ST. PETERSBURG - For Fernando Perez, the road to pro baseball was paved in an unlikely place.
The swift, switch-hitting centerfielder initially considered colleges without baseball programs, whether it was studying creative writing at small liberal arts schools or taking up acting at Vassar. But when Perez, 24, followed his big-league dreams to Columbia University, the Brooklyn native was stunned at the school's apathy for athletics. Case in point: The year Perez was Columbia's highest-drafted player seventh round in 2004, he was working on his swing in a campus gymnasium when he was kicked out by the PE tennis team.
"It's just a climate where nobody cares about sports," Perez said. "Really, nobody cares. It's kind of like a thing where it's an activity. 'Oh, you play sports? Oh, well that's good, but that's not what this place is for.'"
Even with Lou Gehrig ("Columbia Lou") a former Lion, the school is more known for CEOs, presidents and Nobel Prize winners than Gold Glovers. Just two players drafted from Columbia (Gene Larkin and Frank Seminara) have ever made it to the majors.
Coincidentally, it was former Columbia coach Mik Aoki who first made Perez believe he could be No. 3. Perez, who got his degree in American studies and creative writing, played his freshman year "for fun," settling into a backup role. But after the season, Aoki sat him down and said, "Next year, you need to be the best player in the Ivy League. This is going to happen and then you're getting drafted."
Aoki was right. Perez has spent four years moving up the Rays' organizational ladder, breaking out in Double-A Montgomery last season. Though Perez could very well start the season in Triple A, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "Fernando has a chance to be a top of the order type of player in the major leagues."
Whether that's this year or in five years, Perez said he's willing to stick it out. Though his education and experience breeds post-baseball options, Perez makes it clear he's in the batting cages in his spare time, not "brushing up on eastern Asian philosophy."
"I'm not being pulled by two different worlds," said Perez, who'd like to study neuroscience or linguistics in the future. "A lot of people kind of assume - even some people that have been in charge of determining my talent - have the question whether I really want to do it.
"This is what I'm doing - and I couldn't be happier."
Perez's reputation as a speedy player - the fastest in the Rays' minor-league system - is accompanied by a label as a quick study. In two years he picked up how to swing from the left side - "The hardest thing I've ever done" - and has hit over .300 the past two seasons in Class A Visalia and Montgomery.
Reid Brignac, Perez's teammate last year in Montgomery, said he can see Perez running his own business one day, or becoming a successful novelist; it's just a matter of when.
Perez smiled and paused. "Maybe when I'm 40."
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- An interest in acting started in high school, when he played a role in Six Degrees of Separation.
- Perez is one of the fastest guys in the organization, recently clocking 3.9 seconds from home to first. "That's on the slower side," he said. "I've gone 3.6."
- Perez credits his late grandfather for helping his parents migrate from Cuba to New York before it became too dangerous to escape.
- Perez received attention last year for a witty and insightful journal he wrote for Minor League Baseball's Web site, still archived at milb.com.
- Some of his latest readings are works by American poet Robert Creeley and poet Lyn Hejinian's book, My Life.