September 28, 2008
Fernando Perez is not your run-of-the-mill professional athlete. A speedy outfielder who made his big-league debut in early September, the 25-year-old New Yorker is not only a big part of the Rays future, he also holds a degree in American Studies and Creative Writing from Columbia University. Perez went into the last weekend of the season hitting .273/.344/.473 with three home runs and five stolen bases in 55 at-bats. He sat down with David in mid-September to talk about his views on both baseball and life.
David Laurila: How would you describe Fernando Perez?
Fernando Perez: As a baseball player, I'm a very high-energy guy; I'm sort of pesky. From talking to a lot of pitchers I've met-I think it's really cool, especially in pro ball, where you get the camaraderie between teams and you have guys talking before and after the game-I've been told that I'm a pretty tough out and very unpredictable. If I'm doing my job, I'm usually a problem out there for the other team. I play hard and love to run fast; it never gets old to me to make a ground ball to the second baseman a close play, no matter how many times I've been consecutively retired on the 4-3 groundout.
DL: How about away from the field?
FP: Off the field, I think I'm kind of the opposite, at least in terms of peskiness. That's not exactly a great quality to have socially. In baseball, you're just kind of what everybody says you are. On a team you get pegged, and then you're thoroughly reminded about what you are as much as possible. All we do is make fun of each other. I'm the eccentric. I'm a ridiculous person, a clown that doesn't take himself very seriously as a way forward socially. I'm the New Yorker-just about anyone who knows me well would agree that I'm sort of tirelessly anti-academic and way too cynical to own up to, or even be proud of, being the Ivy League guy-which is the subject of half the interviews I do. I'm also too self-deprecating. I would own up to being a New Yorker because it entails a number of characteristics I'm very proud to have acquired, like the many facets of tolerance, and maybe an ease and interest in modernity as it encroaches and alienates most of the rest of the population. I'm a bit of everything, because I think that's a good idea; I'm much more concerned with wellness, say, than politics, and hope to be a good man someday, not a rich one or a famous one.
DL: Getting back to baseball, do you pay much attention to statistics?
FP: I really try not to. Once I got into pro ball, I had a very clearly defined role, which I had really never had before. Especially playing in the northeast, where the baseball isn't very good; had I grown up in Florida or California, I probably would have always been a leadoff guy. I probably would have been a much more polished product coming into pro ball, but once I kind of understood my role as a leadoff guy-getting on base and being a table-setter-I really began to prize on-base percentage. And I did a pretty good job of that, really up until this year. This year is the first time I wasn't up close to the top of the league or where I thought it should be. But I'm not really a stat guy. I'm more big on how your teammates feel you did, and what they feel about what you can do and will do, let's say in the playoffs. A lot of guys gauge that by talking to their teammates about how they feel about certain guys as a player. To me, that's everything, because it's what your teammates and manager think of you; it's the feeling you leave when you leave a stadium. Those things are pretty important.
DL: A number of people who study statistical analysis argue that there is no such a thing as a clutch hitter. What do you think?
FP: I don't know. It seems like there are, but I don't think there is such a thing as a clutch hitter so much as there are guys who aren't as good when there's less on the table. For instance, if it's a 5-0 game in the eighth inning, you might not get the same out of that guy as you would if it was 1-1 in the eighth inning. It's funny, you'll have these guys who end up hitting .275, but with runners in scoring position they're hitting .350. Duly, there are a lot of players who are fantastic in lopsided affairs-again, it's a feel thing. Right now I'm hitting .240 in the big leagues and people in Tampa seem to be thrilled with my play because of the timing of the hits, although it's still feels very .240 to me. What makes the clutch hitter might be the chances he has to hit which do nothing but make his stats better-the not-clutch at-bats in lopsided games in which maybe his focus isn't quite as heightened, and he doesn't do as well.
DL: In an interview with Baseball America earlier this year, you said that you saw some very surprising pitch sequences in Triple-A. Should a hitter ever be completely surprised by how he's being pitched?
FP: That's a good question, and I think it's probably part of the reason why I struggled at the beginning of the season. Really, it's just from what you've seen before and how guys perceive you. Usually, if you're struggling a little bit, you're going to get a lot of fastballs because they want to dispatch you quickly, but once you're giving a team trouble they have to do whatever they can to throw you off your game mentally. I led off the game a couple of times where I saw off-speed pitches the first pitch of the game. Anything that can get you thinking that this situation is a little bit different from another situation pulls you out of your routine in baseball. Baseball players are creatures of habit, so that sort of stuff works. That's why guys throw up and in, to wake guys up and say, 'This isn't just an at-bat; watch yourself.' Those sorts of things work. But I think the surprising-pitch-sequences thing was kind of just something to get over; if guys can throw a pitch you're not expecting, and get it over for a strike, they're going to do it. It's similar to how guys have been very surprised when I've bunted in hitting counts-a guy moved back and I took advantage of it. In upper-level baseball, it is tougher to start rallies, so you have to take any advantage that you can get.
