VIERA, Fla. — The first time Eury Perez stepped foot outside his native Dominican Republic was in 2008. He was 18 and spoke no English — not even “Hello” or “How are you?” He carried one suitcase with his clothes. He was headed to Florida alone to play on the Washington Nationals’ team in the instructional league.
As he boarded a plane for the first time in his life, he was emotional. “I was really scared and it felt strange,” he said, “like I was going to outer space.”
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.”
Perez hit .283 in Potomac, stole 45 bases and made only four errors in 112 games in center field. His English improved but he still felt like he was behind.
“This was missing, having more communication with managers and other players,” Perez said in Spanish, still the language he feels most comfortable using in lengthier interviews. “You need to talk. That’s why I wasn’t advancing. You need the language.”
The Nationals used to employ tutors to teach newly arrived players from Latin America, like Perez, in the instructional and Gulf Coast leagues. But more than a year ago, they began using Rosetta Stone. Perez, who started those online courses two years ago, said they helped and he still does it weekly. He also said he is reading English now.
In Class AA Harrisburg last season, the Nationals built a daily schedule for Perez from the beginning of the day to the end. He was talented but, at times, he got too comfortable in his performance and loafed. He was once put ninth in the batting order in Potomac for not hustling. Perez took to the new routine and showed up to the field early. The same continued when he finally earned a call-up to Syracuse. He had to be the first one on and off the field every inning.
“He made a dramatic change,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ director of player development. “He made himself a player on the field that you couldn’t take your eyes off.”
It wasn’t until he reached Syracuse that Perez felt completely comfortable, with the language and on the field. “I was more confident,” he said. He stole 160 bases in 203 tries over the past three seasons.
In Syracuse, Manager Tony Beasley and director of communications Jason Benetti devised a plan to help Perez feel less sheepish about using his English in public. Before batting practice, they staged mock press conferences. Perez sat before a video camera and Benetti asked the questions. They then critiqued the footage with Perez. “You could see the progress from the first one on,” Beasley said.
In spring training, Nationals officials have been impressed with Perez’s English and development. He is destined to start the season in Syracuse but the team believes he still has a higher ceiling on the field.
In the clubhouse, Perez regularly fires off English at his teammates. “Wassup Mattheus!” he said to reliever Ryan Mattheus as he walked by. Beasley beamed recently one day during a game when Perez walked by him in the dugout and said, “Okay, Beas, I got you.”
Perez buys DVDs of American movies and devours them, and he likes religious-themed music in English. He still does the Rosetta Stone courses weekly.
Last September, while he was with the Nationals as a call-up, Perez’s mother made her first trip to Washington to see him play. She hopes to visit this season, too. She has always been proud of her only son, but she sat speechless in the stands when she saw him standing on the field before the game in his Nationals uniform.
“I couldn’t talk,” she said. “I was mute. I was so happy.”