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Not a Jock – Fernando Perez

September 17, 2010

Self-Portrait in a Convex Home Plate?

Oooh, I’ve been waiting to write about Fernando Perez for a while. I think I have a man-crush on him. As I’ve written before, the Not a Jock column celebrates those professional baseball players – like Jeremy Guthrie and Miguel Batista – who have interests beyond playing video games, luxury SUVs, and, uh, livin’ large. A more well-rounded worldview, one that includes books beyond lifestyle magazines and the Bible and activities beyond their own occupation.

Things that depress me: I had a running subscription to Sports Illustrated from December 1984 (Eric Dickerson! Old Rams unis! Unbelievable!) through 2007 before I cancelled with them. And it was tough to do. But the Pop Culture Grid, like this one and this one really destroyed any love I had for reading the magazine. Though this one, thanks to Kevin Goldthwaite, restores a little faith.

So let us now praise Fernando Perez, who’s been laboring in the minors for a little now…and is reportedly trying to pursue an MFA in writing. Perez grew up in New Jersey (his folks emigrated from Cuba before hitting Brooklyn and finally the Garden State) and attended the fairly tony private Peddie School in Highstown, whose graduates apparently attend UPenn and Cornell more than any other school. Perez went across the river to Columbia University, where he majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, while playing baseball for the Lions. In 2004 he batted .317 and led the Ivy League in stolen bases (18); that June he was the third of 14 Ivy Leaguers drafted by MLB clubs, when the Rays took him in the seventh round.

Perez was picked 195th overall. Other notables include the Princetonites Ross Ohlendorf (116th) and Will Venable (439th). Ohlendorf was the subject of many articles last year when he interned for the Department of Agriculture in the offseason. And yes, he’s very worthy of a future Not a Jock.

Perez signed with the Rays eight days after being drafted, and was immediately sent to the Hudson Valley League. He was promoted every year following that, including a stint with the Visalia Oaks of the California League in 2006, where he led the minors in runs scored with 123. In 2007, while with the Montgomery Biscuits, Perez made his first combinations of baseball and writing widely known – picked him to keep a “minor league journal,” along with Ricky Romero, Jose Tabata, and Donnie Veal.

It’s not really fair to compare the four journals, but Perez is taking note of some sociological aspects of the game and life in the minor leagues, and what immigration means for foreign-born players, while, you know, Tabata and Romero are essentially writing about taking it one day at a time, giving 100%, and God willing, etc, etc.

In his final entry that October, Perez wrote, with possibly the most eloquent objectivity and perspicacity we’ll see out of a professional ballplayer:

I notice when I’m catching up with old friends that baseball is a place where we can hide out from real life and never really grow up. Amongst the stress of needing to remain progressive and evolve with the competition, a little bit of hustle and sweat is something like a halo out here.

In this way I see baseball as an ‘anti-modernity.’ It feels as though the men who play and stay in the game indulge in a counter culture, the lifestyle in which all you have to do each day is play. It’s rustic. These are reasons why I’m here.

It’s no wonder that baseball is the sport that’s written about the most. There’s something about it that strikes a chord with people who have the patience to understand it.

Some people like to say that baseball is boring. They prefer something with more action, maybe some controlled violence or something where athleticism is more significantly featured.

But it’s baseball that is written about most prominently. Why? It’s a long answer I don’t have. If I had to point to something, I’d say that aesthetes are drawn to the way that it’s played with calculated civility.

Speed is Perez’s main (baseball-related) attribute. He’s stolen 223 bases over parts of seven seasons, and was a powerful weapon off the bench for the major-league Rays late in ‘08. In the second game of the 2008 ALCS, in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Red Sox, Perez pinch-ran for catcher Dioner Navarro, whom Mike Timlin walked. After another walk and a fielder’s choice, Perez was at third when BJ Upton hit a short fly ball to right fielder JD Drew. Perez tagged and slid home safely, winning the game for the Rays. The New York Times had written this article about him just six days prior to his mad dash home.

That winter, Perez traveled down to Venezuela, where he played winter ball; while down there, he wrote this piece for Poetry Magazine, which was published like eight months later. He talks about, once again, the strangeness of being a professional ballplayer; how it’s a kind of counter-culture thing. (This is something that Perez returns to; the Peter-Pan-ness of baseball, playing a game for a living and thus refusing to grow up.)

I thought heavily about drafting him for my keeper league fantasy team in the offseason. Though his strikeout numbers were alarming for a speed guy – 156 in 129 games in Triple-A in 2008! – his OBP was quite good, buoyed by his speed and high walk rate.

Unfortunately, Perez injured his wrist in spring training 2009 and only played 17 games (all in the minors) that year. So, of course, Perez briefly wrote for the Times’ Bats blog.

One of the best passages, in which he mused about at-bat music, Perez sardonically wrote that in the California League:

I was trying to forge a dialectic that was personal, even climactic — there was experimental electronica (Prefuse 73’s “With Dirt and Two Texts — Afternoon Version), which I used in the throes of heat exhaustion to feel less human, more machine-like at the plate. There were desolate rock ballads to put pitchers to sleep like Wings’ “Band on the Run.” It was a little too decadent, though I was just about the only one listening to really judge.

In September ’09, right when his article in Poetry came out, Perez was interviewed on NPR. He talked about John Ashbery and a reporter discovering a “secret item” in his locker – the 1980 poetic narrative My Life by Lyn Hejinian.

And finally, here’s my favorite thing ever. Fernando Perez, who hangs out in Williamsburg and Park Slope in the offseason – his buddies from Columbia live there – appeared in this hipster-snark ironic video. And he’s funny. Like, funnier and more ironic/aware than possibly any professional baseball player not named Jim Bouton.

Fernando Perez. Not a Jock.

From → Not a Jock, Prospects

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