CLEVELAND -- Roberto Perez became emotional as he peered out his window during his October trip home. As the plane approached the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, Perez could see fallen trees strewn across roads and blue tarps serving as temporary coverings where rooftops previously existed.
As Perez's plane closed in on Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, the Indians catcher thought back to his previous image of his homeland. He pictured the lush greenery and blue waters that greet travelers to the Caribbean island, and then compared that to the devastation below him. Perez thought of his mother and how her home was among the structures destroyed by Hurricane Maria's vicious winds in September.
"You start seeing that from the airplane, and it's like, 'Wow,'" Perez said earlier this week. "It was tough, and I lived it for a couple days. It was horrible, man."
Perez has spent most of his offseason at his new house outside Cleveland, but the catcher has made a couple trips back to Puerto Rico since the Indians' season ended. This week, Perez is returning home again for the holidays, and there is one present in particular on his mind. He wants to sit down with his mom, Lilliam Martinez, and discuss getting her into a new house.
When Maria -- classified as a Category 5 hurricane -- made landfall on Sept. 20, the Indians were in Anaheim taking on the Angels. Both Perez and Tribe shortstop Francisco Lindor felt helpless, while their respective families sought safety thousands of miles away. The storm knocked out power to more than 3 million people in Puerto Rico, and it was multiple days before Perez and Lindor made contact with their loved ones.
In Mayaguez, P.R., a city along the western coast of the island, the home that Perez grew up in was severely damaged. During his visit in October, Perez saw the aftermath first-hand. He is quick to note that everything that was lost was just material things, and that the most important thing to him is that his family was safe. That did not make seeing the scene for himself any easier to take, though.
"When I went and I saw it with my own eyes, it was sad," Perez said. "That was the place that I lived in my whole life. That was the home that I was raised in. To see it like that, it was sad, but it kind of takes me back to thinking about all my mom did for me, and how I really want to help her out now. It was sad, but now she deserves a new home."
When talking about his mom, Perez often says the same thing: "She was my dad and my mom."
Perez's parents divorced when he was just 1 year old. She drove trucks in Puerto Rico and, as a former softball player, helped cultivate her son's love of baseball. Perez has a tattoo of his mother's name across his right wrist, giving him a constant reminder of her support. That is, after all, the hand he uses to call pitches and throw out baserunners for the American League Central-champion Tribe.
Perez, who signed a four-year contract extension with Cleveland in April, wants to be there for his mom now.
"It's a blessing, man," Perez said. "To be able to sign a contract and to be able to have that security and to be able to have that money and help her out, it's awesome. She did everything for me when I was younger. She raised me. So, to be able to help her and ask her what she wants to do, and that I will be there for her, it's something special."
Earlier this month, Perez also returned to Puerto Rico to take part in a celebrity softball game and home run derby put on by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Lindor was also among the Puerto Rican players to join the cause, which benefited Foundation 4 (Molina's non-profit organization) and raised money for hurricane relief. More than 20,000 fans packed Hiram Bithorn Stadium, and more than $200,000 was raised.
In the coming season, the Indians will return to Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which took damage during the hurricane, for a two-game series against the Twins on April 17-18. Perez said he and Lindor have discussed how special those games will be for Puerto Rico, especially during the continuing recovery process. Perez will look forward to flying into San Juan in April and seeing how much things have improved.
"With all that they went through with the hurricane," Perez said, "to go to the ballpark and watch an MLB game, that's probably huge for them. They can get out of the house and experience something else. I'm sure, more than anything, this will be for them more than for us. And, as a Puerto Rican, I'm looking forward to playing in front of Puerto Rico. I can't wait."