My first encounter with Yanio Perez was in Columbia, S.C. I went there in early April to interview Fireflies manager Jose Leger about ex-football player Tim Tebow, who plays at Columbia. I arrived early and had a chance to catch some of the Crawdads batting practice and I passed this well-built, I mean solidly-build, hunk of a human being. I remember saying, “Now that’s a football player”
Since the Crawdads hadn’t had a home game to that point, the players and names were still unfamiliar to me, so I made a mental note of the number: 28. When I got to the press box, I looked it up. The name: Yanio Perez.
He’s listed at 6-2, 205, but I’m guessing he’s a little heavier than that. Had circumstances been different for his life, I could imagine him as a linebacker. He has a thick neck, battleship arms and the thighs of a weightlifter.
Looking back in my mind’s eye, the Crawdads player I could best compare him to, as far as the build, is former outfielder Jordan Akins. He doesn’t have Akins speed, but as a baseball player to this point, he is further along.
Perez had a quick start to the season, then slow dropped to a .245/.365/.377 slash by April 20. At that time, the whole club had struggled, some of it due to very little field time because of an unusually rainy period. But for Perez adjustments had to make. He had become jumpy in hitters counts, swinging through fastballs that seemed off the plate.
“For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter,” said Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook at the time. “He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.”
Finally, Perez figured out how pitchers were trying to get him out and he had a homestand to remember at the end of April. Over the final eight games of the month, he went 16-for-28 with five homers, a double, four walks, eight runs scored and 15 RBI. He ended the month at .358/.453/.642. Perez was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week and the Texas Rangers tabbed him as their minor league player of the month.
“What you saw in the Columbia series,” said Hook, “And kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.”
Perez continued to put up good numbers and was in the top-five in the SAL in all three slash categories. (.322/.392/.533). He earned a SAL all-star selection, but a well-earned promotion to high-A Down East has changed those plans.
As well as he’s played, there is a certain sadness that Perez acknowledges: he misses his family. While Perez was able to leave Cuba to come and play baseball in the states, his family is still on the island. He talks to his parents daily, but the 21-year-old hasn’t seen them in two years. He wants to succeed in order to help his family, but behind his infectious smile, the pain from separation is real.
I had a chance to speak with him late last week with the translation help of pitching coach Jose Jaimes. It’s not my best interview and I’ll admit my questions were not the most hard-hitting. We were all rushed for time and it’s hard to get too deep when over half of the 13-minute interview was spent in translation. But for the reader, I hope you get a sense about this kid.
How do you feel about making the all-star team?
Perez: I feel very happy, more because this is my first year in professional baseball and playing in this league. I feel very proud of what I accomplished.
Are you accomplishing this year what you had hoped to?
Perez: I didn’t have as my goal to make the all-star team. My goals were, number one, try to help the team as much as I can. I would like to hit .300 for the year, which I am doing and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.
You signed with the Rangers last October. Has it been a whirlwind getting to the states and then to play ball?
It has been a hurricane to adjust to everything I’ve gone through over the last year – leaving my family, coming here, going to Arizona. So, I’m still going through the process of transition.
What’s been the biggest adjustment personally coming to the states?
Perez: The biggest challenge for me is the language and being away from my family. I have my wife with me right now, but everybody else is away. That has been the biggest challenge, the language and the family.
What made you decide to leave Cuba to come to the states?
Perez: I played baseball for a while in Cuba, but I felt like coming over to the states I was going to be able to compete in a better environment and I am also able to help my family from here. That was the main reason I left Cuba.
Who did you grow watching Cuba?
Perez: I didn’t grow up watching a specific guy. The way that I learned how to play the game was more about thinking I’ve got to get better every single day. It’s easier in Cuba to watch Major League games, so I watched A-Rod and guys like that and names that everybody in Cuba knows. But for the most part, I was just trying to do better every single day with training and listening to coaches.
Who is your favorite player?
Perez: Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout
What do you like about them?
Perez: About Puig, I like the way that he hits. He’s pretty aggressive with the bat. About Trout, I like the way that he plays the game. He’s very professional and I like the way that he looks on the field.
Have you had a chance to meet any of the players that you watched in Cuba?
Perez: I met with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez in spring training, I knew them from Cuba. Those where guys that were famous on the island.
What was it like to meet Beltre?
Perez: It was very exciting meet a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.
You talk about missing your family. Do you get to talk with them very much?
Perez: Yes. I talk to them every day. It helps having a cell phone and the apps to make it easier to communicate. But still, I miss them a lot because it’s been two years since I left the country.
Is there a time you think your parents will get to see you play?
Perez: I don’t know. We’re working on that.
Is it easier now for Cubans to come here and play baseball than in the past?
Perez: It’s easier right now than in the past.
What’s the biggest difference playing baseball here than in Cuba?
Perez: The biggest difference is that the games here are faster. The pitchers here throw harder than most of the Cuban pitchers.
What do you mean about the game being faster?
Perez: The runners are way faster, but you have to more to think about and more plays you have to be aware of.
You hear about baseball in the Latin countries being a party atmosphere. Is it too quiet here?
Perez: I don’t need that. I actually like the people here in this country that actually come to watch the game and enjoy it. With that said, I do miss playing in front of my people, but the craziness and all that, I don’t miss that at all.
What is the biggest thing you are working on for the rest of the year?
Perez: I’d like to be faster and keep working on my hitting. That’s something I’m working on, to be consistent every day.
Is first base new to you?
Perez: I had first base two times before coming here.
First base, third base, outfield before coming here?
Perez: I’ve played almost every position since I was a little kid. I think it’s more valuable to be able to play a lot of positions.
When you get a call to go the major leagues, what do you think your reaction will be?
Perez: I’m going to be really happy, but in my mind I know I will have to work hard to stay there as long as I can. That’s my goal.