Categorized | Baseball, Featured

Worlds Apart

Spring wasn't kind to Perez. Photo courtesy of www.bleedcubbieblue.com

By Stephanie Apstein

He missed the call.

Fernando Perez was still asleep when Dan Feinstein, the director of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, left him a voicemail around 10 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 7.  Call me back, it said.  Perez, who was staying just outside Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he was working out with his strength and conditioning coach from college, returned the call when he awakened two hours later.

Feinstein told him that he would most likely be traded that afternoon to the Chicago Cubs as part of a deal for 15-game-winner Matt Garza.  We are sad to see you go, Feinstein said.  They insisted that you be included in the trade.  They said that they had to have you.

“There’s this part of you that you feel like you did something wrong,” Perez said about being traded in an interview a week later in Chicago at an annual fan gathering called the Cubs Convention.  “But the thing about it is, I didn’t do anything wrong.  I mean, I didn’t play well last year and I didn’t get called up, I had some injuries and whatever, but even still…it’s just the business in general.”

He was not entirely surprised.  An outfielder with great speed, he had played in the World Series for the Rays in 2008 after appearing in 23 games, and he appeared in 18 games in 2009.  He had a lifetime batting average of .234, but he spent 2010 injured and at Triple-A Durham of the International League.  “I’d always said, I don’t understand why they don’t just trade me!” Perez said, laughing.  “I’m the worst of all of these really fast guys. Why don’t they just trade me for a pitcher already?”

Jim Hendry, the general manager of the Cubs, called at about 3 p.m. as Perez was walking into the gym in South Carolina, to confirm that the trade had gone through.

“He was like, ‘You probably already saw this on the Internet,’” Perez said, laughing again.  “I was like, ‘No, dude, I don’t Google myself when I wake up.’”

Hendry told him that the spot on the Cubs bench was his to lose.  Tim Wilken, who had become the Cubs’ director of amateur and professional scouting after three years with the Rays, had been speaking highly of Perez, now 27, for years, and the front office was confident that Perez would meet his expectations.  The team, Hendry told Perez, did not intend to sign any other outfielders to major-league deals.

It was Wilken who elected to draft Perez out of Columbia University in the seventh round in 2004.  Wilken had seen him as an 11th– to 15th-round choice initially, but changed his mind after watching Perez hit and run in Tampa Bay in a pre-draft workout.

That was then.  Now it was the first week of 2011 and the news reports said that Matt Garza, who had gone 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 2010 and a minor-league outfielder and a minor-league pitcher had been traded to the Cubs for four prospects.

“You know what I was little bit upset about,” Perez said with a smile.  “I turned on the television and turned it to ESPN to see my name go across the bottom, and it didn’t happen…I felt very cheap.  I literally turned on the television to see my name go by, which is ridiculous in itself…What a lame feeling.”

The Cubs flew Garza to Chicago to have him checked out by their own doctors before the deal became official.  Perez, who had undergone two operations in as many years, did not merit the same medical attention from the Cubs, who were content to go with the medical records the Rays sent.

“I’m kind of a non-issue in the deal,” Perez said.

***

The Cubs Convention, an annual affair, was held at the Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Avenue.  Fans had from Friday evening to midday Sunday to hear from 65 current and former players and of equal or greater importance, had a chance to get their autographs.  The Hilton was so packed that the opening ceremonies had to be simulcast from one ballroom into an additional one to accommodate the overflow.

On Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Perez found himself speaking to a couple of announcers from WGN Radio who were interviewing players.  Perez’ former Tampa teammate Carlos Pena, a first baseman whom the Cubs signed in December for $10 million for one year, spoke first.

After the standard questions about why Pena had chosen the Cubs (the history of the franchise) and whether he was excited to play at Wrigley Field in front of a full house (he was), Dave Kaplan, one of the broadcasters, asked Perez what he brought to the team in addition to his ability to “outrun the wind.”

When Perez hesitated, Pena talked about what a good guy Perez was and what a great presence he was in the clubhouse.  Finally Perez joined the discussion.

“I’m really fast,” Perez emphasized, prompting laughter from Pena, the hosts and the audience.  “I mean, I can come out and say it ‘cause…I’ve always been fast.  It’s really neat, I’m not gonna lie.  I don’t have to be humble about it.”

The conversation then moved to the acquisition of Garza, to the Cubs’ chances of winning a World Series and finally to the leadership—and considerable power—Pena brings to the team.

