Monday, May 24, 2010

Highs and Lows: One Ex-Tiger's Love of Baseball

What would professional sports be without good underdog stories? Just think about all the great movies they’ve made on the subject. From “Major League” to “Rocky” to “Rudy”, is there anything more uplifting than seeing a person or team with supposedly no chance at being a success do just that?

Well in real life, these stories happen every day. The thing is, they don’t usually have a happy ending. Ricky Vaughn doesn’t strike out the feared Yankee slugger with a 101 mph fastball. Rocky doesn’t go the distance with the champ and become an overnight sensation. Rudy doesn’t make the sack and get carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders. The happy ending just isn’t there. In fact, these stories can become quite sad. It doesn’t make them less interesting, though.

Take this one, for example. Imagine a young man growing up in Bani, of the Dominican Republic. Bani is the capital town of the Peravia Province. It’s a town of only 169,865, with only 61,864 living in the actual metro area. It’s a region known for little more than producing bananas and coffee and is not exactly Beverly Hills when it comes to lifestyle.

But this young man isn’t interested in picking bananas or coffee beans. He wants something more. He wants to do what he loves. He wants to play baseball.

Much like teams in the Unites States, teams from Japan have worldwide scouting. And like many others, the Hiroshima Carp have a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Now, this kid of all of 19 years ends up at the academy in pursuit of his dream. Out of the gate, he hits .340 for the Carp’s Dominican Summer League team raising some eyebrows. The eyebrows were raised enough for the Carp to offer the young man a spot on the big club in Japan. And he took it.

Our hero leaves the only home he has ever known and at the age of 19 and is now in Japan. The culture shock had to be amazing for him. Just imagine being in another country, not speaking the language, not having any friends or family, and having very little money. All this for the opportunity to follow your dream. Is that a leap of faith that you could take? This kid had guts. That, or he really didn’t want to pick bananas.

Anyway, he was thrown right into the fire and responded fairly well hitting .278 with a homer and 7 RBI in limited time for the Carp. He showed that he could hang with Japan’s big boys and was brought back the next year. He would get into 86 games in 1997 for Hiroshima and hit .245, with 3 homers and 15 RBI. 1998 brought better luck as his numbers improved to .296/.350/.404 with 5 homers and 35 RBI. He was settling in, finally, and his future appeared bright. Certainly, MLB scouts had been watching, right?

Right. In 2000, the New York Mets signed the young man to a deal. He was sent to the AAA Norfolk Tides for much of the year where he was determined to show that he wasn’t going to waste his opportunity in the States. He hit .357/.392/.512 as a Tide before the Mets called him up to the show. The kid, who only a couple years ago was living the quiet village life, was now playing baseball in the biggest city in the United States. New York City can make you a star or it can break you. There’s very little in between.

Baseball is a game full of epic highs and heartbreaking lows. You can be in the penthouse one day and into the outhouse the next. Hell, that can happen to a guy in a matter of innings or even seconds. Our young hero is no exception.

On September 1st, 2000, he made his major league debut pinch hitting against the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first ever at bat, he laced a single up the middle off of Cards reliever, Dave Veres. Finally, he had made it. From a place where 90% of the population couldn't find on a mat to being on top of the world in New York. What a feeling.

A couple minutes later, he was thrown out trying to steal second. Highs and lows. That’s baseball. Consider what happened next.

The Mets ended up making the playoffs and the young rookie would get 40 at bats in the NLDS and NCLS collecting 12 hits along the way and helping New York make it to the World Series against their cross town rivals, the Yankees. You can’t get much higher than that as a rookie that debuted in September.

And with the epic high comes the heartbreaking low. A low that would become the moment that our hero will be most remembered for by fans.

Our guy is standing on first base and teammate Todd Zeile launches one. It looks like a sure home run. He begins trotting around the bases before the screaming and yelling of the fans and coaches alert him that the ball never made it out of the yard. He tries to make up for time by breaking into a sprint, but by this time, the Yankees have a play at the plate and he is thrown out on what should have been an easy run for the Mets. A heartbreaking low.

