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Tampa Bay's Fernando Perez: Baseball's Unlikely Poet

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I tuned in to Tuesday night's Tampa Bay Rays/Boston Red Sox game hoping to watch Sox pitcher Josh Beckett carry my fantasy baseball team into the league semifinals. But Beckett was shaky, and I had grumpily turned off the game by the time Fernando Perez, a speedy outfielder called up from the Ray's Triple-A affiliate, subbed in as a pinch runner. Like many, many other Rays players that night, he scored.

Two days later, I did notice Fernando Perez, and in a most unlikely place: this month's issue of Poetry Magazine. There was "Para Rumbiar," an essay by a bona fide major league baseball player. And in an era when professional athletes do most their writing on Twitter (if you can even call that writing), his prose is strikingly good:

I write from Caracas, the murder capital of the world, where I've been employed by the Leones to score runs and prevent balls from falling in the outfield. At the ankles of the Ávila Mountain amongst a patch of dusky high-rises, the downtown grounds of el Estadio Universitario packed beyond capacity are ripe for a full-bodied poem. A mere pitching change is an occasion "para rumbiar," and the purse-lipped riot squad is always on the move with their spanking machetes swinging from their hips. The game isn't paced necessarily by innings or score. It's marked by the pulsating bass drums of the samba band that trail bright, scantily-clad, head-dressed goddesses strutting about the mezzanine. The young fireworks crew stand mere feet from flares that don't always set out vertically, sometimes landing in the outfield still aflame. "The wave" includes heaving drinks into the sky.

I'm still not sure if he can hit a curve ball, but Fernando Perez can write. This isn't surprising considering that he studied creative writing at Columbia University, which boasts one of the top writing programs in the country. During the Ray's playoff run last year--for which he was also called up as a speedy substitute--Perez told a local reporter that the poets John Ashbery and Robert Creeley were helping to keep him going. The reporter didn't ask why (we can forgive him), but if he had, Perez might have explained how "The thick wilderness of, say, late Ashbery, can wrangle with the narrowness of competition." That's from his essay. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it makes me a little giddy.

I've since discovered that the Poetry credit isn't Perez's first significant publication. In April of this year, he blogged about Rays fans for the New York Times. This included a lyrical description of life on the disabled list.

I specialize in ego stroking, hand jives, and telekinetically orchestrating rallies with rally M&Ms and other proven methods. I am almost famous, witnessing the raising of a barn and the prime of heroes.

Perez was also one of a group of players to write an online journal for MLB.com recording his minor league baseball experience. While other players filled their journals by rating hot wings at the local Applebees, Perez's entries were often philosophical. Writing about life on the road, he quoted Mark Twain,

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

It's true that there is more poetry in baseball than any of the other major American sports, and there are surely more baseball essays in Perez's future. But he prefers to keep the two aspects of his life separate:

I'm in love with baseball, but eventually my prime will end, and she'll slowly break my heart...I turn to poetry because it is less susceptible to circumstance. I'm not especially touched when a poet deals with a ball game; I'm not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other. Right now I need them apart, right now I'm after displacement, contrast.

He's certainly achieved it.

Perez is currently the 1238th ranked player in my fantasy baseball league, but I'm thinking of picking him up anyway.