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Rays' Joel Peralta happy to help as mentor

PORT CHARLOTTE — Why, you ask, would Joel Peralta spend nearly every offseason afternoon at the La Silvia fields working for hours with dozens of Dominican kids and aspiring pros?

Why, you ask, would he so regularly counsel young Rays players, sharing lessons about baseball and life?

Why, you ask, would he hang around after his own spring work is done to watch some Dominican minor-leaguers practice, offering advice and moral support?

Why would he give so much time, knowledge and at times money? Why would he care so passionately? Why would he do so much for so many others?

Peralta replies by asking a better question:

"Why not?"

"Those are my words — 'Why not?' " he said. "If you can help somebody to get better, why not? It's not going to hurt you. Why wouldn't you do something like that?"

As valuable as Peralta has been for the Rays as one of the game's top setup men the past three seasons, his impact spreads far beyond the mound.

"He's an invaluable piece of what we do around here," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's a perfect fit because it's never about him, it's about everybody else. He's altruistic, that's what describes him. … That's what sets him apart. And I think a lot of it is rooted in how he came up."

Peralta, 38, said his benevolence is exactly that, a product of coming from modest means in the Dominican Republic to the United States and working through the minor leagues without anyone helping him.

"I didn't have anybody to tell me how things work besides the coaches, and what they told me was their job," he said. "Nobody came to me as a friend. I didn't have any players coming to me and telling me, 'Hey, if you do this better, if you throw this way, if you do this mechanically, if you get tougher' … Nothing."

So basically, he wants to prevent others from ever feeling that way, knowing how many talented young players never make it off the island or get cut loose from the low minors for not doing things the right way, not working hard enough, not knowing any better.

"I've seen that so many times," Peralta said. "And I say to myself, 'If I can help the kids, why not?' "

In the Dominican, that means talking to the kids each weekday afternoon at buddy Chiqui Mejia's academy in their hometown of Bonao, providing equipment and offering pitching instruction but more than anything emphasizing the mental requirements of the pro game.

Mejia says in Spanish that the advice is always well-received, as the kids all look up to Peralta because of what he has done and how he has done it and aspire to "seguir su buen camino" — to "follow his good road." Some young pros do, too, as Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances spent January there and came away impressed: "It was great just to pick his brain. He's down to earth, and he loves helping."

In the States, Peralta does so in different ways — serving as clubhouse liaison, instructor, interpreter, adviser, older brother or father figure, providing equipment, food, transportation, even housing.

Sometimes it's formal, such as the other day when the Rays had him speak to a group of Spanish-speaking minor-leaguers about work ethic. Sometimes it's convenient, such as inviting a few minor-leaguers in camp to live with him during the spring, taking care of their food, and driving them to and from the complex. Sometimes it's casual, huddling to offer encouragement or advice, answer a question or help a player sort through a baseball or personal issue.

"I see Peralta as my baseball dad," lefty prospect Enny Romero said.

Reliever Juan Sandoval was the direct beneficiary last offseason, as Peralta took the extraordinary step of calling Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman to push for his signing, even more extreme since Sandoval had been out of organized ball for two years — and was blind in one eye.

"He's that kind of guy," said Sandoval, who re-signed after a solid minor-league season. "He believes in a lot of people. He believes everybody around him can be better."

Peralta laughs now, saying it was "probably one of the craziest things" he has done, but it was another example of what he'll do to help. (And an illustration of the comfort he has with his bosses, as Peralta regularly jokes that Friedman is "the dumbest GM in the game" for re-signing him to a two-year, $6 million contract with three one-year options.)

Less entertaining but equally important, Peralta assisted shortstop Yunel Escobar, who came with a controversial past, in getting comfortable in the Rays' environment; instructed pitcher Roberto Hernandez to apologize and address the media after skipping out the night before following a tough loss; and provided daily wingman duties to enigmatic teammates such as reliever Fernando Rodney.

Peralta doesn't limit himself to helping only Spanish-speaking players, joking about making relievers such as Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke honorary Latinos. His ability to speak such good English — self-taught after feeling frustrated and "embarrassed" during his first season in the States — makes him one of the most popular and gregarious players in the clubhouse.

More personal, Peralta has bought houses for his mother and father — long divorced — and provides financial assistance to other members of the family, which includes two sisters (teachers) and three brothers (one an engineer); plus two kids, a 14-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, who live with their mothers; and his wife, Rosi.

Peralta insists there are times when he actually will say no, especially if he feels he's being taken advantage of. But for the most part, he truly is here to help.

"It's like if you see a lady crossing the street, a really old lady," he said. "You're just not going to walk by without helping her. Maybe people do. But if you can help, why not?"

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Spring training today

Rays at Yankees

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Other area teams

• Blue Jays at Astros, 1:05, Kissimmee

• Phillies at Twins, 1:05, Fort Myers

Rays' Joel Peralta happy to help as mentor 03/08/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2014 11:01pm]
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