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The last time a Columbia alum appeared in the World Series, he drove in the championship-winning run in the tenth inning of Game Seven. With one hit, Gene Larkin, CC '84, became a part of postseason legend. And while the next Columbia alum to appear in a World Series wouldn't be able to make the same kind of claim, Fernando Perez, CC '05, has still made it further than even he could have expected. Perez, 25, was called up to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 5, having spent nearly five full seasons in the minor leagues following his selection by the Rays in the seventh round of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft. Before season's end, he had stolen five bases and homered three times in 60 at-bats. In the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, he scored the winning run as a pinch-runner in Game Two. And with only two outs left in the top of the ninth in Philadelphia, he stood on second base, 120 feet from becoming the tying run in Game Five of the 2008 World Series, hoping to extend Tampa's incredible postseason run at least one more game. While five other Ivy Leaguers played in the majors in 2008, Perez is the first from Columbia to reach the big leagues since Frank Seminara, CC '89, who pitched from 1992 to 1994 for the San Diego Padres and New York Mets. Before Seminara and Larkin, who played for the Minnesota Twins from 1987 to 1993, a former Lion hadn't been to the majors since Lou Gehrig nearly a half-century earlier. Despite the rarity of his achievement, Perez said that he sometimes wishes others in baseball would pay less attention to his academic background when it comes time to play the game. Apart from the usual ribbing from players, he noted that some in his organization tried to treat him differently coming up. "These guys had these ideas of what an Ivy Leaguer must be like, what a guy from Columbia must be like," Perez said. Perez assumed that others felt he lacked toughness in particular, purely because of his background. But Perez knew that to reach the majors from Columbia, he had pushed himself incredibly hard. "If you're a fringy guy at Columbia, you really have to make sure that you get above and beyond the line of recognition," he said. Initially, Perez was not thinking about sports when looking at schools. Coaches that called to recruit him to schools with lesser academic reputations were not of great interest. Even during his first year at Columbia, Perez's priorities were often focused off the diamond. What excited him most, he said, was exploring New York City. As he progressed as a player, however, that began to change. "I kind of worked to a point that by the end of my junior year, baseball was more important than anything," Perez said. "It was my trade already." Because of his place at Columbia, though, making baseball the number one priority was a necessary choice if he wanted to play at the next level. "You don't get drafted by just going to practice," Perez said. Paul Fernandes, Columbia's coach in 2004, Perez's final season, spoke highly of the young athlete's work ethic. "He was so well-grounded," Fernandes said. "He was serious academically and able to balance that with his desire to be a professional baseball player." Perez expected to get drafted after his junior year despite an injury that had hampered him during the season, but his family was initially reluctant to have him sign before finishing school. What pushed him towards signing was the knowledge that the offer he received as a junior was likely to be better than it would be as a senior, coupled with the fact that he could return after the summer baseball season and finish his studies. After a summer playing with Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League, Perez did indeed return to campus. "That was probably the most fun that I ever had at school," he said. Experiencing a normal college life was eye-opening. What Perez realized was that playing a college sport was "not a logical commitment if you want to do well in school, or you want to take advantage of all the great things and all the cultural events that New York City has." That was particularly true at a school like Columbia, which is far more demanding than other universities. "Athletes don't have enough leverage, especially at a place like this," Perez said. "You go somewhere else where it's more about your sport, you have a little bit of leverage, or a little breathing room ... They always make it easy for you. But here, it's an enormous commitment." Perez acknowledged that he felt overwhelmed at times. "I felt like I couldn't do anything really, really well," he said. "I felt always that I was compromising." The challenge that Ivy League schools provide makes players like Perez a rare breed. Fernandes, who was head coach from 1977 to 1998 and again in 2004 and 2005, saw that ability first-hand when he coached Larkin and Seminara as well as Perez and several others who were drafted but never reached the big leagues. "What separates those players, besides skill level, is the maturity and stability of the individual," Fernandes said. Perez himself said he didn't quite understand why Ivy League players don't get more attention. The enormous number of professional baseball players provides for a lot of "unassuming talents," he said, players that don't stand out for any one attribute. From that group, any number of factors can go into determining who reaches the highest levels, and a lot of it is just figuring the game out, year by year. "The minor leagues are literally like a rat race," Perez said. "There are so many players, and it's a test of resolve. You have to make adjustments. All these things, I feel that supposedly smart kids would be better equipped to do." Commenting on the relative lack of information on which teams make their late-round picks, Perez said, "I don't see why they don't gamble more." The same goes for the current Lions squad, with which Perez has been working out during this offseason as he has each winter since he graduated. He reiterated that playing in fewer games and receiving less frequent attention from scouts then players at showcase schools does mean that players have to work harder in order to be noticed. Having a player like Perez return to the program, meanwhile, can be a very positive influence on the current players, according to Fernandes. They can see in person, he said, how one can blend academics and athletics, and how the two can go hand-in-hand with good time management. "He's great to have around, to watch how he goes through his routine, to see the way it's done in the major leagues," sophomore outfielder Nick Cox said. For his part, Perez enjoys passing on bits of advice he's picked up during his career to the team. While his own Columbia teams never managed to finish above .500, he said he wasn't surprised, given the current state of the program, to see the team win the Ivy League title last year. "Whenever I'm there, it just seems like a very positive environment," Perez said. Fernando Perez never made it to home plate in Game Five. Leading off of second base with every pitch, he watched teammate Ben Zobrist line out to right. He watched Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge strike out Eric Hinske and fall to his knees. He left the field as Phillies players raced from the dugout and the bullpen to celebrate their title. Unable to join the record books like Larkin did 17 years ago, Perez would have to settle for being a rarity in both the major leagues and in Columbia's athletics history. Such a distinction is arguably more unique.

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