Even before the session began, fans had begun lining up next to the stage where Pena and Perez would exit.  They waited with bats and balls and jerseys extended, most clamoring for Pena.  As Pena and Perez turned to leave, both stopped to sign.  Pena stayed for a moment or two and then disappeared with a security guard behind the curtain that led to the service elevators.

Perez signed autographs and posed for pictures for nearly 15 minutes until the line had dissipated.

“I didn’t get Pena, but I got the other guy,” said a woman in a Cubs jersey to her companion as they walked away.  “What was his name?”

***

I write from Caracas, the murder capital of the world, where I’ve been employed by the Leones to score runs and prevent balls from falling in the outfield. At the ankles of the Ávila Mountain amongst a patch of dusky high-rises, the downtown grounds of el Estadio Universitario packed beyond capacity are ripe for a full-bodied poem. A mere pitching change is an occasion “para rumbiar,” and the purse-lipped riot squad is always on the move with their spanking machetes swinging from their hips. The game isn’t paced necessarily by innings or score. It’s marked by the pulsating bass drums of the samba band that trail bright, scantily-clad, head-dressed goddesses strutting about the mezzanine. The young fireworks crew stand mere feet from flares that don’t always set out vertically, sometimes landing in the outfield still aflame. “The wave” includes heaving drinks into the sky.

In earning my stripes as a professional baseball player I’ve been through many cities and have stared out of hotel windows all over the Americas. Ball players are mercenaries, taking assignments indiscriminately. Throughout the minor leagues you’ll find yourself slouched on a bus, watching small towns roll by matter-of-factly like stock market tickers, on your back in a new nondescript room, or “shopping for images” (Allen Ginsberg) in a Wal-Mart, hunched over a cart in no rush.

Like poetry, baseball is a kind of counter culture. The (optional) isolation from the outside world (which I often opt for); the idleness about which—and out of which—so many poems are written or sung: I see this state of mind as a blessing. Sometimes, in fact, when I haven’t turned on a television or touched a newspaper for months, freed from the corporate bombast, poetry is the only dialect I recognize.

Fernando Perez, “Para Rumbiar,” [To Party], 2009

A 2005 graduate of Columbia who majored in creative writing with a concentration in American studies, Perez is, as he says, “bookish”—a unique trait among baseball players.  Most newspaper articles that mention him focus on the essays he has published in literary journals or the books of poetry in his locker or just, he said with disdain, on his “abnormally large brain.”

This makes him crazy.

As a baseball player, “You want to appear boring and disinterested in other things,” Perez said in an interview in New York in early January.  “So I almost wish the day that I was in spring training and some writer wrote a story about the books that were in my locker—when he asked me about it, I wish I would have just been like…Somebody sent me these.  I just want to eat rawhide and hit .800.”  He laughed and said, “I don’t know where the ‘eat rawhide’ thing came from.”

Despite his wishes, he has been identified as an intellectual in a mostly physical world.  MiLB.com, the official website of the minor leagues, contacted him in the spring of 2007 and asked him to write an online journal.  Both of his published essays have been about baseball.   He wrote three entries in April and May 2009 for Bats, The New York Times’ baseball blog.  He was featured in October 2008 in a section of The St. Petersburg Times called, “What’s [Famous Person] Reading?”  After he played in the postseason with the Rays in 2008, people he didn’t know started sending him books.  “I said in an interview that I like reading, and I got all these books,” he said with a smile.  “It was so awesome.”

Perez's speed and defense made him trade bait. Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images North America

John Jaso, the Rays catcher and Perez’ longtime teammate in the majors and minors, understands his friend’s literary appetites.  He’s accustomed to seeing some interesting things.

“There are times when we have to wake up super early,” he said, “Like 6:45 or something, and I’ll have to wake him up, and I go in there and there’s dry erase marker all over all the mirrors with little poetry rhymes he thought of late at night and had to write them down.”

Perez has an impressive academic pedigree.  He attended the prestigious Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J, near his hometown of Princeton Junction, where he was selected to be a part of an interdisciplinary program that allowed him, at 17, to spend nearly a month studying human rights in Guatemala and Nicaragua.  His first-generation Cuban-American parents had always emphasized education, even moving from Brooklyn when he was four to get him near better schools.  For college, he had offers from a few big baseball schools but knew he wanted to go to college for academics.  “I just went to prep school,” he said.  “I paid money to go to prep school to get into a school.”

