A half hour before Sunday's Cinco de Mayo game against the Chicago Cubs, a mariachi band played near the Dodger Stadium backstop. Dodger pitcher Odalis Perez sidled up next to a guy strumming a guitar and grooved to the music.
An hour before Perez was to pitch against the Cincinnati Reds last Thursday night, the 23-year-old left-hander, a huge grin on his face, bobbed and weaved to the merengue tunes blaring on the clubhouse stereo, forming a one-man conga line as he headed out the door to warm up.
Big league pressure? If this kid were any more carefree, he'd ride his bike to the park with his glove on the handlebars, baseball cards flapping in the spokes and a pocketful of bubble gum.
"I've always been a happy-go-lucky guy, for as long as I can remember," said Perez, who takes a 3-1 record and 1.75 earned-run average into this week's series against the Atlanta Braves, the organization he spent seven years with before being traded to the Dodgers in January.
"Sometimes, I go through bad things in life, but at the same time, I don't even think about those things. I just keep doing what I'm doing."
Perez has dealt with the bad. In 1999 he underwent Tommy John surgery, an elbow reconstruction that forced him to miss the second half of the 1999 season and the entire 2000 season.
Last October, Perez's 26-year-old half-brother, Tomas, was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic, leaving behind a wife, a 3-year-old son and a number of grieving relatives.
"We were tight," said Perez, who grew up with three brothers and four half-sisters in Las Matas de Farfan, Dominican Republic. "Tomas had a great relationship with my dad--he was the one who ran some of my father's farms in the Dominican. He was a great kid, my brother, and I wish he was alive. But at the same time, I can do nothing about it, so I have to keep living, keep moving ahead."
Perez has taken a quantum leap forward this season. A former No. 5 starter who shuttled between the Brave rotation and bullpen last year, Perez, acquired with outfielder Brian Jordan for Dodger slugger Gary Sheffield, has emerged as one of the game's best young pitchers in 2002.
Mixing changeups and sliders with well-located 91-mph fastballs, Perez has two complete games and one shutout and has struck out 30 and walked only three in 461/3 innings. He has limited opponents to a league-best .159 batting average and a league-best .183 on-base percentage and is yet to allow a first-inning hit.
Beyond the numbers is an air of confidence and maturity that belie his age. Perez is aggressive and is not afraid to pitch inside--he brushed back Giant shortstop Rich Aurilia and hit slugger Barry Bonds in the shoulder in his first Dodger start April 4--and he's about as unflappable as a Buckingham Palace guard.
After hearing all the horror stories about the Coors Field hitter's haven, Perez pitched a complete game against the Colorado Rockies on April 15, limiting them to five hits in a 5-2 Dodger victory.
The following week, Perez, unfazed by 43-degree temperatures and 15-mph winds in frigid Wrigley Field, tossed a one-hit shutout against the Chicago Cubs on April 26, facing the minimum 27 batters and coming within one bad-hop single of a perfect game.
"The way he walks around, he has a lot of confidence, but it's a positive confidence," Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "Some guys think they're the best thing to walk the earth--that's a negative confidence. Odalis isn't like that at all. He walks to the mound feeling like he's the best pitcher ever, and that's how he pitches."
Perez will not walk to the Turner Field mound Wednesday with the intention of sticking it to the Braves, even though Atlanta coaches always stressed working the outside corner when Perez knew his strength was pitching inside, and even though Manager Bobby Cox usually skipped Perez in the rotation if his spot fell on an off day.
"I'm not out to show them anything, because they didn't want to trade me," Perez said. "I have nothing against the Braves. I'm a professional."
Perez went 11-15 with a 5.38 ERA in 52 games for the Braves, 33 of them starts, from 1998-2001, but he never had the kind of confidence that he has now. It was hard to get too comfortable when you were always looking over your shoulder, wondering if this would be your last game as a starter or how you'd ever measure up to the lofty standards set by Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
"I knew if I got the opportunity to pitch every five days that I'd do the job," Perez said. "When we came out of spring training and [Dodger Manager Jim Tracy] told me I'd be the No. 3 starter, and I knew I'd be out there every five days, it made me feel good, because they believed in what I had and thought I could do the job."
During trade talks for Sheffield, Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz pushed right-handers Kevin Millwood and Jason Marquis, but Dodger General Manager Dan Evans wanted a left-hander, and his scouts were persistent in their endorsement of Perez.
"When the trade was made, a lot of people focused on Brian Jordan, but with us, it was always Jordan and Perez," Evans said. "We thought Odalis was on the brink of becoming a really solid major league pitcher, and he's exactly what we thought he'd be, a real solid left-hander. He knows his stuff is good enough to get people out, and he trusts his stuff. I'm sure he'll hit some bumps, but he's on a great run right now."
Perez is on such a good run--he's 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA in his last five starts--that if he continues to pitch like this, and Sheffield (.230) and Jordan (.248) continue to struggle, that January deal may come to be known as the Odalis Perez trade, and not the Gary Sheffield trade.
"You had to look at the trade as Sheffield for Jordan, because they're established players, and I was one of the main guys in Atlanta's future," Perez said. "But maybe now people will see the trade differently. Maybe I'll be the guy who takes the Dodgers to the World Series. You never know."
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*--* Perez by the Numbers Year Team W-L ERA G GS IP 1998 Atlanta 0-1 4.22 10 0 10.2 1999 Atlanta 4-6 6.00 18 17 93.0 2001 Atlanta 7-8 4.91 24 16 95.1 2002 Dodgers 3-1 1.75 6 6 46.1 Total: 14-16 4.70 58 39 245.1