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IN THE BLOOD: VELA’S PEREZ, SENIOR AND JUNIOR PREPARE FOR THE (BASEBALL) FUTURE

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April 16, 2021

By Greg Selber

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What is the measure of a man? That sort of existential question seems sort of quaint – and potentially problematic – these days, especially given the way gender and masculinity have become hot-button theoretical and political issues in the current climate.

It used to be, in John Wayne’s Old School America, that a man was strong, silent and enduring, not prone to showing emotion. He was a doer and not as much a thinker or a feeler. That has changed for the better in many respects, although one could suggest that men, and manliness, are in a state of flux in 2021, buffeted by conflicting ideas and demands.

It can also be suggested that a Real Man, if such a thing exists, is a person who is a doer, a pillar of strength, but also someone who is able to give positive vent to his inner thoughts and feelings when the time is right.

And the time was certainly that for Coach Jaime Perez Sr. on Friday, as he watched one of his sons, Jaime Jr., play his last regular season baseball game for the SaberCats. The numbers speak for themselves, as Perez Jr., known widely as “Mito,” has become one of the greatest players ever to wear the Blue and Black. In four seasons with the program, Perez Jr. has collected more than 100 hits for a glittering .432 average and a whopping on-base percentage of .525. He has been one of the region’s best catchers (nine lifetime errors) and has proven to be a versatile kid who can play shortstop, left field or wherever and generally perform with consistent excellence.

Against Mission Friday, he drove in three runs and turned in a fine stint on the mound as Vela rose to 13-3 in district, the playoffs just ahead. The ability to do it all and do it well in every slot has made Perez Jr. a lock for the next level. And he will be heading to Stephenville in the summer to begin a diamond odyssey with Tarleton State.

But one of the things, beyond the stats, that distinguishes Mito from many other kids, is the way he plays the game. Just as he has done for the school’s football outfit, Perez Jr. has matched extraordinary talent with an indefatigable work ethic and a drive to be successful that sometimes seems to border on the crazy. Basically, he works harder than anyone, and wants to win, and to perform, with an iron will that is admirable.

And the father/coach has noticed.

“No. 5 is No. 5, and you know what you are going to get,” said Perez Sr. after the 6-2 win against Mission that secured at least a share of the second spot in District 31-6A. “He can go 2 for 4 out there and he’s not satisfied. He wants to be successful, and I mean every at bat, every play. It’s hard to find such a tough competitor. Mito is a special player, some people would say a freak, because he competes so hard.”

Perez Sr. was quick to acknowledge that the young Mito was always already on the road to becoming who he has been for four years at Vela. He adds that he is judging his son not as a father, but as a coach, which is sometimes hard to do.

“What do you do when your sons say, ‘let’s go hit,’ and it’s like 10 at night?” the coach chuckled. “We turn the lights on, and we go into the tunnel at home, and we hit. It would be like almost midnight … ‘The Perez Boys at Work,’ is what it has always been, and Mito has always been like that. He always really wanted to play.”

NO. 5 POURS FORTH

A few minutes before his coach was interviewed, the player spoke about the last four years, the ones before that, and the future to come. As one of the best all-around athletes in the Valley, Perez Jr. is used to the ink, and he always has something interesting to say.

First he discussed what it was like when he was a freshman, hopping into the starting lineup amid an impressive array of “donkeys,” or baseball slang for very good players.

“There were the older guys, Aaron Galvan, Ramsey Amador, Adam Alviso, Nico Rodriguez, and they took me under their wing,” he recalled fondly. “They just told me, look, if you go out there and compete, you’ll be fine, don’t worry about it, we got you. That meant a lot, because even though I knew I could play, I had to work on confidence, being just a freshman on varsity.”

It worked out well, to say the least, as Mito quickly became a leading light on a squad with so many established veterans. Early on he showed the ability to handle himself behind the plate with a strong arm and steady block skills. At the dish he exhibited a fine eye, making pitchers work and slapping base hits right and left, to the tune of .377 as a 9th-grader. And he only got better. Lots.

“Now, I am kind of doing that for the team,” he said. “As a senior, well, all of us seniors, we have tried to take that role of leadership, help the young guys, take them under our wing, and help them build confidence, make sure they work hard and feel like they can compete when they get their chance.”

All to the good, and Mito’s leadership chops are unquestioned. The Sabes look to him for the key hit, the big play on D or the stern word in the dugout when it’s time to quit jazzing around and get serious. But what has it been like to do all these things under the watchful eye of a coach who – and this is the uniqueness – will not fade away when the game is over, but instead will be there at home when the school/baseball are finished for the day?

