Shades of 2006: Catching up with Ollie Perez

Looking for somethingI honestly didn’t think I’d ever see Oliver Perez pitch again. But last Saturday night in Harrisburg, I found myself watching him warm up about 30 yards from Bryce Harper, ships passing in the night.

Besides the red jersey, Ollie looked just as I remembered him. It was like when you run into a long-lost friend you haven’t seen for a while; there’s that moment where you instinctively take inventory to see what, if anything, has changed.

I noticed that every sixth or seventh warmup toss would glance off his glove. Ollie would run after it, pick it up from wherever it landed, and start playing catch again from wherever he ended up. I was told later this is something he does by design to get some running in at the same time he does his long-toss. I’m not sure if that’s legitimate, but Ollie has always had his quirks.

Though to me, it pretty much just looked like a guy chasing after a baseball.

*****

“He’s been very competitive on the mound since he’s been here,” Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley told me before last Saturday’s game against Double-A Trenton. “There have been times we’ve seen flashes of his fastball getting closer to what it was before, and there have been days when he hasn’t had the velocity, but he went out and competed, battled, changed speeds and got guys out.”

CatchOllie was at his best with the Mets throwing his fastball consistently at 91 mph. What does he bring to the table now?

“He’s been right around 86 to topping out at 90 sometimes.”

Uh oh.

“He hit 91 here a couple times,” Beasley continued, “We’re trying to get him to get a feel for that, and show him that on tape, and hopefully he can repeat that.”

Beasley had only good things to say; he benefits not in the slightest from killing Ollie, especially since from all accounts, he’s good to have around. Everyone I talked to said they liked him a lot, and I heard multiple times he’d often take groups of teammates out to dinner – granted, he does make $12 million this year.

“He’s been a tremendous asset in the clubhouse, he works harder probably than anybody we have here,” Beasley said. “He’s focused, and I think he’s determined to get back to the Major League level.”

Yeah, but I mean, topping out at 90…

“If he continues to work and does what he does, I believe he’s going to pitch there again – if not here, then it’s going to be somewhere else. I truly believe that in my heart.

“He’s determined, and when a guy’s determined to be successful, a lot of times you can’t stop that.”

*****

Ollie has pitched well lately, allowing one earned run in each of his prior three starts before I saw him, and also in his next outing after that. But last Saturday just wasn’t his night.

Greatest place on earthTrenton started the game by reaching on two consecutive bunts, one of which was misplayed by Perez for an error. He struck out two batters, walked the next one and promptly gave up a long grand slam over the Harpersburg sign in left field. The runs were unearned – due to Ollie’s error.

He settled down for a while, but didn’t make it through the fourth. As he skipped over the foul line, the polite applause from the Harrisburg fans was considerably warmer than what he’d experienced in New York. He even tipped his cap.

I wasn’t sure what Ollie I’d get when I found him later, but he seemed congenial when he shrugged and said it was “just one of those games.”

Compared to how things ended up with the Mets, one lousy Double-A game didn’t seem so bad. I didn’t know if he’d talk about that, but my curiosity got the best of me, so I asked him… what went wrong?

“That was a combination of everything,” Ollie said in a measured voice. “I think I was putting too much pressure on myself, and I was not healthy. And I was pushing a lot, and I think it all was… a mess. So I’m here, I feel real good, and I think that’s more important right now.”

This wouldn't end wellThough it obviously seems unlikely, Ollie says his goal is to work himself back to the Majors.

“I think we’re all here to try to get the opportunity to get back to the big leagues,” Perez said. “That’s why we’re here. Everybody just wants the chance, and we work so hard to get the opportunity to get there.

“But right now, we’re right here, and we just come to play hard every day, and try to win more games and get the opportunity to go to the playoffs.”

I think people got the feeling that Ollie didn’t care, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe it’s that he misses being a Major League ballplayer. Maybe – or rather, definitely – it’s that he preemptively misses the Major League paychecks.

But most of all, I think Oliver Perez remembers what he used to be, and he misses that life.

*****

Full disclosure: You won’t hear many people cop to this, but I’m kind of an Oliver Perez apologist.

I took him in a fantasy league when he was with the Pirates in 2004, and won the league when he turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. I was totally into it because not only was he very good, he was wonderfully mad.

By the next season, whatever mojo he’d had was completely gone, and it stayed gone for a few years. When the Mets got Ollie as a throw-in at the Trade Deadline in 2006, I nostalgically was intrigued, but my expectations were appropriately low given his 6+ ERA.

A blurBut I’ll never forget how gutsy Ollie was on three days’ rest in Game 7 of the NLCS when everyone was expecting the worst. I had his Mets jersey customized after that, and I doubt I was the only one.

Knowing what a fragile balance Ollie struck between being effective and completely losing it, I was wary of re-signing him after 2008, even after two solid years, but to say I railed against the decision would be revisionist history. If anything, I figured I’d get the same Perez I got the past two years – sometimes spectacular, sometimes lousy, mostly solid.

However, basically the same thing happened to Ollie with the Mets as it did with Pittsburgh, it just took longer to get there. He goofed off on his routine at the World Baseball Classic, his mechanics got way out of whack, and I’d imagine it’s tougher to overcome that sort of thing as you start pushing 30.

Still, rather than the befuddled scapegoat he became, I prefer to think about Ollie the way he was on that one October night in 2006: an afterthought who nonetheless performed brilliantly in the most pressure-packed situation of his career. Amid all that, he was still the same quirky Ollie I’d always liked so much, hopping over the foul line like it was a Spring Training game.

At that moment, he was the guy who would be as beloved by Mets fans as Endy Chavez still is – if only the ninth inning had worked out differently.

Watching Ollie quietly pack up his stuff by his locker, 2006 seems much farther back than five years ago.

But when I looked close enough, I could still see that Oliver Perez.

Even if nobody else can.

 

Not sure what's going on behind him. But it fits.

Esoteric

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