When they met in the winter of 2011, Salvador Perezs agent began the conversation with a clear and firm warning.
Lets not do anything crazy.
For close to a year, Gustavo Vasquez had become just as much of a friend and confidante to Perez as a business partner. So if Vasquez was being honest with himself, these words should have gone unspoken.
There was something about his client, Vasquez thought. Something that made the young ballplayer seem older and wiser than his age of 21. Maybe it was the frame 6 feet 3 with oak-tree thighs, the kind of girth that came natural. Maybe it was the demeanor, confident and shrewd, an energetic smile masking a craftsmans dedication.
When you talk to Salvy, Vasquez says, youre not talking with a kid, youre talking with an old man.
But here was Perez facing a decision that could change his life. After playing just 39 major-league games in 2011, the Royals were convinced Perez was a future All-Star catcher. They offered him a long-term contract that would guarantee $7 million over five years with the possibility of nearly $15 million more in three club options.
But what about the trade-off? Perez would be forfeiting the possibility of even greater dollars through arbitration and his eventual free-agency, and Vasquez urged caution.
Lets go to do something smart, Vasquez said. Lets not do anything crazy.
Nearly 15 months later, on a May afternoon in Kansas City, Perez sat in front of his locker at Kauffman Stadium. He is 23, entrenched behind the plate as the starting catcher for the revamped Royals, a franchise off to its best start in a decade.
In just 146 major-league games less than a full season Perez has proved to be a catching savant, capable of controlling a game with his arm and mature enough to handle a big-league pitching staff. With exquisite footwork and quickness, Perez has thrown out 33 percent of base-stealers and set the Royals career record with nine pickoffs. And despite a relatively slow offensive start this season, he entered Saturday with a career .304 average and 15 home runs.
If you asked me, a veteran major-league scout says, Whos the one young guy on that club right now thats gonna wind up being an perennial All-Star? Id tell you Salvador.
Perez looked up from a pregame scouting report and then recalled the conversation with his agent. There was never any doubt that he was signing that contract, he says. And to understand why, you have to know the story of the woman who used to flip him batting practice in Venezuela.
Everything I do, Perez says. I just think of my mom. Everything, I just think: Is it good for my mom?
Picture this: On a warm summer evening in the late 1990s, Yilda Diaz takes her only son, Salvador, out to the family patio. The sun is setting on the city of Valencia, a blue-collar industrial town of more than 2 million near the northern coast of Venezuela.
Yilda has a pile of corn kernels, and her son wields a broomstick, peppering the area with a handful of baby line drives. This is batting practice.
She threw me little pieces of corn, and we hit, Perez says. Every day.
When the practice session is over, Yilda heads to the kitchen, firing up a heaping portion of arepas, a Venezuelan specialty consisting of meat and cheese packed inside an outer shell of cornmeal.
For years, Salvador says, this was the routine. From the time he began playing baseball at age 4, his mother was there. She would dedicate her life to her son, cooking extra food to sell at his baseball games, saving up for new equipment. There were extra batting-practice sessions and a simple ultimatum issued each year.
If Salvy wanted to play baseball, he had to excel in school first.
She helped me with everything, you know, Perez says. Every point in my life, she taught me something.
When Perez was around 12, he showed up for a youth tryout. The coaches told him to pick a position, and he looked around at the lines that had formed for each group. There were little bodies everywhere. But nobody wanted to catch. So little Salvador moved to the front.
His life has been baseball. Yilda says through a translator. Since age 4, he always loved baseball.
On a late summer day in 2006, a baseball man named Rene Francisco arrived in Valencia for an organized tryout with players from the area.
Just a few weeks earlier, on Aug. 16, Francisco had been hired by the Royals to lead their dilapidated international scouting department. Francisco had met Royals general manager Dayton Moore when both worked for the Atlanta Braves, and Moore gave his old colleague a simple directive: Turn one of the major leagues worst international scouting programs into one of the best.
A few weeks later, he stood on a small field with no fence, watching an intriguing prospect named Salvador Perez. His size and quickness immediately stood out. But there was also a charisma that couldnt be explained, and when the tryout was over, another Latin American scout, Orlando Esteves, had fallen in love with the kid.