After his years at academically rigorous Peddie, Columbia’s Ivy League reputation sealed it for him.

When Perez played with the Rays at Yankee Stadium in 2008, he invited three of his Peddie teachers to watch the game and walk around on the field beforehand.  The three were Pat Clements, who taught him for two years and coached him as a freshman; David Pagano, who taught him in AP Spanish his senior year and also coached him as a freshman and Erik Treese, who taught him in a course in African literature his senior year and was an assistant coach with the varsity baseball team.

At Peddie, Perez did well in school and his teachers remember his academic contributions fondly, but that is not unique in a school that in the past five years has sent 12 students to Columbia, 10 to Cornell and 28 to the University of Pennsylvania.

His athletic accomplishments were what set him apart in prep school.  Each of the teachers who went to the game at Yankee Stadium spoke enthusiastically in interviews at Peddie in early February about The Catch—but each was referring to a different play.

Clements recalled a championship game at Waterfront Stadium in Trenton, N.J., where the Double-A Trenton Thunder play.  He couldn’t remember whether it was the prep or city championships or even the opponent, but he remembered the play itself perfectly.

“Some kid from Lawrenceville or Hamilton or something just crushes a ball to the right-center gap,” he said.  “It’s a ball that if anyone should get it, the center fielder should get it going away, but it was in the alley, and it was gonna be a double, and if it bounced left it was gonna be a triple, and it’s a one-run ballgame and you’re going, Ah, shit.  Fernando [in right field] got a jump on it, and everyone’s watching the center fielder, but then we saw Fernando going and he ends up tracking it down—and it wasn’t a high fly, it was a drive—so he tracks it down, backhands the thing, and is decelerating when he catches it.  And everyone is standing there going, Did you just see that?  He didn’t even catch it extended!  He was slowing down to make a throw because there was a runner at second!”

Pagano recalled a similar occasion a year earlier, but he didn’t even see the catch he raved about—he had already given up on the play when Perez made it.

“The catch was in a freshman game, Peddie versus Hightstown High School,” Pagano said.  “It was the bottom of the seventh and we were winning, 3-2, and Hightstown had the bases loaded or men on second and third, I don’t remember exactly, with two outs, and one of their players hit a shot into the right-center field gap.  And Pat Clements turned to me and kind of said, Well, we lost another one.  And we didn’t even see the catch, actually; we looked up and Fernando [who was playing center] was running in with the ball.  And we just could not believe that anyone could have gotten to a line drive in the gap like that, let alone be running in with the ball two seconds later.”

Treese’s favorite catch is still famous today among umpires, who still aren’t sure what to call it.  “It was a ball hit into left-center field,” Treese said.  “We had these snow fences, you know, they’re collapsible—he takes off after it, runs…and he jumps and while in the air, he catches the ball and kind of hurdles the fence in one motion.  And nobody knew what to call it.  The umpires kind of looked at each other, because…you can’t jump over the fence and catch it, but he didn’t really do that, he was just so high, he ran so far, then kind of jumped, caught it, and then just in one motion just kind of leaped over the fence…and even today the umpires are like, I don’t know what to call that.  I think they called it a home run.”

Almost as an afterthought, Clements recalled one instance where Perez’ poetic mind seemed at odds with his athletic body.  “After the World Series year with the Rays,” he said, “He stopped by and he gave me a…World Series commemorative ball, so it said World Series, which was really cool, and it said To PJC and there was a quotation on it—‘It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.’  – A. Dillard.  Well, I may have the only baseball signed by a major-league baseball player that has a quotation from Annie Dillard on it.”

Poets are supposed to have “license,” which may explain why Perez got the quotation a bit wrong.  Dillard actually wrote, “It’s all a matter of seeing.”

Perez continued to make education a priority after prep school and even after it became clear that he could make money playing baseball.  Although he was drafted after his junior year of college, he played in a short-season minor league the first year, so he went back to school in the fall and then finished his remaining credits in 2005, graduating only a semester late.  That made him one of 26 players and managers in the major leagues with a four-year degree, according to a 2009 study by The Wall Street Journal.

“It’s good to see someone like that who has that ability,” said Perez’ college coach Paul Fernandes of the way he merged academia and athletics.  “It not only portrays him as being special but it also sheds a good light on professional baseball.”

The décor in the split-level house where he grew up minutes from the New Jersey Transit station in Princeton Junction suggests that he has made it—or at least, that his parents think so.  Images of him from all stages of life hang on almost every wall, and framed articles in the den and hallway chart his progress from high school to college star to professional athlete.

