When the Indy originally solicited Durham Bulls outfielder Fernando Perez to write something about a Bull's life in Durham, he said he was too busy. That seemed at first like an excuse, but in fact, as it turns out, Bulls don't have much of a life in Durham, nor time to write about it.
Ballplayers tend to keep very different hours from the rest of us: They roll out of bed quite late, go out for some breakfast at lunchtime and then arrive at the ballpark in the mid-afternoon for practice. As far as Durham is concerned, notes the 27-year-old Perez, visiting ballplayers really like the trips here: Teams stay at the downtown Marriott, which gives them many eating options and the ability to walk to the ballpark. "This is a place where [visiting players] get people to visit them," Perez says. "It's a pretty nice setup."
Perez is of Cuban descent, but he's American and grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, where he went to a private high school before attending Columbia University (he's one of just a handful of Ivy Leaguers in baseball). He moves freely and easily between the white, black and Latino players in the Bulls clubhouse (he speaks Spanish fluently) but seems something of an outlier to all. He is a gifted athlete—blazingly fast, he was a child soccer prodigy before he found baseball—yet he speaks more passionately of poetry than he does about the sport he now plays professionally. Perez has in fact gained a sort of cult notoriety as that baseball player who writes poetry.
The lunching Perez, unlike the ballplayer, isn't fast at all. He carefully considers the menu and sometimes has trouble deciding what he wants—most athletes don't seem to care, as long as it's filling—and has a tendency to pick at his food. Each time we went out, it took him more than an hour to eat his modest portion. Perez's speech, too, is slow. He talks the way a poet thinks: self-aware, as though listening to his words as he utters them, revising them, laboring to articulate his ideas.
Perez has had to labor on the field this year, too, the worst of his seven-year pro career—largely the continuing result of injuries he sustained last season. He badly dislocated his wrist in spring training of 2009 and missed several months; last October, he had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Lately, his shoulder has been hurting again: a few days after our interviews, Perez went on the disabled list.
Perez offered to meet the Indy for a few lunches; he chose the three spots from a roster of places he likes, all located between the house he rents in Walltown and Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Lunch No. 1: The Federal
Perez seems to decide on the chicken and waffles, but the changes his mind at the last second and orders grilled beef tenderloin over an Asian stir-fry with black rice. He drinks coffee and water.
Independent: It seems like a lot of sports is just trying not to get hurt.
Fernando Perez: Also finding a way to make it seem like you're not just trying not to get hurt. [laughter.] You have that young kid in you, and that is like, "Run through a wall, run so hard all the time." That bit me in the ass. I always played really hard and never thought about anything.
Baseball accelerates your aging. I feel very different at 27 than I did at 22. At 22, you can show up to the field and pretty much just start playing—immediately. Now, you see—when you're playing with older guys in Triple-A and the big leagues—you see that there's a long process of trying to prime your body to be able to do anything, all these things that are degenerative to your body. The torque of just taking a swing. If I just rolled in today and just took a swing, I'd feel it in like six different places.
It's always your fault when you get hurt. My wrist injury [the severe dislocation in 2009], it's such an annoying sequence of events that brings me to it. The play right before it was the first play of the game. This guy hits a towering fly ball over my head. I wasn't ready to make a Willie Mays catch on the first play of the game. I didn't make a play. I went back on the ball, I just missed it. It wasn't an error or anything, but it was a play that would have been cooler to make, because I was trying to make the [major-league] team. I should have run all the way back.
After that play, I had a chip on my shoulder about the play. And then the very next play was a pop-up, but it looks like it's headed all the way to the wall. This one was in that triangle between second base, the right fielder and myself [in center field]. The ball was a hit the whole way. And the ball was out of my reach. I was like, I really wanna make this play, 'cause I just messed up that last one, and I'm trying to, you know, be awesome, as opposed to just being OK. I reached too far. I actually caught the ball. But by the time I stood up, my wrist was already dislocated, it was just hanging there, so the ball rolled out of my glove. I screwed that up.
When my editor and I originally talked about this, we wanted to ask you, "What do ballplayers do when they're not playing baseball?" But you probably don't really have a lot of extra time.
It seemed like there was more downtime when I first began. There was literally less going on. The ballparks [in Class A] are not as cozy; guys don't spend as much time there as [in Triple-A]. I don't think we went to the field as early in A-ball. There's nothing to do there. As you get older, it's more engaging. For me, I'm always sort of amazed by how I always think there's gonna be more time.