DL: In that same interview, you cited Dave Stewart as having been your favorite player growing up. Notably, you added that one of the reasons is that Stewart is black. From my observations, players typically cite people of their same race or ethnicity as their favorites or as being the best at what they do. What are your thoughts on that?
FP: My answer was a little tongue-in-cheek, but it was also based on real life. It wasn't so much that I was an Oakland fan, but they had my Little League colors, I was a pitcher and Dave Stewart was a pitcher, so he was someone I could look up to. Short players often like short players, and tall guys like tall guys. I think it's very simple kid stuff, but I think that any time, especially as a minority-if you see another minority that is there and is having success, it becomes sort of like an attainable thing for you. For me, Dave Stewart was a figure that affirmed that it was possible. So while idolizing Stewart wasn't really a serious thing, and my answer was mainly tongue-in-cheek, it was grounded in a true experience.
DL: With that in mind, do players, especially players of color, have a responsibility to be role models?
FP: Yes and no. I understand it. Years ago Charles Barkley made the comment, "I'm not your role model; your parents are your role models." And I really do believe that, but as a player it would be a little bit of an oversight to say that what you do, and how you represent yourself and the city and franchise you play for, or how you represent a race doesn't mean anything. It always means something. Let's say you have curly red hair, and you're out making trouble. If you are, you're making it rougher on guys with curly red hair. People watch too much TV and consciously or subconsciously take what they see as gospel, and brown-skinned folks these days understand that more than anyone. A few times a month I disappoint someone Caucasian by not speaking like a rapper. I don't know what's going on in the NFL, but the trouble they're having is a big deal, as you hear people discuss all the players going to jail, and I'm sure it affects young black scholar-athletes. Someone said to me at a bar once "all you guys have to do is behave." I don't think I have to explain how unfortunate that is. It is the less-adept parents that count on athletes, but you become a role model as soon as your image is reproduced in print or on TV, whether you care to acknowledge it or not-whether that's appropriate or fair or not, it has already happened.
I'm 100 percent Latin American, but I'm Afro-Caribbean, so I belong, really and truly, to the large umbrella of minorities that includes the African-American people. I understand the responsibility I've taken on; it comes with the territory of being an athlete. If you want to play baseball, there are going to be tons of kids looking up to you and heeding what you're doing. And there are going to be a ton of American citizens who are going to be holding you up to the light and making brash, sweeping assertions about your race and people who look like you, based on the way that you represent yourself. So, to me it's a responsibility, and I'm comfortable with it, but I do truly believe that the role model really falls with the parents. A lot of times the parents are really expecting too much from athletes, and many athletes are reluctant. So I'm kind of in the middle. I understand the power of an image on television, and let's say I get a chance to play in the big leagues for four years and my image was always on television-and people watch too much TV-there's a certain power that carries. So even though I don't think it's necessarily my responsibility, I'll always try to use that power in a positive way. It's really an opportunity to do good, or not to do anything, and I seek to do better as opposed to worse.
DL: What impact does being a Cuban-American have on your life?
FP: I'm second generation, so I've really had all the experiences of being an immigrant, although for me they're mostly anecdotal; they're not completely mine, but they've always been very close to me in the way that I view things. I view myself as being extraordinarily fortunate. That's from my upbringing, from being at dinner tables at Thanksgiving or Christmas where people are just so happy to be in a free country. What always struck me at those dinner tables-what was always so striking is how grateful everybody was for this here and now. It's a thing where, if I didn't have those experiences, I might totally take some things for granted, as do many of my friends who grew up with me in that middle-class American experience. It has helped to shape my sense of being grateful for so many of the opportunities I've had. My parents and grandparents did all this work for me to have what is, for me, a very easy American middle-class life. I think it's something that most people don't have: a very strong collection of anecdotal history to draw upon. I'm a very grateful person. I felt lucky to be in Double-A; I felt extraordinarily grateful to be a Durham Bull. Now, to have this, is really, really amazing.
DL: I understand that one of your professors at Columbia once told you to "Let go of existentialism and write about baseball."