Perez acknowledged that when he agrees to do “fluff” interviews about an Ivy Leaguer trying to make it to the big leagues, they’re mostly for his mother to add to her collection of stories about him.

The only traces of his profession in his childhood bedroom are gym socks and UnderArmour long-sleeved shirts and cleats, but his bag of bats is stuffed behind a chair.  Posters on the wall are not of baseball players but of Miles Davis.  A small bulletin board has pictures mostly of Perez as a child and messages from friends.  Glow-in-the dark stars cover the ceiling and a small globe hangs from the overhead light.

The focus of the room is, not surprisingly, two overflowing bookcases.  Books are in rows, stacked on top of one another and shoved askew into whatever space remains.  Those that do not fit—mostly Jonathan Franzen novels, but also a little Nietzsche—creep across the floor to a pile in front of his desk.

The bookcase on the left might belong to a professor:

“Why Classical Music Still Matters” by Lawrence Kramer; “The Autobiography of Mark Twain;” “Collected Poems 1943-2004” by Richard Wilbur; “The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present” by Phillip Lopate; “The Middle of Everywhere” by Mary Pipher; “Selected Poems” by Frank O’Hara; “The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance” by Alain Locke; “The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975;” “Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945” by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton; “The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope” by Andrew Delbanco.

Other titles include “Baseball I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life” by Richard Grossinger and Lisa Conrad; “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture” by Robert S. Lynd; “Heart of the Mind: Engaging Your Inner Power to Change With Neuro-Linguistic Programming” by Connirae Andreas and Steve Andreas; “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” by Eric Schlosser; “A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry” by Czeslaw Milosz; “Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work” by Rhacel Salazar Parrenas; “From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park: Activism, Culture, and American Studies” by Paul Lauter; “Living by Fiction” by Annie Dillard; “Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry” by Ian Stewart; “Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New” by Audre Lorde.

The bookcase on the right holds mostly high school English class classics.

Other than his Rays locker nameplate above his door—Perez #38—it’s not immediately clear that this man makes his living stealing second base.

***

Fernando Perez has stolen 229 bases in the minor and major leagues, including one in the 2008 World Series.  He has been thrown out 75 times in the minors and has yet to be caught in the majors.  He was the 195th overall pick in the seventh round of the 2004 amateur draft coming out of the Ivy League, and there was not much buzz surrounding him when he entered a Low-A league in 2004 with the Hudson Valley Renegades.  In some ways the lack of hype gave him freedom to adjust to professional baseball without the stress of being a can’t-miss prospect.

Although he performed well enough that season and the next at Class A Southwestern Michigan to earn a promotion to Double-A, the Rays’ organization was stacked with outfield prospects, so the front office decided to hold him back and send him to the offense-heavy California League (High-A) where he could learn to hit left-handed and become a switch-hitter, Wilken explained in an interview at the Cubs Convention.  Hitting left-handed puts the batter closer to first base and gives him an extra step advantage, especially crucial for fast runners who can leg out infield hits.  It also makes things harder on right-handed pitchers because breaking balls are easier for left-handed hitters to recognize.

“We were talking about the switch-hitting,” Wilken remembered.  “So he came to the Instructional League in ’05 in St. Petersburg and started switch-hitting, just trying it on, experimental phase.  First at-bat, hits a triple off the center-field fence, left-handed.  So he was kind of off and running.”

He played for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits in 2007, earning Baseball America Double-A All-Star and Southern League Postseason All-Star honors.

Perez had his moments with the Rays. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images North America

He started 2008 with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and hit .288 with 43 stolen bases, good enough to earn a call-up to the parent club on Aug. 31—the date by which a player must be on the team in order to be eligible for the postseason roster.  The Rays’ record was 84-51, and they were tied with the Boston Red Sox for first place in the American League East with the New York Yankees seven games back.

Perez played in 23 regular-season games that September and impressed manager Joe Maddon enough that he made the post-season roster.  In the second game of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, Perez was a pinch runner for catcher Dioner Navarro, and he scored the winning run for the Rays in the bottom of the 11th inning on a short sacrifice fly to right field by center fielder B.J. Upton.

The Rays would win the ALCS in seven games and then lose the World Series in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies.  That year was one of firsts for the Rays: first winning season, first division title and first pennant.