The one thing that stood out was the makeup, Francisco says, and thats whats so special about this kid.
The Royals offered Perez a signing bonus close to $65,000, a fraction of what they would pay to future first-round draft picks Mike Moustakas ($4 million) and Eric Hosmer ($6 million). But it was the most the Royals had ever given to a player from Venezuela. The Royals, in essence, had made a small investment on a kid with promising tools and modest expectations. A kid that nearly every team had scouted, but few had deemed worthy of a contract.
The kid had ability, Francisco says. But were there a lot of teams after him? No.
The Royals would send Perez straight to the United States, bypassing their Latin academy in the Dominican Republic. But before he left home, leaving his mother and grandmother in Valencia, he did what hed always wanted to do.
He used his bonus money to help his mother buy a new house.
Ned Yost thought it was a myth, a tall tale that had originated among baseball scouts. It was the spring of 2010, and Yost had recently accepted a job as a special adviser in the Royals baseball operations department. He would travel the country, evaluating the Royals young prospects, and these scouts kept telling him about a young catcher named Salvador Perez who could throw a baseball down to second base in 1.8 seconds.
I thought that was (nonsense), Yost says, because Ive never been great with the clock, but Ive never seen anybody in the 1.8s.
So Yost grabbed his stopwatch and took his place among some scouts. At the first opportunity, Perez exploded from his crouch and gunned a ball toward second base.
He throws a bullet that gets a guy out by 10 feet, Yost says, and I look at my watch, and its 1.83.
And I thought, Well, thats just me. Im not good with this watch. And I turned to a scout next to me, and I said, Whatd you get on that? And he said 1.82. And another guy said 1.83.
There it was. Thats the first time Ive ever seen it.
By the spring of 2010, Perezs exploits were already spreading throughout the Royals organization. Two years earlier, Moore had received a phone call from veteran pitching instructor Bill Fischer, who had been down in Surprise, Ariz., watching Perez play in the Arizona Rookie League.
I just saw our next catcher, Fischer said.
Whos that? Moore asked.
Perez debuted in the majors in late 2011, batting .331 with three home runs in 39 games. One year later, after signing the extension, he played just 76 games after suffering a torn meniscus during spring training. But even in limited playing time, the production was downright scary.
According to Baseball References Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, Perez was the 14th-most valuable catcher in baseball history through age 22. (Consider: Perez was one spot ahead of Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer.) And according to FanGraphs.com, only Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters has more Defensive Runs Saved in the last three seasons than the 13 recorded by Perez.
I cant remember a young catcher thats impressed me as much as he has, Royals reliever Bruce Chen says.
Royals starter James Shields says: He really loves the game of baseball.
Hes got a passion, and it shows. And thats the kind of baseball player I like.
The young catcher from Valencia is becoming a grown man. The defensive tools still borderline on the ridiculous. The offensive skills have come quicker than many expected. And by now, nearly every conversation about Perez comes with the following caveat: If he stays healthy
The question is not about what Perez can become, but whether his body will allow it.
Hes one of the best young catchers Ive seen, longtime Royals scout Art Stewart says. You gotta go back to Pudge (Ivan Rodriguez) and guys like that. Hes got the ability to be an All-Star for many years. As long as he stays healthy.
It is Friday evening, nearly an hour before the Royals are set to play the Yankees, and Salvador Perez wraps his mother in a tight embrace. Today is his birthday, and Yildas only boy is now 23 years old.
When Yilda comes to Kansas City sometimes for a month at a time shell stay in her sons apartment and keep him company. The days of the corn kernels and batting practice are long gone, but Yilda still whips up more helpings of arepas than her son can eat.
Soon, Salvador says, his mom will return to Venezuela to tend to his grandmother. Shell return later this summer, he says, and theyll still talk every day. And for a moment, he recalls the conversation they had after he agreed to his contract extension last year.
He wanted to tell his mother the good news, what it would be for their future. His family was now secure, and now he could focus on the game.
Yilda listened to her son. She didnt care about the money. She didnt care about any of it. She just wanted her boy to be happy. And when Salvy finished talking, she told him exactly what he needed to hear.
Lets go play baseball.