SEATTLE — This time last year, Oliver Perez was thinking seriously about life after baseball.
He’d been drummed out of New York as a laughingstock in spring training, released by the Mets following a winless 2010 in which every day at the ballpark was misery. The Mets ate the remaining $12 million of a $36 million deal just to make Perez and his lifeless arm vanish. The former starting pitcher wound up with the Washington Nationals’ organization in Class AA wondering how much more humiliation he could take.
But one last crack at winter-league ball in his native Mexico gave Perez hope, and the Mariners noticed. Now, the 31-year-old has reinvented himself as a left-handed relief specialist to where the once-unthinkable notion of another free-agent contract could await.
Thing is, for Perez, who likely scored the biggest payday he’ll ever see several years ago, it was never really about the money.
“In my mind, I just wanted to show myself that I could still do it,” he said. “I wanted to show a lot of people in Mexico, too. I think a lot of them there were very disappointed in me. I was disappointed, too.”
Perez’s extended family still lives in the northwestern Mexican city of Culiacan — hailed as the home of famous boxers such as six-time world champion Julio Cesar Chavez, but with Perez as its only major-league baseball product.
It’s also where Perez returned for a winter-ball stint as a relief pitcher last November that saw him compile a 0.63 earned-run average with 19 strikeouts in 14-1/3 innings as a relief pitcher. More importantly, the velocity that spent last season in the 85-to-89-mph range climbed well over 90 mph.
Mariners assistant GM Jeff Kingston noticed Perez’s results and the team dispatched a scout to Mexico. Perez was signed to a minor-league deal, impressed the Mariners in spring training, then improved his velocity reach the mid-90s in Class AAA. Promoted by Seattle on June 18, he’s posted a 1.91 ERA in 30 appearances with 24 strikeouts in 28-1/3 innings.
He’s a free agent this winter, but an intriguing possibility for a Mariners team with a talented bullpen that lacks veteran experience.
“I’m just going to do the same thing I did last winter,” Perez said. “I’m going to go back to play winter ball and then see if somebody wants me to pitch for them next year.”
Perez’s permanent home is in Arizona with his wife and daughter. That’s where he and former Mets minor-leaguer Rafael Arroyo began training daily about two years ago, when Perez had just completed an abysmal season with the Mets in which he went 0-5 with a 6.80 ERA.
“People don’t understand the pressure that comes with playing in a big city like New York and how, if you don’t perform, you hear it right away,” said Arroyo, a Mets bullpen catcher that 2010 season. “I think maybe he didn’t understand it at first, coming from a smaller market like Pittsburgh.”
Perez had spent four seasons as a starter with San Diego and Pittsburgh before a midsummer 2006 trade to the Mets. He started two games for New York in the 2006 National League Championship Series, then won 25 games the next two seasons before signing a three-year, $36 million deal before the 2009 season.
It all went downhill from there, with Perez making just 21 starts the next two years.
Perez was plagued by tendinitis in his knee he says shortened his stride and limited the effectiveness of his pitches. But Perez was nevertheless vilified by fans and some media as a symbol of the team’s rapid on-field demise.
After 2010, his career in tatters, he and Arroyo did leg-strengthening workouts in addition to more cardio training than the pitcher had ever done. They’d hike the steeper parts of Camelback Mountain near his Arizona home, then run up the flatter portions.
But their conversations also involved the mental side of avoiding a repeat of what happened in New York.
“We talked about understanding the importance of confidence and how he’d be able to maintain that if he got another opportunity,” Arroyo said.
Perez’s knee pain dissipated, though he struggled in winter ball that offseason.
The Mets released Perez, so he joined the Nationals in Class AA and pitched more consistently in 2011 before his velocity finally returned in Mexico.
“My legs are strong and I got my arm strength back,” Perez said. “I used to throw more than 150 innings every year, but the last few years I didn’t even throw 100. So, I think that’s where I lost my strength.”
He’d lost much of his reputation as well.
Perez had refused a minor-league assignment with the Mets in 2010, insisting he belonged in the majors. That only added to his soap-opera-like existence.
“Almost every day when I drove to the stadium, I was ready for something,” Perez said. “I wasn’t pitching well, I wasn’t feeling great, and it was like all of the eyes were on me. Sometimes, I didn’t want to go to the stadium because the media was going to ask me the same questions.”
Perez knew few teams would take a chance on him, so he took full advantage of the opportunity with the Mariners. He now cherishes his lower-profile Seattle experience, which he says made baseball fun again.
“I like it because I get a chance to play every day,” Perez said. “I love to play the game. It’s very exciting for me. I don’t care whether we’re winning or losing, for me it’s the same thing. I love this game, so why not have fun? It’s a job, but it’s a game, too.”
A game Perez will likely now get the chance to keep playing at the big-league level beyond this year.