“As far as I am concerned,” Perez remembered thinking when the season ended, “I have had enough enjoyment and thrill for a lifetime just getting to be called up and play for a month.  And I really meant it, because I got to be like a kid in a candy store where I got called up and there just happens to be a pennant race going on…It was so great and so for me it was just like, the whole thing could just end right here and I would not even mind.”

He cites the Law of Attraction—the idea that positive thinking begets positive results and negative thinking begets negative results—in describing what happened next.

Two weeks into spring training, on Mar. 10, 2009, Perez was the starting center fielder in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays.  “First play of the game was a ball over my head and I didn’t catch it,” he said in an interview at the Cubs Convention.  “I should have caught it.  I didn’t…It wasn’t an error, but I really should have made the play…And I had a chip on my shoulder about the play, and the next play was a pop-up in the Bermuda triangle between myself in center, the right fielder and the second baseman.  And it was out of reach, but I was like, Well, I gotta dive because I fucked up that last play and I’ve gotta try to make this play.  And my glove caught on the ground and I rolled over it.  So I had actually caught the ball, but when I stood up, it just rolled out of my glove because my wrist was not attached to my arm anymore, really.”  He winced.  “It was so bad!  Oh God.  I just felt so stupid.  As I was doing it I knew it was stupid, but my body kept doing it.  Fuck.  Dislocated wrist.  Everything torn.”

He spent most of the season on the disabled list recovering from surgery to repair the ligaments, watching the games from the major league bench.  By the time he came back on Sept. 2, the Rays were five games out of first and would miss the playoffs.  Perez hit .206 with only two stolen bases.  He overcompensated for the weakness in his left wrist by putting too much strain on his left shoulder and eventually needed an operation on the shoulder during the offseason.

In 2010, he played at Triple-A Durham and had his worst season.  Switch-hitting, which had never come easily to him, became impossible when he discovered he could not hold the bat with his left hand and there were times, he said, when he would pray that no one hit the ball toward him because he was not sure he could close his hand to make the catch.

The combination of pain and his lackluster performance—he hit .223—made him miserable, which only compounded the problem.  Because so much of baseball requires muscle memory, it is easy to over-think situations when things are going poorly, and Perez does few things better than worry.

An insomniac since the age of 12, he often lies awake until 4, 5 or 6 a.m. no matter how tired he is.  The most effective cure he has found is to stay awake all night so that his body finally craves sleep the next night.  This is obviously not a very practical solution, so he does his best to get by with melatonin, a natural hormone that induces sleep, on especially bad nights.  If he can, sometimes he reads or writes to pass the time, but frequently he just waits for sleep to come.

“I see pitches at night, I’m tormented by it,” he said.  “I see pitches, I’m thinking about what has to happen tomorrow, I haven’t even seen the pitches yet…But very unhealthily it will be Thursday and I’m imagining what I need do Friday to change my career.  Five at-bats.  I might walk or get hit.  It might rain.  And I’m thinking about what must happen in a game that I can’t control to change my career, to make things better. To make me feel better. That is so unhealthy.”

Once he does fall asleep, he prefers not to wake up until early afternoon—which is not a problem on most days, but is certainly a concern if the team is playing in the afternoon, and it is absolutely unbearable in spring training, when practices often start at 8 a.m.

“And sometimes I have shown up having slept two hours and I’m seeing 95-mile-an-hour fastballs and they’re blurry,” he added.  “Could be worse, you know?  I’m just not, like, a victim guy. I definitely wouldn’t bring it up to the team because they’d be just like, God, you’re so weird.  Let’s just trade this fucking guy.”

***

Writing is Perez’s favorite escape.

He has always been an avid reader, but he became hooked on writing when he took classes on essay writing and poetry at Columbia, taking care not to identify himself as a baseball player until later in the semester because he wanted to be taken seriously as a student.  At first, despite his professors’ suggestions, he even refused to write about baseball because he didn’t feel comfortable melding his passions like that.  He felt it was disingenuous somehow, he explained.  Now, however, he is writing a novel about a minor-league baseball team.

“I think it is simple as realizing there is a demand for that [type of writing] because none of it that’s out there is that spectacular,” he said in an interview in New York in December.  “I’m realizing that there are not that many athletes that write in general.  I think that [the sport through the eyes of a player] is something that people are interested in finding out about.”

Perez plans to continue writing long after he is out of baseball, but it also serves a specific purpose in his life right now.  The harshness and the grind of the sport are often incompatible with real life, and the only way he has been able to humanize himself is through poetry.