I would think that after being at the ballpark from 3 until 11, the last thing you want to do is wake up the next morning and do yoga or something else having to do with getting ready for another game.
How intense about the thing are you choosing to be? Sometimes, when everything is going really, really well, it seems easiest at 10 a.m. to be doing something to prepare yourself for the game at 7. What is important? For me, I think I try to strike some sort of balance; but I find a lot of the time I like to be sometimes as far away [from baseball] as possible.
Do you have obligations to do those community...
Usually they are voluntary, like a visit to some hospital, you volunteer for it. Often they're things to your benefit, like if you show up you get like a hundred bucks to sign autographs.
I was talking to [Bulls manager] Charlie [Montoyo] after the game last night. I guess there's this [baseball] camp that's been going on, and he's at the camp at nine in the morning. And I didn't say this, but I was like, "Let me get this straight: You have to manage a baseball team and run a fucking camp?" He had to take a nap before the game!
He gets paid for that, though. Nobody wants to say it, but that's what everybody's after, 'cause nobody would do this for free this many times a week. Maybe twice; I don't know what's the appropriate number of times that I would do it for free. That's the underlying thing. It doesn't make it into the papers because it's a very unsexy thing to talk about.
Would you rather I leave that off the record?
No. I don't care.
You've got to make your money while you can, because as soon as you can't, say, throw a curveball anymore...
You're totally unskilled otherwise. The skill is so narrow, it's played at such a high level. All you have to is just work on your skill; otherwise you're kind of like an ape. There's nothing to do but to cultivate this skill for which there is an amazingly high demand.
You're gifted with a lot of speed.
Yeah. An inalienable tool, which many guys have.
Do you do things to work on your speed?
I just do things to not deplete it, really. I do things to help myself be able to do the thing that I know how to do. There goes the rabbit, and there I go chasing it, and I know how to it. I'm trying to run as fast as possible all the time. I do things before the game so that, when I do that, I don't hurt myself. When I was in the playoffs for Tampa Bay [in 2008; Perez was often called on in the late innings as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement], from the sixth inning on, there was an exercise bike and I was just riding the bike, waiting for someone to say, "Go do this, now." I would imagine that's something that gets harder the older that you are and the less vital the task seems. Like, if it's a Tuesday night and it's a 7-1 game and you're going in to play left field, now this is gonna sound terrible, but If you've played in winter ball when there's like 40,000 people screaming all over the place, or you've played in the World Series, there's a chance that your body might not think that this situation is as important as those other ones. Again, these are those things that people hate to talk about. It's almost, like, blasphemous. Some of those playoff games, the adrenaline that was running through my veins, there was nothing that I could have done to get myself any more prepared to do what I had to do.
Why'd you choose the beef instead of the chicken and waffles?
I don't know.
Do you like it?
No, it's not that good. It's okay.
Stir-fry for breakfast is weird.
I had some yogurt for breakfast.
I go into the clubhouse and I watch what you guys are eating. [There is always a postgame buffet, which the players pay for out of their clubhouse dues.] Big things of fried stuff and starch. You're an athlete, your job is take care of your body. That [food] can't be useful.
And soda. So much soda. Why is there a soda machine in the clubhouse? Soda? Really? In winter ball–I played in Mexico–all there is is beer and tacos. You hurt your leg? Here's a beer. Put a beer on it.
When did you last play in Mexico?
I played in Mexico in 2007.
If you're on the 40-man [the 40-man roster includes only the players who may be added to the active, 25-man major-league team], can you go down and play winter ball?
You can kind of do whatever you want. The only time you cannot play winter ball is if you are a huge star. Otherwise, they always want you to go play. They don't really know why they want you to go play. "They" has this idea that there's no such thing as putting more miles on your body. [Waitress tries to clear food.] I'm gonna just eat a little more and then I'll be good. [Resumes:] The reason why they want guys to go down there is there's always a chance that you could go down there and then become an even more attractive prospect, essentially to other teams. Sometimes there's something that you're going to work on: For me, winter ball made more sense because I'd been learning how to hit left-handed [Perez is a natural right-hander who became a switch-hitter in 2006]. I was just getting at-bats. Most guys go down there just to make money because you can make much more money. [He names a Bulls player] is trying to get a job down there right now. It pays much better than Triple-A. The Triple-A minimum is $2,300 [per month]. You can go down there [to Mexico] and make $10,000 tax-free, per month. And if you have a good game, there's some twenties on your chair.
