Perez, now 22, will fly to Puerto Rico with the Dominican team to play in the opening round of the World Baseball Classic on Thursday, having been added to the roster this weekend. The speedy 6-foot outfielder is on the Nationals’ roster and in big league camp. He made his major league debut last September, earning a call-up from Class AAA Syracuse after taking the final needed steps on the field and off the field to learn English.
Perez’s story isn’t unique. At the start of last season, players born in Latin American countries made up about 46 percent of the minor leagues and just less than 24 percent of the major leagues. They sign as teenagers in their native countries, develop in academies and come to the United States with little command of English and culture.
“Eury had some growing pains but, man, what an athlete,” said Class AA Harrisburg Manager Matt LeCroy, who has known and coached Perez since 2009. “He’s turned the corner.”
The Nationals signed Perez at 17 in 2007 for $25,000. He was a skinny, raw but athletic kid from a neighborhood in the capital, Santo Domingo. He learned baseball from his uncles and loved it. His mother thought Perez, one of four children, would become a photographer like his father.
Perez, though, stuck with baseball and rose through the minor league ranks with torrid hitting.
He hit .381 in 2009 in the Gulf Coast League. The following season, he earned a promotion to Class A Hagerstown and stole 64 bases.
But in order to tell him how to tweak his hitting, read pitchers and improve his base running, LeCroy had to use bilingual players.
“That’s tough because you want to have that bond with him, one-on-one, without having to bring somebody else into it,” LeCroy said. “But that’s the only way we could do it, through other players.”
When he reached Class A Potomac in 2011 at 21, Perez admits he was scared. Already a reserved person, he spent time mostly with fellow Latin players. He lived in Woodbridge with a host family who knew a little Spanish but forced him to speak English. He had little grasp of American movies, music or food. He called his mother, Berquis, daily.
“The biggest fear of the Latinos is that you’re embarrassed when speaking English and you say something you didn’t mean to,” said catcher Carlos Maldonado, 34, a native of Venezuela who learned the language playing in the U.S. and was Perez’s teammate in Syracuse last season. “You don’t want to make a mistake in another language because you don’t know how the other person is going to take it.”