“For me, baseball, I see it kind of like a counterculture, where you can opt totally to have nothing to do with the earth and the world and what’s going on…all you really have to do is worry about the game…I think, at times, I have appreciated that and have wanted to totally disengage.  I think of baseball as a competing aspect with everything.  I think of it as an unhealthy addiction…So for me to be absorbed in another world, it’s therapeutic, it is necessary.  And I think why poetry is so viable to me, it’s because poetry is almost founded on an entirely different precept.  It’s like a solo campaign, like align the universe better for yourself.”

***

With the Cubs, Perez’s baseball universe seemed out of alignment from the beginning.  Of course, he wanted to be the starting center fielder, but he was well aware that Chicago had invested a lot of money in its outfield.

“It’s a tough situation because they have three outfielders making millions of dollars.  I mean, [Alfonso] Soriano’s making so much money, [Kosuke] Fukudome’s making so much money, Marlon Byrd is making so much money.  And then they have Tyler Colvin, who’s really good, hitting a lot of home runs—lefty, though—and then me.  And Jim Hendry says that [Mike] Quade is a fair manager and that if you’re playing well, you’ll play.”

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Soriano stands to make $19 million every year until his contract is up after 2014; Fukudome, who will become a free agent after this season, will earn $14.5 million this year and Byrd will make $5.5 million this year and $6.5 million next year.  Colvin and Perez should each earn roughly $414,000 if they both make the team this year.

Rudy Jaramillo, the Cubs’ hitting coach, has an excellent reputation and Perez said he was looking forward to working with Jaramillo to hit better from the left side of the plate.

Perez spent most of December working out four times a week in the RWJ Hamilton Center for Health and Wellness near his parents’ house in Princeton Junction, and he slowly ramped up his lifting regimen until just after New Year’s.  That’s when he headed down to South Carolina to train with Brian Gabriel, the former strength and conditioning coach from Columbia who now works at Coastal Carolina University.

Gabriel’s plan, Perez said, was exhausting but effective.  “I lifted for seven or eight days straight,” he said.  “He would just make the workouts so that I wasn’t doing the same muscle groups twice…I was just lifting more and I was hitting and throwing every other day.”

He was confident that he would be well prepared for spring training, though.  “You have to be ready…because if you show up and you’re not ready, you’ll hurt yourself in the first week,” he said.  “All the running—you’ll fuck something up.”

The original plan was to stay at Coastal Carolina through mid-January and then fly to Los Angeles by way of Illinois, where he and nine-time All-Star left fielder Minnie Minoso were to speak at a conference on pioneering Latinos in baseball at the University of Illinois at Champaign on Jan. 20.  In Los Angeles, he would work with Wilmer “Will” Aaron, Hank Aaron’s cousin, on refining his swing for a week, and then he would spend a week at home before heading down to spring training in Florida.  The plan changed with the news of the trade.

The most immediate adjustment was a trip from South Carolina to Chicago for the Cubs Convention, then a return to South Carolina for a few more workouts, only for him to turn around and fly back for the conference.  He had not planned any further in advance, in part because he was unsure whether he would make the team out of camp.  If he did not, he would go to the Cubs’ Triple-A team in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I’m not really thinking about that,” he admitted.

***

On March 24, however, he was thinking about it incessantly.  That morning, he said, he was in the hot tub at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., “getting my various limbs ready for the day,” when he was called into manager Mike Quade’s office.  Jim Hendry, the general manager, and Randy Bush, the assistant general manager, were there too. Hendry did all the talking.  “He said, We’re sending you down,” Perez said by telephone a few days later.  “There were a lot of plays that you just didn’t make.  And he was absolutely right.”

The meeting was short.  Often players who are being cut will make a futile final effort to influence the manager.  Perez didn’t.  He knew his defense, the strongest part of his game, had somehow failed him.

“I blew it,” he said later.  “The greatest opportunity of my professional career.  I absolutely blew it.  I was so bad…I’m struggling through some stuff, but I could have been better.  I could have done it.  Ugh.  I did not help my case.  It was very devastating to my career.”

He only hit .147 in spring training, but the front office was more concerned with his fielding.  “The hitting wasn’t even why I was sent down,” he said.  “I was sent down because I was just not trying to make any plays in the outfield.”  His past injuries were obviously subliminally tucked away, and then he injured his shoulder on Feb. 28 trying to make a catch.  “I was just very, very, very tentative after [that].  I just didn’t go try to make any diving plays and there were a lot of balls that I definitely should’ve caught.”

