PORT CHARLOTTE — When the truth finally came out, when the lie he had been living with every day for nearly six years was revealed, Joel Peralta was not embarrassed. He was not angry. He was not upset.
Actually, he was relieved.
"It was more like liberating," he said. "It made me feel free of something I was doing wrong, maybe."
If Peralta hadn't done what he did, if he hadn't told the scout he was 16 instead of 20 and gotten the fake papers to back it up, he wouldn't have gotten his first shot, and definitely not his second, in pro ball. He wouldn't have made it to the majors with the Angels, and he wouldn't have pitched for the Royals, Rockies and Nationals. And he certainly wouldn't be standing in the Rays clubhouse as a key member of their bullpen with a $2.175 million contract.
"I wouldn't be here," he said. "I never would have been able to play again, that's one thing for sure."
And then his divorced parents wouldn't have the houses he built for them so they could live more middle class than poor in their native Dominican Republic, and his two older sisters and two older brothers (and a younger half-brother) wouldn't have the money he has given them, and he and ex-Ray Juan Cruz wouldn't have the plans to construct housing for indigent residents in their hometown of Bonao, and dozens of young Latin players across baseball wouldn't have the guidance and mentorship he has provided.
"I don't want to say it was 'normal,' but everybody was doing it," he said. "We had to."
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Peralta is 35 now — which he swears to, having had his age and identify verified in one of MLB's new checkup investigations this winter — with the benefit of perspective of seeing how the system is designed to operate.
But in the summer of 1996, when he was a 20-year-old chasing a dream that seemed to pass him by, he was focused on doing whatever necessary to get a chance at pro ball. Even more so a couple years later as he sought to reach even further, trying, after being released after two years as an infielder in Oakland's Dominican program, to get back into pro ball as a pitcher, with only a few months experience on the mound.
"It's just that the system used to be so hard for the Dominican players to sign," he said. "Not before me, not after me, I've never seen a 22-year-old pitcher like me sign — a released player like I was, being 22, throwing 88-89 miles an hour, there was no chance.
"The only way that I could make it happen was if I lied about my age."
The details, by coincidence or convenience, have grown a bit fuzzy. Peralta says he got put in touch with some "guys" who created a fake birth certificate for him and didn't charge that much. To keep it simple, he used his real month and date — March 23 — but listed 1980 rather than 1976.
With top international prospects signed at 16, and U.S.-born college players getting chances into their early 20s, Peralta said older Dominicans had to resort to such creative methods — and often at the urging of scouts, who want to boost their own resumes.
"It was the only way we could come over here and make a living," he said.
Initially, his deceit didn't mean much. He got $3,500 for signing with the A's and never made it off the island as an infielder, released just before what would have been his second summer season. When the Angels gave him the second chance as a pitcher — after the serendipity of taking the mound for the final two innings of a town-league game and impressing enough that his coach and friend began tutoring him and pushed him to a tryout — there was no signing bonus, and another hot summer playing in the Dominican.
He got his first plane ticket the next summer — to Butte, Mont., of all places — and pitched his way into the Angels' plans with a solid 2001 season at Class A Cedar Rapids (Iowa).
That offseason, with concern levels heightened post-9/11 and the Danny Almonte Little League age scandal fresh, the U.S. government became more vigilant in verifying documentation. Baseball officials, who for years accepted such age discrepancies as part of the game with a wink and a laugh, also became more serious and have continued to increase efforts.
Peralta was among dozens of players — including then-Devil Rays Jesus Colome and Esteban Yan — outed in March 2002, a list of players with adjusted ages that eventually exceeded 100.
Now rather than being a prospect moving from Class A to Double A at 22, which already was a little old, Peralta was suddenly 26. "I got four birthday cakes in the same day," he joked.
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The Angels — like the Devil Rays and other teams did with their suddenly more "mature" players — didn't hold it against Peralta.
"He wasn't the only guy," former Angels GM Bill Stoneman said. "We didn't like it, we weren't happy guys were doing it, but we were going to make our judgment on the player based on his performance."
Peralta impressed with what he did and how he did it, which also factored in. "He was a competitive guy," Stoneman said. "It takes a certain skill set to compete in the big leagues, and it also takes something inside your head, and he had that. So we said, look, that's what's going to determine if he has a big-league career, not that we know he's 4 years older — though maybe his career will be a little bit shorter."
Peralta acknowledged he has much to be thankful for: The Angels giving him the second (and third) chance. Buddy Fausto "Chiqui" Mejia pulling him "from the trash" and pushing him into trying pitching. Not giving up baseball to get "a regular job" like joining his brothers in a factory after the A's released him.
And, more than anything, deciding to tell that little lie.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]