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SWITCH HITTER GOES FROM BAT TO QUILL

The Tampa Bay Rays' Fernando Perez finds inspiration inside what many call the most poetic sport there is.

There's a piece in this month's Poetry magazine written by Tampa Bay Ray Fernando Perez.

He was approached one afternoon this month by his locker in the team's clubhouse at Tropicana Field.

He didn't roll his eyes, he's too polite for that, but it sort of felt like he might have been on the inside. Stories often call him "brainy" or "intellectual" and he'd rather not be pegged as the egghead in a locker room full of dunces with bats. 1. It's not fair to them. 2. It's not fair to him. 3. It's not like that.

Here, he said, he's a ballplayer. He was in the lineup later in the evening as the starting center fielder against the Detroit Tigers.

But his life in baseball and his life in writing can't be kept totally separate.

For Perez, a graduate of Columbia University, the sport offers two things that are gold to anyone wired to write: things experienced, places gone, characters met - material - but also the kind of "idleness," he said, at stadiums and away from them, to think thoughts and then put them to paper.

He has written for the New York Times' baseball blog. He kept a diary a couple years ago on minorleaguebaseball.com. He doesn't exactly write about baseball. It's more like he writes from within it.

The piece in Poetry: It's set in a stadium in Caracas, Venezuela, and starts with a scene "amongst the patch of dusky high-rises," and in the middle of a crowd, "packed beyond capacity," with a "purse-lipped riot squad" with "spanking machetes from their hips," and "pulsating bass drums" and "scantily-clad, head-dressed goddesses strutting" and "flares that don't always set out vertically, sometimes landing in the outfield still aflame."

These two parts of who he is don't really balance each other out, he said, or complement each other, or offset each other.

"They can wrangle with one another," he said at the Trop.

Perez, 26, grew up in New Jersey, the bilingual son of Cuban immigrants. He went to that state's prestigious Peddie School on a partial scholarship before going to Columbia and majoring in American studies with an emphasis on creative writing.

He was going to be a teacher.

The Rays drafted him in 2004.

He runs fast and he switch hits and he was the team's minor league player of the year last year before getting called up to the majors in late August. He hit a home run at Yankee Stadium with his parents watching. He scored the winning run in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against Boston.

Here is where everybody who plays professional baseball wants to be, in the big-money big leagues, where nights on the road mean the Ritz, not the Red Roof, and where people are paid to pick the dirt out from between the players' cleats.

But it's in the minors, Perez said, where the material is the most rich. That's the better story.

The time he spent on his way to the majors took him from Fishkill, N.Y., to Midland, Mich., to Visalia, Calif., to Montgomery, Ala., to Durham, N.C. - "slouched on a bus," he wrote in the piece for Poetry, "watching the small towns roll by."

There's less press, not as many star-struck gawkers and autographs to sign, but in the minors, he said, "there's much more at stake." That's where the guy the next locker over has three kids and wife troubles and makes $500 a week. It's where the whittling of talent trying to make it is at its most stark.

"You're a set of numbers and a set of habits," he wrote a couple years ago in one of the entries in his diary on minorleaguebaseball.com. "A particular likelihood of success."

In the majors, quick charter flights are convenient, but you miss so much below. The majors? More corporate. Less texture. "Like baseball meets country club," Perez said at the Trop. And smooth edges make bad art.

The wrangling, then: Baseball is hard, but it's not. It's really difficult, he said, to make it this far, and so physically strenuous, but at the same time it's "a very simple, simple, simple existence,"

Wrangling, too: Baseball is not important, but it is.

"This baseball thing is not set up for us to emerge as better people or better citizens," he said, now out in the corridor on the way from the clubhouse to the tunnel to the dugout. "It's set up for there to be a big show, and for them to sell beer, and for people to be entertained."

And yet he arrives to the stadium early, and stays late, and works to be the best he can be because this is what he does. This is how he makes his living.

Not long before he had been in the batting cage behind the Rays' dugout. Now it was time to stretch. Then: more batting practice. After that: the actual game.

The people at Poetry came to him. They asked him to contribute. He wrote his piece when he was in Venezuela playing in a winter league. He jotted notes on hotel stationery in Caracas.

The scenes he sees might be wild, but the rhythms of the game, and the life within it, he wrote, provide "the idleness about which - and out of which so many poems are written or sung."

"I see this state of mind," he wrote, "as a blessing."

In describing what he observes, the material picked up along the way, Perez cited a phrase from a poem by Allen Ginsberg called A Supermarket in California.

"Shopping for images."

"I'm steeped in this," he said.

He walked down the tunnel to the dugout, and up the steps, and onto the field.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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