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Perez looking to graduate to Majors

Perez looking to graduate to Majors

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Labeling Fernando Perez as the Rays' "erudite outfielder" sounds like stereotyping. Then again, how many players have majored in american cultural studies and creative writing at Columbia University en route to their professional baseball careers?

Ask Perez about the best book he's read recently and he'll tell you "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress," by Howard Zinn.

Zinn is "just a really interesting guy," Perez said. "He's sort of an activist, but he's also an academic. He's like the history teacher who became an academic, just a really interesting guy. I've read a lot of his essays and stuff."

Some of his latest readings include the collected works of American poet Robert Creeley and poet Lyn Hejinian's book "My Life." His favorite reading is Herman Hesse's 1927 novel "Steppenwolf."

No, Perez is not your typical ballplayer, or typical person you meet in any walk of life. Rays manager Joe Maddon called Perez a "really bright young man."

"He's very analytical in everything that he does," Maddon said.

While Perez doesn't back off from the academic kudos, he's more interested in accolades from being a ballplayer, because foremost, he wants to become a Major Leaguer. That's priority No. 1, which is a change of mind-set from when he first entered Columbia.

"I can't lie about that one, I went [to Columbia] to study," Perez said. "I went there to play baseball, too, but at that point, I was even looking at schools that didn't have baseball teams. That's what my priorities were at that point. All I really wanted to do was study. ... At that point, I wanted to go to school to go to school."

When Perez decided he wanted to play baseball, he decided on Columbia, which he said had a good coach in Mikio Aoki.

"Most of the coaches at schools like that are these old, archaic figures," Perez said. "But he was a young guy, very serious."

Once Perez entered the halls of academia and continued to succeed in baseball, he said his priorities changed.

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"To be perfectly honest, if I had an hour to study or an hour to hit, I'd probably hit," Perez said. "I understood that I was going to be [a professional baseball player] after about a year or so."

Most college campuses lend the regal treatment to athletes. At Columbia, Perez encountered an anti-jock sentiment and described an almost comical setting that saw him try to conceal from his professors that he was an athlete.

"It's just a climate where nobody cares about sports," Perez said. "I just think it's a silly attitude to have, because I've always had a very serious, academic, intellectual attitude. ... It's a little bit difficult. I found that very frustrating. I made sure to keep things separate.

"It's a weird divide. Some of the smartest guys I knew were these huge, dopey football players. They're like, 'I've got some time to change and get out of this outfit before my teachers can find out [I'm an athlete].' ... There's definitely this tension."

Recognizing he wanted to be a professional baseball player and being the smart guy he was, it dawned on Perez he might be gambling with his future by attending Columbia.

"After a year, I even considered going to Boston College, following my coach [who took the job at Boston College]," Perez said.

Instead, he stayed the course and graduated from Columbia. Today he is pleased with his accomplishments in the field of academia and he's happy to be working toward having a career in the Major Leagues.

The Rays drafted Perez in the seventh round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. The speedy outfielder has since progressed every year. In 498 Minor League games, he has a .290 average with 37 triples, 346 runs and 146 RBIs. Along the way he picked up switch-hitting.

"He's a good kid, extraordinarily bright," said Jim Hoff, the Rays' Minor League field coordinator. "Fernando is fine. His athleticism has come out so much the last three years.

"We were skeptical about changing him into a switch-hitter, but he wanted to do it. He's gotten better, he's gotten stronger. Look at his numbers the last two years and they've been extraordinary."

Perez hit .307 in 133 games at Class A Visalia in 2006 and followed up by hitting .308 at Double-A Montgomery in 2007 -- including a .423 on-base percentage. He is earmarked to be the center fielder at Triple-A Durham in 2008, just a whisper away from the Major Leagues.

On Perez's to-do list is to refine his bunting.

"It's extremely important," Hoff said. "Because it's an offensive weapon for him, it's a way for him to get on base. Also, it makes the infielders respect him and play him more shallow than ordinary. So now his ground balls become base hits and he really becomes a weapon again, because he's on base."

Hoff said Perez gets to first base from the left side on a bunt as fast as 3.48 seconds, when the average runner would cover the same distance in 3.8 seconds.

"He's made good progress," Hoff said. "I think he still realizes he has a few things to do, but boy, when he hits the ball now, it doesn't have to be a perfect bunt because he runs so fast.

"He takes a lot of pitches. He's a pain in the neck from the opposition's perspective, because they know if he gets on base, it's going to be trouble. He's special, he's really special. He and [Carl Crawford] are two of the fastest guys in baseball. To have them on the same team is going to be terrific."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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