Site Navigation

Racing to the Show

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Courtesy of Josh Robinson, Columbia College Today
Photo credit: Gene Boyars

Fernando Perez ’04 figured he should chew gum. That was what big leaguers did, right? That was how guys handled the ninth inning of the World Series’ deciding game, right?

With the Tampa Bay Rays down by a run against the Philadelphia Phillies, Perez sat on an exercise bike on October 29 at Citizens Bank Park and watched catcher Dioner Navarro lumber to first base on a single. The Phillies were two outs away from their first World Series crown in 28 years and their closer, Brad Lidge, who had not blown a save opportunity all season, was on the mound. The Rays needed speed on the bases. So they turned to Perez, the rookie outfielder and pinch-runner who had won them Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The rookie who had started the year with the Class AAA Durham Bulls.

The rookie who figured it was a good time to chew some gum.

As Perez trotted out of the dugout and headed for first base, trying to look like he had been there before, he gnawed away the anxiety of being the Rays’ last throw of the dice. “Once you’re in it, you realize, ‘I’m not the only one who’s freaking out inside,’ ” remembers Perez, 25. “Almost everybody is.

“That was a funny feeling — when 55,000 people knew exactly what I was going in there to do. Everybody in the whole stadium knew that I was going to run from first base and try to steal second and wait there for somebody to get a hit.”

Ben Zobrist came to the plate and looked at the first pitch. By the time the ball was in the catcher’s mitt, Perez had already done what 55,000 people expected him to do — take off, run like the wind and never look back. Having successfully stolen second base, he now was 180 feet from a tie game. At his pace, that meant Perez was about 6.2 gut-ripping, heart-racing seconds from home plate. All Zobrist had to do was punch the ball to the outfield. A single would have been enough.

On the next pitch, somewhere in the brilliant white cloud of flash bulbs, Zobrist made contact. But Perez slammed on the brakes when the ball nestled into the right-fielder’s glove for the second out of the inning.

Eric Hinske was next, the Rays’ final hope. And leading off second, Perez had the best view in the house when Hinske went down swinging. When the Rays’ miraculous season came to an end.

Three months after Perez ran into the crucible in Philadelphia, he worked out alone at Columbia’s Dodge Fitness Center. Fenced in by a pair of nets, he smacked line drives off a tee while a pickup basketball game unfolded to one side and the Lions’ baseball team took batting practice to the other.

The continued and complete feature story on Perez can be found in the online version of the Columbia College Today.

The Columbia College Today also has a web exclusive profile on Perez, which can be found here.