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'Bebo' feels blessed to play for mom in PR

Perez returns a hero to hurricane-ravaged home island
MLB.com @MLBastian

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Roberto Perez tried to keep his focus on baseball, but a week had gone by without hearing from his mom in Puerto Rico. The coastal town of Mayaguez, where Perez grew up and where his mom and brother still call home, was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in September. Perez had only hope, not answers.

When Perez's phone finally buzzed with word from his native island, Cleveland's catcher did not recognize the phone number, but he knew where the call originated. He picked up and heard from one of his mother's neighbors, who told Perez to remember the number. It was a land line and Perez's mom, Lilliam Martinez, could be reached there.

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Roberto Perez tried to keep his focus on baseball, but a week had gone by without hearing from his mom in Puerto Rico. The coastal town of Mayaguez, where Perez grew up and where his mom and brother still call home, was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in September. Perez had only hope, not answers.

When Perez's phone finally buzzed with word from his native island, Cleveland's catcher did not recognize the phone number, but he knew where the call originated. He picked up and heard from one of his mother's neighbors, who told Perez to remember the number. It was a land line and Perez's mom, Lilliam Martinez, could be reached there.

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Perez called as soon as he could, listened to the ringing with anticipation and then the click when someone answered.

:: Puerto Rico Series coverage ::

"Bebo?" said the voice on the other end.

It was his mom.

"It was a blessing," Perez said.

When Perez was very young, Martinez thought her son looked like a baby from magazines. She called him "Bebo" and the nickname stuck throughout his life and is now the moniker used by his teammates with the Indians. When it is Perez's turn to catch, players will call it "Bebo Day." It was Bebo Day on Wednesday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where Martinez was in the stands and Perez was playing in Puerto Rico for the first time with a Major League team.

It has been seven months since Hurricane Maria caused massive destruction throughout Puerto Rico, which is still feeling the effects of the Category 5 storm. More than 3 million people were initially without power, and the island's infrastructure has remained unstable. On Wednesday morning, while Perez and his mother sat down for a wide-ranging interview, Puerto Rico sustained another massive power outage.

Video: CLE@MIN: Perez discusses baseball in Puerto Rico

While buildings surrounding Hiram Bithorn Stadium remained dark, the ballpark had its power restored so the game could go on. This was more than just a baseball game for many of the fans who flocked to the stadium. It certainly meant more than any final score for Perez, his mom and his brother, Michael, who experienced the devastation of the violent storm firsthand.

Perez felt that pain during that first phone call.

"She starts saying, 'Oh, we lost the house,'" Perez said. "That's when I told her, I said, 'You know what? That's material. Forget about it. All I care about is that you guys are safe.' And they were. I was so happy to talk to them."

The house that Perez grew up in was destroyed by the hurricane, but his family's bond was not broken. Perez, who signed a multiyear contract with the Indians early last season, told his mom that they would either purchase a new house or build one from the ground up. Martinez will soon have a new home in the same area where Perez was raised.

Video: Lindor, Perez, Francona hope to put on a show for PR

Perez's parents divorced when he was just 1 year old. Martinez drove trucks in Puerto Rico to make ends meet and did what she could to keep her son on the right path. A former softball player, Martinez saw Perez's passion for baseball when he was little, and she stoked that inner fire.

"I knew he was going to be a baseball player," Martinez said, using Perez as her interpreter. "'Every time we'd go to the store, he'd always be in the toys area. And he would pick up a bat and a ball. That's when I thought he would be a baseball player."

Martinez took Perez to his games when he was young and cheered him on. She dropped him off at the airport -- and cried the entire solitary drive home -- when he headed to Lake City, Fla., to play for Florida Gateway College. She was always a phone call or text message away, telling her son never to give up on his dreams. She rejoiced with Perez when Cleveland took him in the 33rd round of the 2008 MLB Draft and cried when he was called to the Majors six years later.

During the 2016 World Series, Martinez was in the stands when Perez belted two home runs in Game 1 against the Cubs, becoming the first Puerto Rico-born player with a multi-homer game in a Fall Classic. As Progressive Field shook, fans around her gave her hugs and handshakes amid the chaos.

Video: WS2016 Gm1: Perez drives in four runs on two jacks

"I thought I was dreaming," she said. "A moment I will never forget."

All of the sacrifices Martinez made helped mold Perez's character and work ethic. He was never a top prospect. He was not a high Draft pick. But, Perez, 29, is now considered one of baseball's elite defensive catchers -- one in a long list of "receptores" to have come out of Puerto Rico. And, Perez is now a father to two young boys, giving him a chance to draw from all he learned from his mom.

Video: Indians, Twins split historic Puerto Rico Series

"I raised them by myself," Martinez said. "The message I always tried to tell him is, 'Give them what your dad never gave you.'"

On Bebo Day in Puerto Rico, Perez gave his mom many reasons to be proud.

"This is for her," Perez said. "She deserves everything."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Roberto Perez