubled.
Whenever the game's focus shifts to Pierce, the loudest cheers come from Staci Ferradas, wife of Mike Ferradas, a former Great Falls Dodger from Miami. Today Mike runs the U-Bet Casino in town, and he helps coach an American Legion team, the Stallions. He decided to make Great Falls his home after he fell for Staci and his days as a minor league catcher came to an end in 1988. They have two children: son Taylor, 12, and daughter Nikki, eight. For the three months Pierce will play for the Dodgers, Mike and Staci have volunteered to be his host family and provide him a place to live. Like every first-year player on the team, Pierce makes $850 a month in salary. He gives Mike and Staci $150 a month for the unfinished bedroom in their basement apartment.
"I feel like Sean's my little boy," says Staci. "I don't know any of the other players, but I come to yell for him. He's part of our family now. We spoil him as best we can. Every morning my two kids say, 'Mom, can we go wake up Sean? Can we go talk to Sean?' He's real shy. We haven't had any wild women over yet. But from what I can tell, all the girls in town are hot for him. I've never seen anyone run faster to first base than he does. He says it's because he's trying to get out his aggression, but I just think he's fast."
After home games Pierce and Mike Ferradas stay up late talking baseball. The house stands on a hill, the site of a former Indian reservation, and from the back deck you can see the Highwood Mountains in the distance and the jumble of rooftops that make up Great Falls, a city of 65,000. Pierce rarely goes out. He eats many of his meals at his locker in Legion Park's rinky-dink clubhouse, and when that's not enough, he snacks on chocolate-chip energy bars. "I'm going to play this game as long as I can and as long as it lets me—and then, no regrets," he says. "I like to dream about how it's going to be in the big leagues, but I don't see myself as a superstar. I'm going to be the guy who does whatever he can to help his team win."
Pierce's dad, Kevin, told him that when he named Sean and his older brother, Brett (a former minor leaguer in the Atlanta Braves' system), he wanted names that sounded good issuing from loudspeakers in a ballpark. Sean, though, is indifferent to the notion of being famous. Each day that he steps out on the field, he says, he knows how lucky he is just to be playing the game. He likes to remember a boy he knew, a kid named Robert Spratt, who lived in the same apartment complex as Sean and his family in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Robert was 10, six years older than Sean, but he always took time to teach Sean things about baseball: how to throw, how to catch, how to swing a bat, how to run the bases. Robert was the only black kid in their neighborhood, and Sean thought being black meant having black hair. He used to pray to God that his hair would turn from blond to black so he could be black like Robert. Then one day Robert told Sean that he was going to visit relatives in a place called Boley, Okla. Not long after, Robert's mother was standing at the Pierces' door with tears rolling down her face. Robert had died when his cousin accidentally shot him in the back with a rifle. His mother was carrying all of Robert's uniforms and baseball gloves, holding them out for Sean's mom to take. "He would want your boys to have these," Sharon Kaye Spratt told Kathleen Fierce.
"My brother and I wore those uniforms for a while," Pierce says. "If I make it to the big leagues, I will always have time for little kids. Because I will always remember Robert—how he was with me."