Some guys, there's some external pressure to go play winter ball to prove what kind of player you are. When they talk about the hostile environment... When you're playing in Venezuela, in the Magallanes-Caracas games, it's like a nationally televised event. The stadium's packed, it's an absolute zoo. It's the craziest sporting event I've ever been to. The World Series had nothing on this. They care more.
When I was in Mexico, we lost like ten games in a row or something. We were in danger of being the worst team ever in Mexico. The guys wouldn't go out in public because they were in fear that they would get attacked. Every day that we went to the ballpark, we would have a meeting with a bishop or some sort of minister. The batboys were sprinkling the bats with holy water, and your gloves with holy water, and you with holy water when you'd go up to bat.
I remember catching the last out in this place called Barquisimeto (in Venezuela), and watching rocks go by our heads—they were throwing rocks, pieces of ice. Crazy, crazy, crazy. It's kind of like a soccer game, a big carnival, nervous energy. The applause isn't necessarily keyed by the game. It's kind of like a constant buzz. I'm sure I'll play winter ball again. I really loved it. It's looser right up until the game, but when the game begins, it is like another world. The game would go on for four hours sometimes: just micromanaging pitching moves, everybody takes so long to get in the [batter's] box, everybody hears their [walk-up music]. It's such a scene, it's awesome. The adrenaline, I need that as much as possible. I find that I respond best to that. I played a whole year where we regularly had less than 100 fans, in Southwest Michigan [the Rays used to have a Class A team in Battle Creek]. It's a Friday night, and there's like 35 people there.
Are the players really aware of the fans?
Actually, we are. It's important: that buzz. I think about it a lot in terms of just pure entertainment; we're obviously a bunch of showmen. The more people there are, the easier it is to do everything. It's often a good thing to have that kind of pressure. You can have a little impression that: Does it really matter what happens in this at-bat? They're not all important. Hit a home run, strike out, doesn't matter. I get such a kick out of that in the dugout, when you see how indifferent everybody actually is. It's already 5-1. If a guy hits a single, nobody says anything. If a guy strikes out, no one says anything. You see somebody hit a home run, and the manager is just, like, writing something down. I loved that; I thought that was so funny and impressive when I was in the majors. [Tampa Bay Rays manager] Joe Maddon would say, "If he hits a two-run homer, you're gonna have to go in."
Without saying, "It would be cool if he hit a two-run homer!"
Exactly. And then it happens, and he's just like, "You ready?" Maddon is very calm. In the World Series, he said, "Alright, go run for Navi [Dioner Navarro, a slow-running catcher]. Um, try to steal second." Just like that. I think I asked, "Do you guys want me to steal?" [Deadpan.] "Yeah, you should try to steal."
It seems like people really like playing for Maddon.
He's really anti-old-school. Joe's thing is all about there are no rules. Winning is the only thing that's important. There's no wrong way to do things. "This is weird? Why are we doing this? This is different, so it must not be good." There's always somebody who's gonna hate what you're doing. There are people left over from the last generation. Sometimes, it's like, oh my god, we're stuck in the eighties. Strategy on the field, how to do things, what a ballplayer looks like, what he sounds like. I had [an administrator] get in my face about my longer hair when I first started playing: "If you show up like that, you're not gonna get a uniform."
The best sports advice I ever got is from Maddon. He said you have to be trying to succeed as opposed to trying not to fuck up. I said Joe, that's the story of my life.
Lunch No. 2: Parker & Otis
Perez orders the curried chicken sandwich and a bowl of gazpacho, accompanied by a Naked brand juice drink and, later, a cup of black tea.
How's the soup?
Good. Much more refreshing than gazpacho usually is.
Funny you've gone to cold soup two times in a row. [Perez previously ordered the chilled watermelon soup at Dos Perros.] Do you always get the curried chicken?
Yeah, I don't think I've had anything else here.
Do you think that your numbers are down [Perez is having the worst season of his seven-year career] just because you're not comfortable swinging [due to the shoulder surgery]? It looks like your strike zone discipline is not as good this year as last year.
