When former major league outfielder Robert Perez rides his bicycle through the streets of his native Venezuela, he doesn’t get far before he is interrupted.
“It’s like I’m the mayor,” Perez said in Spanish. “Everyone wants to say ‘hello.’ ”
But perhaps no one is more beloved than Perez, who incredibly played 27 years in the Venezuelan League, all of those winters for Lara, before retiring in 2015 at age 45.
His youngest son, Hedbert Perez, may not ever be as popular as his dad, who has a street named after him in Venezuela.
But there is a decent chance that Hedbert, an outfielder who is just 18 years old and one of the Brewers’ top prospects, may one day make a bigger impact on the major leagues than his old man.
“Hedbert has something I didn’t teach him,” Robert Perez said. “He is a natural lefty with a whip swing. The ball jumps off his bat. He was born with that.”
Perez signed for $700,000 in 2019 and was just 17 last year when assigned to Milwaukee’s alternate training site, where he competed against some of the organization’s top prospects, including lefthanders Ethan Small, Antoine Kelly and Aaron Ashby. Perez was the youngest player at the site.
This year, Perez turned heads in spring training. While playing right field, he raced toward the corner before making a diving, backhanded grab.
“Any time a young player gets to appear in a spring training game and makes a play like that in windy conditions, it catches your attention,” Brewers international scouting director Mike Groopman said.
“It was a great moment for Hedbert. Everyone in our front office enjoyed that moment.”
There were other moments in his brief time at major league camp, including the time he struck out on three straight curveballs from the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer, the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.
But in his first 10 games this year in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League, Perez again quickened the pulses of Brewers development folks, batting .342 with two homers and four doubles.
David Tufo, who has coached Perez in Arizona since March, talks about the prospect’s intangibles before even getting to his physical tools.
“He is mature for his age,” Tufo said. “He is fully bilingual, which helps him bridge the gap (between English and Spanish speakers). It helps make him a natural leader.
“Hedbert is also more receptive than most to seek extra help from coaches and older players.”
Perez said that was particularly true last year, when he bent the ear of six-time all-star outfielder Ryan Braun, who at age 36 was at the alternate site on a rehab assignment.
“At one point, (Braun) asked me how old I am,” Perez said. “When I told him, he said, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m so old.’ ”
Robert Perez wore No. 51 in Venezuela, and he wanted that same number when he signed with Orix in Japan in 1999. That’s when he discovered that his new superstar teammate, Ichiro Suzuki, already had that number.
But after Perez retired, Street 51 in his hometown changed its name. It is now called Robert Perez Calle 51.
Perez signed with the Blue Jays in 1989 and made his big league debut at age 25 in 1994. Besides playing games in Canada, Venezuela and the U.S., he also played for pro squads in Japan, South Korea and Italy.
Perez was never a full-time starter in the majors, but he played parts of six seasons for the Blue Jays, Mariners, Expos, Yankees and Brewers, hitting .254/.271/.344 in 497 at-bats.
“I’m proud of what he accomplished,” Hedbert said. “I’m proud of being his son.”
That pride shows through the most in Venezuela, where Robert Perez, now 52, still holds the Venezuelan League records for most doubles (222), home runs (125) and RBIs (738).
“I remember as a kid going to his games in Venezuela,” Hedbert said. “It was awesome to hear a full stadium chanting your dad’s name, cheering for him.”
Often, Perez would return from a major league season and dive right into baseball in Venezuela.
“Even if I had a minor injury, I would play,” Perez said. “I loved to play.”
Perez said his nicknames in Venezuela include “La Pared Negra” and “El Hombre Historia.”
The first nickname translates to “The Black Wall” and was given to him because he caught everything in the outfield. The second nickname translates to “The History Man,” which he earned due to his impact on the Venezuelan League’s record book.
Robert and Hedbert Perez are similar but different. Robert is righthanded. Hedbert is a lefty. Robert played at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. Hedbert has grown to 5-foot-11, 195 pounds.
“Hedbert’s father is a legend in Venezuelan baseball,” Groopman said. “But it’s important for Hedbert to create his own story.
“Any time a player has his combination of skills to go with work ethic, dedication and passion, it’s impressive. Hedbert has demonstrated that early on in his career.”
Because of his father’s big league background, Hedbert is likely ahead of schedule, and that’s partly why scouts can dream on his upside.
“He has an advantage because he has grown up in clubhouses and dugouts, and that has helped him acclimate to pro baseball,” Groopman said.
“Without minor league baseball last year, it created a unique opportunity for Hedbert to be around elite prospects in A-ball and all the way up to players with significant major league service time.
“Hedbert saw how older guys prepare, and he took full advantage.”
Perez has solid tools across the board, including impressive power for his age. Speed is likely his No. 1 asset. He has a quick, compact swing and good plate discipline for his age.
In addition, Perez has the arm to play right field and the speed for center. The Brewers believe he will be a center fielder in the long term.
“It’s good that Hedbert plays all over the outfield,” Groopman said, “so he can experience different reads and routes from varied angles, whether it’s in center or on a corner.”
As for Perez, he said: “My dream is to play center field in the majors.”
Offensively, Perez hits to all fields, according to Tufo, with the most authority coming with his drives to right and center.
Hedbert has also had to adjust to increased velocity from opposing pitchers.
“Last year (at the alternate site) was the first time I faced 98, 99 (mph),” Hedbert said. “I think I did very well.”
Hedbert’s name is a combination of the letters in the names of his mother Yulhed and father Robert. He has an older brother, Robert Jr., who is a 21-year-old first baseman in the Mariners organization.
But it wasn’t always a sure thing that Hedbert would follow his father and brother into baseball.
Robert Perez said that once he saw his son was serious about baseball, there were certain rules.
“He has to respect the game,” Robert Perez said. “He has to love the jersey he is playing for, and he has to take it seriously because now this is his profession.”