How does anyone, let alone a kid from a Dominican village, get over letting down his teammates and fans one of the biggest cities in the world and on the largest stage there is for the game? I can’t imagine. He would play in five World Series games that year going 2-17 before having to sit and watch the Yankees celebrate their World Series title.

Maybe New York City was too much for him. Another new language, new teammates, big expectations, etc…it would be hell on anyone. But he didn’t give up. He started 2001 back in Norfolk. Before long, he was back in The Big Apple and would play in 372 games with the Mets up through 2003 hitting .276 with 18 homers and 114 RBI. But as he seemed to be adjusting, he would be traded in 2004 to the Chicago White Sox and a smaller bench role.

It would begin a new part of his life where you can imagine that when he woke up each day, it may have taken a while to figure out where he was. In 2004 and 2005, he played sparingly for the Sox, but was a part of their 2005 World Series championship team, despite only getting one at bat in the Series. In 2006, the Reds would offer him a minor league contract that he would take. Two months later, he would be traded to St. Louis and assigned to their minor league team. Finally, on June 2, 2006, he was given another chance and brought back to the big leagues. At 31 years old, this might be his last chance.

Stepping into the box, several things must have been going through his head. Sadly, what he should have been worried about was what was heading toward his head. In his first at bat back up in the show, he was hit in the head by a pitch. It didn’t keep him down and he would split time between the Cards and AAA Memphis Redbirds before being released in August.

Then the Tigers came calling. Our guy was sent to the Toledo Mud Hens and started hitting again. He would make the AAA All-Star team and be the MVP of the game going 3-4 with 2 RBI. The Tigers would call him up in July after he was leading the International League in hits, runs, doubles, and being second in batting average, while hitting 10 home runs in 91 games. In 29 games in Detroit, he would hit .389/.427/.533 and appeared to have found a home. The thing is, the Tigers weren’t interested in a part-time outfielder in his early 30’s. He would never play in the majors again.

He kept playing baseball, though. Our man was on the Caribbean Series winning team, the Licey Tigers in 2008. And when not playing at home in the Dominican Republic, he would stick around in Toledo before being released by the Tigers early in 2009. From there, he would head to the Mexican League and hit .323 in 77 games for Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz. Then, he would hit .338 in 21 games for the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Can-Am League in 2009.

And he is still playing. This year, he is with the AAA farm club of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Albuquerque Isotopes, where he is hitting .295 with 1 homer and 6 RBI in 16 games. At this point he could probably be hitting .400 and wouldn’t get called up. He is 35 years old. In baseball years, he might as well be 60. Why is he still playing?

It can’t be the money. It’s not the fame. It’s not the groupies. It’s not for any kind of legacy.

It’s because of the love of the game, the same love he had as a teenager back home. The sounds and smells of the park. The crack of the bat. The feeling of success when legging out a double off of some 20 year old prospect that thinks he owns the world. It’s for baseball, the only consistent thing in the man’s life.

Baseball is life to Timo Perez.

And that’s why Timo will always be one of my Tigers. He’s not a hired gun like Johnny Damon is or Gary Sheffield was. He’s not a prodigy that the game was made for like Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera. He’s just a guy that plays baseball because he loves it.

Thanks for playing, Timo. Thanks for the countless miles you’ve traveled by foot, bus, train, or airplane to play the game you love. I wish we would have had room for you on the ballclub.

But, no.

Don F-cking Kelly had to have a spot on the team. Weird game, this baseball. You have to be crazy to love it like Timo Perez does.

But he does. And guys like him are a big reason why I do, too.


greg said...

maybe you were satirizing, but that was actually a fantastic post.

Blake said...

awesome post. well done, sir.

Marty said...

Wow. Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

OldEnglish said...

I always rooted for Timo, and I didn't know some of his early history. Great work.

schwangfoo said...

You had me at Don Kelly......

Marty said...

Wow. Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

greg said...

maybe you were satirizing, but that was actually a fantastic post.