It's a tough question to answer. I have not done anything well this year. I have been much less resilient. I knew that it was gonna be tough at the beginning of the season. I feel like I could have done much, much better with what I have. And I just didn't. I'd be swinging and then I'd start worrying about another thing. I hate to be wishy-washy like I always am—-It's really black and white. I go to the cage with myself all the time, I see what I do: Some days I've got it, some days I don't have it. I've been so scattered mentally as a result, perhaps. There's nothing going on in my life any different from past years. It's just been very tough for me to focus. That's the thing that's been very troublesome. I should have done a lot better. I would like to attribute my lack of focus to other new things I'm thinking about during games—my shoulder, my wrist. Even in the outfield, I didn't play very well, and that sucks. I think I will be able to answer that question soon. I sincerely felt all year kind of crazy, like I was always thinking the wrong thing. A lot of times, I was not interested in swinging and I knew it, and I couldn't shake it from the on-deck circle. I'd be walking up [to the plate] thinking, "I'm probably gonna take two strikes."
The whole thing about hitting is not freaking out, not assuming, and we're talking not assuming in like four-tenths of a second. I felt like an A-ball player in Triple-A this year. I was almost consistently not doing the things that I was supposed to do. There are things that you have to do [in order] to hit. It was difficult for me to get into that locked-in consistency, where you're seeing everything and you're batting instead of hitting. I was kind of like a caveman all year. There was a while this season when I felt really good, and that was actually when I started going south [after a strong April]. I was still taking Celebrex then. [Celebrex is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug with potentially dangerous side-effects; its cousin, Vioxx, was pulled from the market.] Without it last year, I don't know how I would have played at ll.
Are you taking anything now?
No, I'm not. I'm just not into doing it anymore. It's really not good for you, and if I'm gonna be playing for a long time, I might as well learn how to not take it right now.
It's funny: You're coming off of this big-time physical setback with your shoulder, but it almost sounds like it's—
I felt that it was very much mental. I felt that I didn't have the control I usually have. I don't feel like I need help. I feel like I know what I need to do; I'm just not doing it. I need to get stronger. I know I'm harping on the mental aspect of it, but if I feel the way that I feel right now going into next season, something will have to give. It's just not gonna work like this. I need to be stronger to be able to control the bat better. A lot of what I need is strength, physical stuff, and that, a lot of times, gives you all the confidence in the world.
Hearing what you're saying, it makes perfect sense why players are tempted to do steroids.
If this was the nineties, somebody would come up to me and say, "Here rub, some steroid cream on your wrist." I wouldn't feel [pain] at all. There's an obvious sense of entitlement: "So I'm down my luck, I'm a little bit injured; the job, the position that I have shouldn't just become available to everyone else: It's mine; I'm entitled to it; I'm going to do what I need to do to fill it again." That's where you have steroids. "My power numbers are down; I need to take something; if I get caught, I get caught."
Lunch No. 3: Dos Perros
Perez orders a chilled watermelon soup special (the waitress recommended it and told him that the color was the best thing about it) and a shrimp burrito. Coffee again, which he drinks plenty of during the 90-minute lunch.
[re: soup, crunching on something] It's got ice in it. This is good. It's really good. It's excellent.
It's the color of Pepto-Bismol.
I know. She said the color was the best part.
Obviously, you're a reader and a writer. Is that something you've always been doing?
I've never been a scholarly reader. Playing baseball has made [reading] more attractive to me. I kind of get this question a lot. Why did you start writing?
Before I started writing plays, I had started out as an actor. But it turned out I was a bad actor.
I was in a play with a guy that looked exactly like you. It was Six Degrees of Separation [by John Guare].
Did you do other acting in high school?
I did a musical.
A Chorus Line.
Who'd you play? [pause; Perez can't remember the character's name.] Richie?
Yeah. The black guy. [laughter.] I played the black guy. But I didn't do [theater] for very long. I considered doing it in college, but my coach said, listen, you're gonna gain 15 pounds and you're gonna be the Ivy League Player of the Year. I don't think [acting] is gonna work for you. There was a guy [on the team] that did it, but he was kind of penalized for it by the coach.
That coach was a huge motivator. So he got me a lot stronger, and was in my ear about how possibly awesome I could be. I've never been self-confident—not problematically—so that's around the time when I knew [I would be a pro ball player].
It must be hard to manage the workload in college, when you're playing a sport.
Yeah, reading all this classic literature, hanging out in New York City. I was certainly not able to do great in school and also go to baseball practice and also have the sense that I was having fun. I wanted to do well; I just couldn't do it.
