Pain, perspective balance Perez


Eight months after the plane crash that took his mother's life, Orioles reliever Yorkis Perez can still hear her voice.

It's the voice he heard after signing his first professional baseball contract in 1983, and the voice he heard after every twist and turn in a career as a journeyman pitcher.

Perez had no bigger fan than Rosa Ruiz.

"I called her," he said, "almost every day."

They spoke for the last time Nov. 11. It was two months after terrorists had brought four airplanes crashing from the sky on the same morning, and the airline industry was slowly starting to win back consumer confidence.

Ruiz's own mother had died back home in the Dominican Republic, and Perez had planned to fly there with Ruiz for his grandmother's funeral. But the Arizona Diamondbacks called with interest in signing Perez and asked him to fly to Phoenix to take a physical.

Ruiz insisted that her son skip the funeral, in the interest of his baseball career. After moving to New York, she had never missed a chance to watch him pitch in the big leagues. Last season, she even went to watch him when he was toiling for the Mexico City Reds.

The Diamondbacks were offering a chance to return to the majors.

"About 90 percent of my mind was taking that flight to the Dominican," Perez said. "I didn't want to leave my mother alone. But I listened to her, and she told me: 'Yorkis, I don't want you to fly with me. I want you to do whatever you can to play baseball in the United States, I don't want you to go back to Mexico.' "

So he decided not to attend the funeral, and his sister, Angela Suazo, 21, went in his place. His mother and sister were going to fly stand-by on American Airlines Flight 587 at John F. Kennedy International Airport on the morning of Nov. 12, bound for Santo Domingo.

Perez went home to Philadelphia the night before the flight and woke up with a strange feeling in his gut. So, he called the Dominican Republic to see whether his mother and sister had made it home. When they didn't answer, his concern grew.

Soon, his worst fears were realized.

The phone started ringing, as news spread that a Dominican-bound plane had crashed shortly after takeoff. Perez went to the airport and grieved with the other families.

Two hundred sixty people died in the crash that was attributed to turbulence, not terrorism, this time. He had to wait to take the bodies of his mother and sister back to the Dominican for closed-casket funerals.

Ruiz was 55.

"She was everything," Perez said last week. "She always gave me full support, no matter if I was doing good or if I was doing bad. She was always there. If I gave up a run, or gave up a base hit, she made me feel better the next day."

At times, the ordeal overwhelmed him.

"He cried a lot," said Gil Fuentes, who grew up on the same street as Perez in the Dominican city of Bajos de Haina. "That's hard when you lose your mother and your sister. He's a good friend of mine, and when the plane crashed, I said I need to be there for him."

Family has always been priority No. 1 for Perez, who has a wife and four children. So he leaned on them a lot, and replaced those daily phone calls to his mother with daily phone calls to Fuentes.

The Diamondbacks were understanding with Perez and told him to take his time, but they released him after he made just four spring training appearances. So the Orioles swooped in and signed him, sending him to Triple-A Rochester.

On June 26, Perez, 34, made his first appearance in the big leagues since 2000, when he went 2-1 with a 5.16 ERA in 33 games with the Houston Astros.

"I'm happy for him," Fuentes said. "I wanted to see him in the majors again. He worked so hard, trying to compete."

Including a one-out save last night, Perez has posted a 4.50 ERA in five appearances with the Orioles. He has had good outings and bad outings, tossing a scoreless inning against Philadelphia one night and then allowing three of his next four inherited runners to score.

But things have certainly fallen into perspective for Perez.

"I don't take a thing for granted," he said. "I lost my mother, and she was top of the line, so I don't care what happens to me. If I'm not doing my job today, that's OK. If I get released tomorrow, that's OK. Because who knows what can happen in life?"

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