FP: Yeah, I did the writing program at Columbia; I wrote short prose. I had a teacher-her name is Leslie Sharp-and she has actually written quite a few personal essays about baseball published in fancy magazines and journals. And ever since high school, I've always fancied myself as a writer; I've had this real passion. And like any writer, I was just struggling to find my medium just as much as my voice, and my medium was somewhere in between short prose and personal essay. A really interesting thing that she said was that the best writers are real people having extraordinary experiences, not just "writers" trying to create something extraordinary out of nothing-that's the best writing. I had been sort of stuck in the world of fiction, and she and others told me that I have this incredible opportunity to use my skills to tell a real story, and slowly I'm submitting. But I'm in no rush, because the experience hasn't completely settled. To me, the most interesting story is the minor leagues. That experience, for a lot of guys, is like joining the army and not knowing quite what to do with life in these years of our physical prime and mental adolescence. To me, that's the story; the characters are richer. In the major leagues, the baseball is obviously incredible, but the other circumstances are so cushy it is almost like a country club. The drama isn't really there; it's in the really minor leagues with all the so much more authentic characters, many of whom are playing in less-than-favorable circumstances. There are guys with wives, and sometimes children at home, and they're not making any money. They're wondering, 'Will I ever be able to hit the slider?' or 'Will I ever be able to get good hitters out?' or 'Do I love her?' or 'Should I stop playing?' That, to me, is the story.
DL: How about the "existentialism" part of the comment?
FP: I'm using existentialism in the most general, almost inauthentic sense; to put a general tap on what I was most concerned with in my writing, which was self-discovery, and say, the life of the mind. A lot of people in the writing program were thoroughly into the social sphere, writing about things like relationships and politics; I was just very, very concerned with what you could probably call existentialism-natural for someone my age. I was writing in circles, tracing the meaning of life, and I think they wanted me to grow up and get on with a plan that would probably work! But I had never fancied writing a bestseller; it's more about what suits me and what I'm interested in. I write, and have always written, to organize complex emotions and to take my pulse. For nothing more, and for nothing less. It's a private art.
DL: You're a big fan of Robert Creeley's work. Why?
FP: He's amazing. I love how he's able to take these broad aural sensations and condense them into skinny, semi-linear poems that hit it right on the head. I love how accessible and undaunting he can be. I love his casual American masculine voice and the funny way he reads. But baseball really robs your attention sometimes. Right now I'm not reading at all. Like Bob Dylan said, "Right now I can't read too good; don't send me no letters." That's how I feel right now. I'm so vested in the team that I can't really give myself to a book. But Creeley is a guy that there's always time for; it's so easy; it's so simple, yet really satisfying.
DL: You started switch-hitting two years ago, which has me thinking about right-brain and left-brain, and if a person can teach himself to better utilize the non-dominant side of his brain, much like a hitter can learn to swing from the other side.
FP: That is stuff that is so interesting to me. I have learned a little about that, because I had a varied education in college-that's what American Studies is, really; I took everything from gender studies to jazz. But that was something I really began to wonder about. There's definitely a different feel from each side, so it's really a chapter in my minor league experience. The experience of doing it was more than just an athletic quest, it was, as a person, knowing that you can do something pretty well one way, and to try it another way. And you're doing it in front of a lot of people; you're doing it for score, to be judged on. It was a really incredible experience, and I think it worked out pretty well. Had it not worked out, it would still have been a great experience.
DL: Are you left-brained or right-brained? Or are you a switch-hitter?
FP: I'm a switch-hitter. That's a great way to put it: I'm a switch-hitter. What's funny is that to balance myself I kind of have to employ some of the characteristics I use on the other side. From my right side, where I feel really strong, I have to often think with the simplicity that I approach everything with from the left side. From the left side I'm purely thinking about contact, about simple, fluid mechanics. That's what I need to bring to the right side to kind of square myself. And from my non-dominant side, my left side, I kind of have to bring grit and brute force to kind of square that side off. When I'm doing well, that's how I'm succeeding. I'm definitely right-brained though; I'm messy and a fan of intuition.
DL: Any final thoughts?
FP: I should maybe mention music, because it's such an important part of my life; it's probably my favorite thing. At my funeral I don't want them to talk: I just want them to play a few records. It kind of swallows all of my time. I don't really watch TV-I'd rather sit and let a record play. I didn't really give any modern stuff a shake until probably college, and now I've kind of heard so many different things, like guitar-playing stuff from the 1940s and old blues stuff. What I'm most interested in now is anything experimental and new, stuff that is kind of reaching for things, like a lot of experimental electronica and ambient music. Music is really, really interesting to me now. There was a while where they were saying that pop was so bad that music was dead, and I think the indie labels have saved music-labels that are capable of putting a certain type of music out there consistently. There are tons and tons of labels, which is really good because there's a lot of interesting music that gets out there and gets a chance to sustain itself by creating at least a small buzz.
DL: How many all-star teams do you think you'll have to make before your teammates let you pick the music in the clubhouse?
FP: Hah! Never, but I have a good way about it. I'll play the right sort of marginal thing that some guys like; usually I can find a way to play stuff that people like but they don't know that they like. But I'd probably have to make two or three all-star teams before I could hit shuffle.