The laugh was his first sign of emotion. He wasn't rude before, and he didn't come off as disinterested, but he wasn't flailing around with his hands, leaning forward or nodding, either. No, Herbert Perry was just sitting back in one of those comfortable black leather chairs that dot the Rangers clubhouse, hands folded, affably answering questions with a lazy Southern drawl; a Mayo, Florida, drawl. "Florida Country" is how one reporter described the accent.
His words were measured. They were fine answers, really, but they seemed... practiced. Polite, but practiced.
But the laugh, that robust, head-down laugh, was natural. It took Perry 11 tough years to make it here--last week he signed a two-year contract extension worth $3 million--and he doesn't appear willing to risk that now. That's what he'd be doing if he talked about some of the b.s. that he's witnessed in baseball: pissing people off, making it more difficult to find that next job. He's seen the dark side--waiver wires, trades, long trips to the minors, all of it. You accumulate a lot of dirt that way.
"Oh, there are plenty of stories," says the 33-year-old third baseman, finishing off what's left of that chuckle. "I could tell you stories; I could give you names, but I'm not going to. I'm not stupid."
It comes out "stew-puhd," but the idea is clear. He thinks I'm naïve. You fool, he must be thinking, guys like me don't get into things like that. That's how you get lost in the shuffle.
We were talking about baseball, about how grim it can be for the anti-A-Rod set--players with one nice car instead of a fleet of custom-made models. Not the fast-trackers but the nomads, the ones just happy to stay in some place long enough to learn everyone's name. Perry is one of those types. It's probably why he's so guarded. It's certainly why you should root for him--because, like the rest of us, he fought for what little he has and appreciates it.
He's been with four professional clubs. He broke into the majors with Cleveland from 1994 to '96. It was his longest tour of major-league duty, promptly followed by a three-year stretch in the minors. Mostly, he just moved around with his family, not hoping he'd catch a break but knowing. It wasn't Perry whom Frank Sinatra had in mind when he wrote "That's Life," but it may as well have been.
There's not enough space here to run through his most recent trials, so you get the abridged version. In '99 he was in Tampa Bay and had a solid spring training before he was placed on waivers. Vinny Castilla was the man there at the time, a big-money player surviving on his rep. Perry landed with the White Sox. Last year he hit .256 in 92 games for Chicago, but he never expected it to last, not with Jose Valentin and Royce Clayton commanding top dollar to man the left side of the infield. When Valentin and Clayton were healthy, Perry cracked the lineup for just seven of the Sox's last 31 games.
"When guys are getting paid that much," he offers simply, "they're going to play. They don't pay those guys to sit on the bench. That's a rough part of the game that no one ever talks about--getting squeezed out. All you ever hear about is how much guys get paid up here. You don't hear about the guys fighting for a steady job." By last November he was shipped to Texas (for a "player to be named later"), where the history of third basemen has followed a striking parallel to the history of Death Row inmates in these parts: quick, ugly deaths. "It's so much tougher on the wives than the players. For me, I accept that as part of the game. You get to the point that you realize that there isn't just one team out there. If things don't work with one team, there are a lot of others. But you figure the business side of it out real quick."
All of which makes this season he's having--this terrific personal season scented with the stink of team failure--that much more surreal. He's already set personal bests in home runs, RBIs, at-bats, runs and hits. For a club that's had just five other 20-homer seasons by a third baseman (Perry had 21 home runs as of Monday), his numbers are especially promising. According to STATS Inc., since 1995, 28 people have played at least one inning at third. Some you know (Dean Palmer, Todd Zeile), some you've forgotten (Jack Voigt, Jon Shave) and the rest you'd like to forget (Ken Caminiti, Dave Silvestri, etc.).
"It happens; every team has a spot that they can't figure out what to do with or that gives them problems," Rafael Palmeiro says. "Maybe third base is ours."
Baseball in Texas has long been enamored with "stars," guys who have catchy nicknames like A-Rod and Pudge and Juan Gone. Great players, but they can't win games all by themselves, which explains why this club was out of the A.L. West race before it broke spring training--no one to do the grunt work. What the Rangers need are more scrappers, more ballplayers who get dirty as a matter of principle and care about nothing but a spot in the lineup. What they need are more guys like Perry.
So the Rangers, thrilled that they've finally discovered what they've lacked for so long, immediately sign Perry to a deal and they all go dancing off toward an auburn sunset, right? That's what you think? That would be the smart move on their part, which is why it almost certainly won't happen.
"Herbert Perry has been a very important part of our ballclub this season, and we are pleased that he has decided to remain a Texas Ranger," G.M. John Hart says by way of a mind-numbing press release. "He gives us versatility and a strong right-handed bat that will be very valuable in the future makeup of our club."
If by "future" Hart meant "until the end of this season," then that bit of manufactured eloquence wasn't a complete lie. No, Perry will likely make it through the rest of these games, but nothing thereafter is promised. And he knows it. Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira both play the corner, and both are young and highly touted, not to mention the crazy amount of zeros that fill out their paychecks. Sound familiar?
Teixeira is already at Double-A Tulsa, and Blalock is in Arlington, only a few lockers away from Perry's stall. More unsettling is not the third basemen of Rangers Future, but of Rangers Past. Mike Lamb is also on this roster, a human admonition of how easily and remorselessly the Rangers discard third basemen.
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What happens to Perry from here is as evident as what happened to him in Chicago and Tampa and Cleveland before that. Only the when is still in question. At least the new contract is guaranteed.
"I can't control any of it," Perry says without resentment. "I can't get angry at it. I know those guys are there, and if the time comes that [the Rangers] want to move on, they can trade me. That's the way it is. There's always going to be someone behind you."
His calm concerning his lot in baseball is impressive, though a bit unnatural. I almost want to shake him or scream at him, anything to make him stand up and curse. Wouldn't you be jaded? Wouldn't you want to grab one of those Louisvilles and flail at whichever front-office guy wandered by? Just for sweet revenge?
But that's not his way. He's Florida Country, cool and composed and somehow ready to start all over again if he must. More accurately, when he must.