LOS ANGELES – The drive from Samana, a town on the northeastern shore of the Dominican Republic, across the island to Santo Domingo was maybe five hours, much of it slow, some of it treacherous.
This was before the new highway went in a few years back, before there were four lanes of fresh pavement, tollbooths and guardrails.
Wily Peralta had taken the old route, the one that would seemingly go to nowhere until it emptied into somewhere. He was 11, and he was going to play baseball, the kind with real baseballs and real baseball gloves.
“Mom, I want to play baseball,” he’d told his mother.
“I want you to go to school,” she’d said.
“I want to go to school, too,” he’d said. “But I believe I can do it; I can play baseball.”
In Samana, Peralta had plucked his baseballs from the lemon tree in his backyard. Sometimes the neighborhood boys would wait months for the lemons to reach the size of a baseball. They’d play catch using squares of cardboard as gloves, and before long their ball was a soft, pulpy mess, sending them back to the tree to pick out a new yellowy pearl.
His father, Diego, was a fisherman. Diego would be gone before dawn and return after sunset. Half of what he caught he’d sell to the local restaurants and the other half he’d bring home to feed the family. There were four children, bills to pay. At the end of a day, or the end of a month, there’d never be enough money left over for something as extravagant as a baseball glove.
Wily’s uncle from down in Santo Domingo, though, he lived near one of those baseball academies they had in the larger cities. Uncle Marcio, who didn’t know much about baseball but would see the kids go past on their way to the academy, would give him a glove. More, Uncle Marcio would give him a future. Wily was a big kid who could throw a lemon harder than anybody. He moved well, too, with an athlete’s grace, even at 11.
So Wily talked his mom and dad into letting him go, into letting him try, and he made the drive through the countryside in the passenger seat, watching what looked like nothing empty into something. Five years later, the Milwaukee Brewers signed him for $450,000. Wily bought his parents a new house first thing. The house is in Bonao, which isn’t all that close to the sea, but Wily goes home in the winters and takes his dad fishing, and everything they catch they bring home for dinner. His mother, Milody, came to the U.S. to watch Wily pitch during his first full season in the big leagues last year, and is back this month to see him again. Wily calls Uncle Marcio plenty.
He’s leaning against a wall in a hallway at Dodger Stadium. He’s 25 now, has soft and mirthful eyes, has won 14 games, as many as Kershaw or Wainwright, and laughs with such ease it can only be honest. He has a wife in the Dominican Republic, and a boy, also Wily, who is not yet 3 but loves the game, already has his own baseball glove and can play a rough game of catch without coming out smelling like Pledge furniture polish.
“I always trusted in my ability,” he says. “I watched Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez when I was young. I wanted to be one of those guys.”
His fastball averages almost 96 mph. He throws a very good, but not yet great, slider. And that’s about what he does. He does have a changeup, which he agrees to throw four or five times every game. Otherwise, he’s a two-pitch pitcher in a three- or four-pitch league, which works when only three or four starters throw a harder fastball, and when it moves like Peralta’s does. A couple starts back, his 114th pitch – a sinker – arrived at 98 mph, because Peralta is big and strong like that, and wants to win like that.
“Hitters don’t like velocity in general,” Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “They certainly don’t like velocity with movement.”
Peralta is evolving. He knows the changeup has to come. Left-handed hitters, batting better than .300 against him, say so. He knew he had to stop getting so angry – “He has a little mean streak in him,” Kranitz said. “He just can’t be so mean to himself.” – and Brewers veterans Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo helped teach him to refocus. These are the lessons that come at 24 or 25, that come with pitching for a contender and taking the ball every fifth day and learning to win before the other guys show you how to lose.
So catcher Jonathan Lucroy doesn’t demand changeups when a two-seamer or a slider will work just fine. Not every time. But often enough. And maybe not forever. But today.
“His strength,” Lucroy said, “is better than the hitter’s strength every day of the week.”
At a time when the Brewers have needed him most, Peralta, who takes the mound Sunday, has won five of his past six starts. His ERA in those starts is 2.06. Over last season, his walks are down, his strikeouts are up and though he is prone to the occasional home run ball, he remains a heavy groundball pitcher. The mid-90s sinkers have something to do with that.
But he’s only just gotten here.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” he says. “It’s not easy. A lot of things to work on.”
Beyond that, he smiles at the journey, the one that came after the road to Santo Domingo. His mom and dad believed in him. They trusted him. He’s made it happen.
“The dream,” he says, “it came true.”
As they say: When life gives you lemons, mix in a slider, master a changeup, and make fastballs.
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