Player Journal: Perez coming alive

Devil Rays prospect got last ticket to big-league camp

Fernando Perez won Player of the Year Honors with the Visalia Oaks in 2006. (Diane Houser Evans)

April 4, 2007 6:00 AM

Fernando Perez, an outfield prospect in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, led all of Minor League baseball with 123 runs scored last season. En route to being named the Visalia Oaks' Player of the Year, the Columbia University product shared the California League lead with nine triples, ranked third with 168 hits, fourth in on-base percentage (.398) and stolen bases (33) and 10th with a .307 batting average.

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Sometime in February, the few and the proud ballplaying snowbirds just quit on winter altogether and head south to play ball for free.

Kiss our lives, our loved ones goodbye and play baseball for 200 consecutive days.

In the offseason, I had been living in my winter hat and long johns at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel in Brooklyn, New York, working at a yuppie running boutique alongside a longtime friend coming back to life after a recent divorce. As I packed up my car at the end of February, I was pleased to see John with his swagger back. He met a nice girl, who'll be more "complete" company for him anyways.

I'm glad it's time to play. I'm glad I'm done sharing the same prepared "official statement" concerning my progress and proximity to "playing pro on national television," for anyone who implores. It's pretty hard to convey to anyone -- friends, family, my friends' families, or my family's friends -- that right here, right now is a huge blessing.

I find it's possible to do all I can to climb the ladder while trying to enjoy the ride. Everyone seems to be very much into the upward and onward of it, so much so they forget it's more than a treasure hunt or some idol contest, and that it feels like I'm winning just getting the chance to be out here using my arms and legs to play a game.

It's amazing to get to stay and have a job each year. There's nothing worse than finding one morning that one of your buddies can't play anymore. He's in street clothes as uniformed players mill around a busy clubhouse. He's waiting for a cab, sort of nauseous. Never saw it coming.

I managed to get the last ticket to big-league camp and thus got an early jump on remembering how to pretend to know how to hit left-handed.

I did my best to observe, stock advice for a rookie in any venture. There was a lot to see and a lot to hear in Joe Maddon's camp. On the first day, almost as a mission statement, he explained that his job as a manager is to create the environment in which the player has the best possible chance to succeed in difficult circumstances. It's sort of heady and got headier when he cited Camus. All we're after is to play the game at the highest level possible. It looks best that way. The players and front office in Tampa Bay are charged with establishing tradition with their bare hands in the AL East, no small feat.

Personally, I felt sort of like I was at fantasy camp. Now that I look back, I played sort of like one of those 30- or 40-something Wall Street professionals at fantasy camp who pay the $10,000 to live out their dream of going through Spring Training in full uniform at a Major League Spring Training facility for three whole days before a hamstring rupture brings them back to the office.

I had my few moments running around the field and also saw a few go right by at about 95 mph, low and away. In big-league camp, the vibe is through the roof, everyone is happy all the time. It's probably the food. Maybe it's Fred McGriff walking around the clubhouse. I'm thinking it's just because almost everyone is rich (besides Andy Sonnanstine and I!), well-fed and thrilled to be in camp -- be it my first or Don Zimmer's 59th.

I saw that our stars work hard. I'm mildly allergic to a.m. in general. I'd usually see Greg Norton coming back from the batting cage before half of us had even arrived. One of the clubhouse managers tapped me on the shoulder one morning and pointed to the locker next to mine, belonging to Carl Crawford. Animatedly, he explained, nobody works harder than he does. "I admire that guy" he said, straightening up his locker.

I heard a peculiar golf clap from the gallery of fans in attendance at the first intraquad game when Reid Brignac hit the first home run of the spring. I met Gary Sheffield on my way to the batting cage during batting practice before our game with visiting Detroit. I was actually just trying to stay out of his way when he introduced himself like he was actually glad to meet me. He asked how my career was going before I interrupted to hear about his.

The best part of being back is running around the fields with all my teammates. There are so many players in Minor League camp they can hardly keep tabs on us as we relentlessly make fun of each other, practice handshakes and greet each other over and over again, in every spare second we aren't working.

I believe I've found that in the Minor Leagues you have to continually affirm how close to, as well as how far you are from the big leagues. Your nearness to The Show ought to maintain your patience with mild homesickness or cultural alienation and with lukewarm hot dogs after striking out for the third time to end an abysmal road trip. It also ought to maintain your confidence. This is not a romantic idea; confidence has real and tangible utility to a performer. It is often said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. The slight inclination that you can't do it is viral, it's like a hex.

How far you are from the big leagues ought to offset complacency, which my manager, Billy Gardner, sternly warned after an exhibition loss, is the most threatening attribute that a ballplayer can develop. It couldn't be any truer.

I spent a day playing for our Class A teams and left more than impressed by the next wave of "the future" of the Devil Rays, the young players treading at our heels on their way on up the ladder. There are 50 new faces who may play your position and play it better. I saw the future coming on in outfielder Desmond Jennings and infielder Shane O'Malley.

We are nearing the real season, the drawing of another chapter of personal history, line scores and stats that count, that forge for us a transcript of our prowess.

The perfect Spring Training at-bat is a lineout. You've done your job and are also one out closer to the beach, one out closer to the season, where it counts. There's nothing worse than a lineout during the season, it's like an unrecognized sainthood. Telling someone you lined out, say, seven times in a week is like saying you saw a UFO -- a little peculiar and sort of tacky.

In hitting, there's lucky and unlucky and always the opportunity to be so good the bad luck is more humorous, and less tragic; mere character-building.

We are trying to tie loose ends in our game, trying to leave camp with a feeling to try and carry through the year. Some think it's just a chance to get some bad play out of the way before we go out and represent a city. I think there's some truth to that, actually. After an abomination of an at-bat at the Yankee complex in which I appeared to try and simultaneously hit and dodge a pitched ball, Brooks Badeaux mentioned that we come alive once we smell that popcorn.

That's what all the talk around camp is about, a million reasons to eagerly anticipate Opening Day. I'm finding my skills in everything but baseball sort of waning. I wasn't very good at selling sports bras and pedometers.

Fernando Perez is an outfield prospect in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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