Perez's defense fell apart in Arizona. Photo by Jake Roth/US PRESSWIRE

Fear seeped into his psyche—and his game—and he struggled with thoughts of all the ways he could possibly injure himself.  He said it was so bad at times that he actually felt faint.

“I’d be standing in the outfield and I would imagine some horrible, gruesome play that I would make and get hurt, and I’d bug out about it for a second and then come to again,” he said.  “I’ve never experienced anything like that.  I called my agent because I thought it was a big deal.  I was like, I think I’m having a panic attack…I had a weird spring, let me tell ya.  I wasn’t having that until I hurt my shoulder and first it was just slight and then I was having it all the time and it wasn’t just like, diving and hurting my shoulder, I was imagining running back to the wall and jumping into the wall and coming down and breaking my leg.  Crazy shit.  And what would basically happen is I’d be getting ready for a pitch and then, whatever, the guy fouls it off, and I’d have one of these episodes and be staring off into space for a sec and be like, Whoa…Stop thinking about that.  Stop doing that.”

His agent Kenny Felder suggested he see a sports psychologist, which he planned to do.  He saw another doctor, he said, who gave him medication to help him sleep, and that helped the panic attacks as well.  By then, the Cubs had made their decision.

***

He really hoped things would be different this season.  A new team.  A new chance. Instead of going home in early February, Perez arrived at camp five days early, after a little more than a week in Los Angeles, and moved into the house he and Matt Garza rented together.  Hendry had kept his word: The team had not signed any more outfielders to major-league deals, but it had signed outfielder Reed Johnson to a minor-league contract.  He and Perez were the only two competitors for the spot of fifth outfielder and everyone knew it.

For awhile, it looked like everything was coming together.  Perez became a self-proclaimed “cage rat” and he felt like he was taking good swings in games.  He was even sleeping on a normal schedule—bed by 10 p.m., ready to leave at 7 a.m.—so he felt good in the mornings.  “I am sleeping like a ninja,” he said proudly and then laughed at the analogy.

He collected two hits and an RBI in his first two games, but then came the shoulder injury when he tried to make the diving catch in the ninth inning of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Even while he was recovering from the injury, he was confident that he could secure the job.  Johnson, an eight-year veteran, had spent 2008 and 2009 with the Cubs and had become a fan favorite for his gritty play, but he was 34 and had never had much speed anyway.  When asked what he thought of the competition, Perez had an answer ready.

“There’s nothing that he can do that I cannot do, and there are things that I can do that he cannot do,” he said.

All Perez had to do, he thought, was to pick up a bunt base hit, go first to third on a single, hit a triple and make a great catch in center field and he’d have the job.

After those two hits in two games, though, he only managed three more in his next 31 at-bats.  He only struck out four times, so he wasn’t completely lost at the plate, which he considered a victory since his most recent experiment with switch-hitting was taking some getting used to.  He was, though, mostly lost in the outfield.

He started to be able to feel a shift in the energy around him: Where once teammates and coaches had been excited about the slick-fielding speedster the organization lacked, enthusiasm waned when he didn’t field so slickly and didn’t get on base enough to use his speed.

“I knew it wasn’t going well,” he said, “But every day I was just one dominant game away from making the team, because when I’m playing well, I often appear like the best player on the field.  Probably half of players have that ability for whatever reason.  If you’re getting opportunities in the field, [if] you’re getting good pitches to hit, every good player should look good occasionally.  I did not look good very much.”

So the meeting with Quade, Hendry and Bush wasn’t that surprising. Perez waited afterward until most people had left the clubhouse before he changed and went home.  He took the rest of the day off and reported to minor-league camp the next day.

“Minor-league camp is pretty laid back,” he said.  “It’s the energy of a funeral.  They’re long days.”

A week before opening day with the Iowa Cubs, Perez had shipped his car and some of his belongings to Des Moines, but he hadn’t yet secured housing.  He hoped he wouldn’t be in Iowa long.

“To be a positive thinker,” he said, “I would say, I’m making my comeback.”  Then, considering the reality of his latest trip to Triple-A, he said, “Baseball’s difficult.  I’m not making it easy on myself.”

One Response to “Worlds Apart”

  1. yankeesmlb says:

    it is composed by mlbclubtest 07.15.2011

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