“It’s been different, definitely, playing for my dad,” Perez Jr. laughed. “The thing is, we can get into it over something at home, which we do at times, and then we don’t transfer that onto the baseball field. It’s totally separate, which is cool. It has to be.”

Mito says this because as everyone knows, when a man coaches his kid, some nags are going to talk. We all know the litany: he’s just this because of that, blah blah blah. Neurotic fear of nepotism is as old as the hit-and-run or the sacrifice bunt, ha, assuredly older.

“I have a younger brother on the team, Izzy,” Perez Jr. explained. “And I tell him that there will some people talking, you’ll be hearing things about how our dad is the coach or whatever, and he just has to tune it out, not let it get to him. Truth is, my dad taught me everything about the game. Everything. He was a pitcher in college, and a coach at UTPA, so he knows what he is talking about. I don’t think he has ever given me a thing because who we are, he is not that type of person. But I am what I am because of him.”

THE COACH WEIGHS IN

The type of person the elder Perez is: one who has developed his sons as ballplayers and not just sons, and conversely (concurrently) treated his other players as if they were his sons. One who has built the Vela program into a juggernaut, one of the most outstanding units in the Valley, especially when it comes to battling upstate competition. A guy who take great pride in what kids – all of them, not just the ones with the genetic stamp – and what they have been able to accomplish through the years.

“They know how it works, I am ‘coach’ at the game, ‘dad’ at home,” he mentioned. “But everyone has that dream, of wanting to coach their kids. The other day we had Mito and Izzy pitching and catching and I have to admit, just for a second, I was Proud Papa. But bottom line, most of the time, I work with the other players. These guys, they make the call when it comes to Mito and Izzy.”

Perez Jr. had nodded in the direction of his coaching staff, standing nearby, as he spoke. And it is true that in Greg Garcia, Gene Shupe, and Mike Salinas, he has one of the most adept group of assistants around. They all have major experience in the game over many seasons, and Perez depends on them for maximum wisdom and effort.

While it has been a delicate dance, mentoring his sons as well as the rest of the gang, and making sure they earn what they get, Perez Sr. can rest easy. His oldest is so good, no one says a word anymore because how can they? He’s just produced, and big, from the word go, with numbers, leadership, charisma, and the occasional moment of levity. One can tell that Mito loves the game, and that playing it allows him to express himself in his own unique way. And it has been memorable.

And even though he is loath to admit it – because that’s the way it has to be – his father got a chance to unwind and reflect, Friday being Senior Night, after all.

“I really haven’t done that much, to tell you the truth,” said Perez Jr., his voice starting to quaver the slightest bit. “I am not saying ‘bye.’ It’s a catapult to greater things. Mito has embraced all of this, from the minute he got to Robert Vela High School. I tell my wife that we are blessed, every parent wants their children to be successful, to embrace every day as special. Mito’s done that, and the results are there to see.”

Then, he was told about what his son had said. How Mito had credited his father with not only a love for the game, but with giving him the drive to achieve, the resources to make it happen, and support to make him work harder. Interviewing the father was somewhat reminiscent of hearing the son talk. They speak the same language, after all, that of baseball. And of family, and love, and respect.

“No words …,” Perez smiled. “No words. I guess … to hear my son say that, it is a humbling experience for me. I have tried to do my best with him, and my other sons, and really with the entire program here at Robert Vela High School.”

Now Perez stopped speaking, put a beefy paw up to one eye, wiped away a something, and looked away.

Minutes ago, Mito had said, “It’s been a ride, man, no doubt, and it isn’t over yet.” His father knows that the postseason lies ahead, and he expects the Sabes to do what they do, which is make an extended and forceful run through the bracket, going as far as they can. But he also knows that when the grind is over, and the season closes, well … the Mito Era will have run its course.

Here is a baseball man, through and through, a tough guy who brings it, every day, asking no quarter and expecting none. Many will say that of all sports, baseball is the most traditional, the most Old School, where men are men, hard and fast, pitiless and ironic, preferring to make jokes, pull pranks or start scraps rather than loose the reins on raw, vulnerable emotion.

So much for stereotypes, really. Maybe it’s because we live in a supposedly kinder, gentler world (for better, worse, or other: your call) or because times have changed in regard to such cosmic tropes as manliness, masculinity, machismo. Not sure. The truth is, whatever the background and backstory, watching a father/coach with his son/player, and seeing how this sort of potentially difficult situation can unfold very well, to the benefit of both parties – and the school, community and team as well – is a joy.

Thus, to square: a man shedding a tear in such a poignant moment, the action has be pegged not a weakness, oh no, but a very profound strength indeed.

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