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Former educator coaches up Yankees on game of life

TAMPA — When the New York Yankees wanted a more refined off-field program for the organization's young prospects — everything from speaking and writing English to learning how to cook and balance a checkbook — they turned to a retired educator.

Joe Perez, a former baseball coach, former Durant High School principal and Hillsborough County School District administrator, figured he would spend the summer volunteering at his church and taking care of his grandchildren.

But as he learned, sometimes life throws a curveball. Not only have the Yankee prospects been given a firm foundation for success, Perez said he has discovered a new sense of fulfillment.

"I love seeing these guys improve,'' said Perez, who works with the Tampa-based Gulf Coast League rookie team, but also travels to other farm clubs in the Yankee organization. "Regardless of how far they take their baseball, they are learning skills for life. I was really impressed that the Yankees placed a premium on that type of education for their players.''

Perez, who retired as the school district's manager of professional standards in human resources, was hired by Gary Denbo, the Yankees' Tampa-based vice president of player development. Previously, the club brought teachers to its Himes Avenue facility and mostly offered English classes for players who primarily spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Creole and other languages.

Denbo wanted an enhanced curriculum to allow the players to better assimilate into American culture. He needed an educator's eye. Perez was contacted by one of his former players, Yankees minor-league field coordinator Jody Reed. Initially, Perez called some of his education contacts, but then was summoned by Denbo to interview for the position. It was the perfect fit.

As education coordinator, Perez worked with Pam Elles, principal of Jefferson High School's night community school, to develop a curriculum that would complement the Rosetta Stone English course foundation.

They called it: "Nine Innings For Life.''

During the five-month night school, which followed the Yankees' GCL afternoon games, each two-week period covered an "inning'' (or education module). It was held at Jefferson, not far from the team headquarters. Players were instructed in U.S. civics, staying in hotels, banking and budgeting, time management, nutrition and fitness, diversity, teamwork and leadership, workplace dynamics, how to efficiently shop and how to avoid fraud and scams.

Everyone's highlight was the culinary class taught by a chef. By the end of class, the players had learned new recipes and everyone ate well.

One night, a bank official visited to talk about checking accounts, debit cards and credit cards. Another night, former Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez, a Tampa resident, spoke to the players about taking advantage of their opportunity.

"It's all so useful and practical,'' Elles said. "We give them some baseline testing at the beginning and some of their education levels are at the elementary-school level. They don't have much background, even in their native language, and they haven't sat in a classroom for years. But we have seen improvement. These guys are learning to put their best foot forward. I commend the Yankees for doing this. We want to build on it.''

Next year, Elles said with a laugh, she wants to teach players how to sew on a button.

"I feel a lot better about things,'' said Yankees pitcher Allen Valerio of the Dominican Republic. "I was a little afraid to talk to people (in English) before. Now I feel comfortable. And I know how to cook. Lots of chicken and lots of beans. I save money.''

"Before, when I wanted to do something, I couldn't find the words and I would just point with my finger,'' said Yankees catcher Ozzie Liranzo of the Dominican Republic. "It's actually a bad feeling. When I call a taxi or converse with people or go to a store, I can do what I need to do. You miss your country, but you are playing ball so many months here so you need to know how to live right.''

Perez said the Yankees operate like each of the players will one day make it to New York.

In reality, that's not how it works.

Many players are initially assigned to the organization's Dominican Republic academy, which has three full-time teachers. Just getting there represents a milestone. Making it to Tampa is another key moment.

"The funnel is very big in the Dominican,'' said Perez, a former baseball coach at Brandon High School and Tampa Catholic, his alma mater, which he guided to a state title in 1979. "As they try to make it to New York, it continually gets smaller. Everyone we touch through this education, we hope they get to New York one day.

"But if they don't, what are we doing in the meantime to make them better people and citizens? What are we doing to help them make a life for themselves? I think we're helping along that process and I'm proud to be part of that.''

Contact Joey Johnston at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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