Columbia's core curriculum is so much classical literature. For me, those books have been studied for years and years and years. I wanted to move on to something more cutting-edge. It's almost like it's just done so that you can be more knowledgeable at cocktail parties. Why not just kind of move on into something more modern?
From all places [at Columbia], I was kind of looked at like a crazy person. I was sitting in the lunch room [after junior year] with this guy—he was trying to become a rapper—he was a guy that I saw occasionally. And we had our college talk. "Let's have lunch! So what are you gonna do [after school]?" "I'm a professional baseball player." I remember him saying, "You can do that? Why are you at Columbia?" "Yeah, I'm not coming back to school." [Perez returned later and got his degree during baseball's off-seasons.] It's just like, "No you're not, that's not allowed." I remember telling my mom, "Yeah, I'm gonna get drafted." She was like, "Yeah, right. You're gonna finish school."
You would think the parents would be like, my kid is gonna be the best. Especially when they're athletes.
The thing was that I played very serious soccer, almost at a child-star level, and it ended very abruptly with horrible mismanagement by parents and ridiculous politics that kids should never be exposed to. The team [the West End Warriors, later called Mercer United] was phenomenal, and the parents started scheming like this team was a spaceship that was gonna take us all to the promised land. So, all these changes ensued. We got this crazy new trainer. The parents were having secret meetings about ousting the coach. We were 15 years old. It got too serious too fast. Everybody quit. Nobody on that team plays soccer anymore. We should have had guys on the US national team. There was a guy on this team who should be the best player in the nation right now, and he doesn't even play soccer anymore. Five-time state champions, regional champions, probably the best youth team ever to come out of the area.
Soccer was my identity sport. I played baseball because I lived next door to a baseball field and my friends played baseball, and our parents liked it. I'm trying to think of what reasons I played baseball. All of our dads loved it, loved being there and facilitating the whole thing, being the third-base coach: it was this thing they could connect to. The thing about baseball is that I never loved it like I loved soccer. I just always thought baseball was hard. I like soccer: there was just this ball, and I could always go get it. We were talking about accountability, and the accountability [in baseball] was so dramatic for me. Soccer was always the thing that I did.
Even my freshman year, I had some issues; I think the [baseball] coach questioned my seriousness about what I was doing. I was just kind of there.
To a mild degree, you still seem vaguely the same way. You're good at [baseball], you're making a living at it, but I almost feel like, if it wasn't there, you'd be fine.
[after a pause] Yeah. Yeah. I probably would.
You could kind of take or leave it.
[pause] Yeah, could be. [pause]
Do you look forward to someday when your career is over?
Do you want to write more than you do?
Yeah, but part of the reason I've been so committed [to writing] is because there's been no external forces pulling on me to re-synthesize poetic ideas. Baseball is this perfectly fertile situation for poetry. Poetry is not like a machine built to do anything other than be itself. If I was not playing baseball, maybe I wouldn't even be writing poetry. I also don't think that just because I can hit a fastball, I should be allowed to publish a book of poems. You will never be able to take away from it the fact that I hit baseballs.
When you say fertile, is that because baseball is also not a machine?
No, I say that because I've got this job, I'm engaged, it's what I'm doing, I have no pressure to do anything. I find poems to be very... not lazy, but there's another word for it. There's no reason for me to take that into any other state than just the ideas. Since I have a job, I don't have any reason to make any of these things be some sort of sustenance for myself. I guess that's what it's about. If I didn't have a job, [poetry] might be something that I have to make fit into something.
Once that starts to happen, once you're trying to sell your poetry, that pressure builds around it.
More than it already does. There already is some pressure. But I've never had more pressure ensuing, and that's nice.
"A poem should not mean, but be." I think that's Archibald MacLeish [it's from his poem, "Ars Poetica"].
That [describes John ] Ashbery, certainly. I wrote about Ashbery in the offseason. I went to see him read at this little café. He just, like, gets out of a cab and walks in; and he gave me this hard look as he walked in the door. A month before, when players come out to the parking lot—I've done next to nothing in the major leagues but it's like a deal: "Hey Fernando!" Screaming. I was contrasting these things, seeing this poetic titan, like a Hank Aaron kind of a guy. [An interviewer] says to him, "What got you started writing poetry?" And Ashbery replies, "I thought, 'I could do that.'" So honest. "What were you thinking when you got that single when the bases were loaded?" In the instant, you're not thinking anything. It reminds me so much of them asking Ashbery why do you do this. This guy wanted this gorgeous explanation, and he got the truth.