SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Giants minor leaguers Juan Perez and Johnny Monell played at rival high schools in the Bronx, but Monell lost track of his fellow prep standout when Perez left for a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
A few years later, Monell's New York friends started asking if he had seen what the kid from DeWitt Clinton High was doing at a small junior college in Oklahoma. Perez, after a circuitous journey to college ball, was in the midst of a historic season: A .465 average, 37 homers, 102 RBIs and 29 stolen bases.
"He was putting up video game numbers," Monell said. "It was ridiculous. Everyone back home was talking about him."
Home for Perez has often been a moving target. The road to his third big league camp and an outside shot at a big league roster spot has included a semipro league where beer flowed in the dugouts, a small junior college where he teamed with Danny Almonte, a brief stint as a plumber, and a serious knee injury. All of it, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound outfielder says, was done with one goal in mind.
"Baseball has always been the dream," Perez said.
That dream has taken so many twists and turns that even Perez loses track of some of the names and dates when recounting his road to minor league success.
He came to the U.S. as a 14-year-old who spoke little English but had an undying passion for baseball. The language barrier kept Perez off the field at DeWitt Clinton because he had
"It was kind of overwhelming," he remembers.
Perez returned to the Bronx and to DeWitt Clinton, where he saw plenty of scouts at his games but ended up going undrafted. There were few options at that point for an undersized outfielder.
But Perez happened to live in the same building as the owner of the La Caribe Baseball League, which has been played at Crotona Park in New York since the 1950's. The league counts Manny Ramirez as an alum, but for the most part, there is little about it that indicates future stardom.
More than 90 percent of the players on the messy field are, like Perez, from the Dominican Republic, and many of them are long past their prime. Fans buy beer from a corner store and it's not uncommon for the drinks to end up in the dugout.
Perez played as often as he could and took his swings in local pay-by-the-hour batting cages and at high schools. For much of that time, Perez worked for his father's plumbing business.
"Oh my god -- tough, tough stuff," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "But my dad eventually told me to just focus on baseball. He said, 'I'll help you out because I know you love to play more than anything.' He told me to take it easy and just play."
A friend recommended Western Oklahoma State College, and that's where the Giants discovered a player dubbed "Mystery Guy" by some scouts because he seemed to have come out of nowhere.
While playing on a team that included Almonte, a fellow Bronx product who famously dominated the 2001 Little League World Series by being two years over the age limit, Perez flourished. He set NJCAA Division II records for homers and RBIs and was named player of the year. Perez had a .530 on-base percentage and 62 extra-base hits in 64 games.
Dick Tidrow, the Giants vice president of player personnel, scouted Perez and was most impressed that he was piling up prolific numbers on an ACL that would require surgery right after the draft.
"Those numbers are still unreal to think about, " assistant general manager Bobby Evans said, smiling. "I haven't seen that kind of line."
Despite the late start on his professional career, Perez, 26, has developed a reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders in the minors while steadily improving at the plate. Perez hit .302 a year ago at Double-A Richmond with 11 homers, 26 doubles and 18 stolen bases. He is built like a brick house, teammates say, but coaches have asked Perez to focus on the fact that he gets out of the batter's box like a track star.
"For his size, he's probably the strongest player pound-for-pound in the system," minor league hitting coordinator Steve Decker said. "He's a strong kid and strong people tend to search for power, but I don't think he understands how fast he is and how productive he can be if he focuses on line drives and walks. He can wreak havoc that way."
Decker has worked with Perez on trusting his hands and developing a better understanding of the strike zone. He sees in Perez a player who can ultimately be an ideal No. 2 hitter, possessing both speed and power.
Perez has just three hits in 22 at-bats this spring, but has flashed his defensive skills, most recently making a running catch to clinch Monday's 2-1 win over the Texas Rangers.
Years after he lost track of his fellow Bronx product, Monell isn't surprised that the two now share a clubhouse in big league camp.
"Yeah, people say he's undersized, but he goes hard every play," Monell said. "It's his heart that matters."