Perez on Hurricane Maria blackouts: 'I don't wish that on anybody'

Perez hit a home run in this game against the Angels, one day before Hurricane Maria hit his native Puerto Rico. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Sept. 28, 2017. The Cleveland Indians beat the Minnesota Twins 5-2. It was their 100th win, just a few weeks after concluding an American League record-setting 22-game winning streak. Indians catcher Roberto Perez broke an 0-for-18 skid with his eighth home run of the season in the victory.

It was a particularly memorable day for Perez, for none of those reasons: He had spoken to his mom for the first time in close to a week.

On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria became the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1932, bringing 155 mph winds and massive rainfall. And something unprecedented happened: Power and communication were completely cut off to the vast majority of the island's population of 3.4 million people. Just a week earlier, Hurricane Irma had skirted the island, and all Puerto Ricans breathed a sigh of relief and hoped against hope that this storm would take a last minute turn into the Atlantic Ocean. It didn't happen.

"We first started talking about the hurricane -- me, Francisco [Lindor] and Sandy Alomar -- in Anaheim," Perez says now. "We were in the clubhouse, and it was getting bigger.

"[But] usually when we get hurricanes, when it hits the mountains, it kind of gets weak; all the hurricanes [do]. We were hoping for it. I was hoping for it."

Instead, Hurricane Maria slammed ashore in the southeastern town of Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m. local time. It was 3:15 a.m. in Anaheim, where the Indians were scheduled to play the second game of a three-game series against the Angels that evening.

All day, Perez tried to call his mom, Lilliam Martinez, and his brother Michael, but his efforts were in vain. He spent hours on social media checking for storm updates but heard nothing from his family.

"The same day the phones stopped working. When the wind started it knocked down all the power. I kept trying to call but couldn't; phones didn't work," Martinez explains. "It's something that makes you so sad ... that he knew nothing about me or me about him. Imagine, a mother and son, we have always been together all the time... it was so bad not to hear from him."

Despite the chaos, Perez caught the game that night: With a heavy heart and without much sleep, he worked the plate for Josh Tomlin; the Indians won 6-5.

"It was very hard, especially because we were close to playoff games and it was hard to focus, especially for me as a catcher," Perez says. "I had so many things to do behind the plate, you know, calling a game ... blocking balls. It was a crazy moment for me, but me, Lindor and Sandy, we were supporting each other. But I don't wish that to anybody."

The Indians swept the Angels and played three games in Seattle, and Perez still had not heard a word. He was finally able to reach a landline at the corner store in his neighborhood of Barrio Colombia in Mayaguez, where the owner told him his family was safe but their house was destroyed by the storm.

"I am from a very humble family. I love Mayaguez, that's where I was born and raised, and I live in a little barrio [small town]. There's a lot of good people," Perez says. "It was tough ... when the house that you were born and raised [in], it got destroyed; a lot of memories in that house."

One day shortly after the Indians returned home to Cleveland for the season's final stretch, Perez's phone rang with a strange area code.

"I got a phone call from an unknown number. I answered the phone and I remember this lady, she's like 'Hey I am the sister of one of your neighbors. I am going to give you a number so you can call your mom; she is waiting for your call'," Perez recalls.

"Right away, I hung up and I called her and she answered the phone. She started saying, 'You know, I lost the house', and I was like, 'It's OK, that's material. I can help you with that. You guys are safe, and you guys are alive. That's all that matters."

"He was nervous, eager to hear from us," Martinez says. "He said he tried to reach people on Facebook, asking people who know me and Michael. And he would ask, 'You know anything about my mom?'"

As soon as he hung up, Perez cried -- he didn't want to worry his mom by doing it on the phone. It broke his heart that he wasn't there with her.

"It was hard for me because I wasn't in Puerto Rico with my family. I wanted to be with them," he says.

Once they were able to assess the damage, Martinez and Michael sorted through the debris of their home. But Martinez is grateful, especially when she thinks of the many people in Puerto Rico who don't have a place to stay, or help to rebuild -- or, even seven months after the storm, running water or electricity.

"Thank God we are alive. We are alive and have our health; material things can be replaced," she says. "Now we are rebuilding the house. I am a little anxious to have my house back, but thank God we have a place where we can eat and sleep. It's a small space, but we have many things that we were able to rescue [from the storm]."

The Indians' storybook season ended in the American League Division Series, where they lost to the Yankees. In a losing effort, Perez got a hit in each one of their last three games. His mom wasn't able to watch.

"I was completely disconnected," Martinez says. "I couldn't watch on the MLB app. [A few weeks later] they opened up a little kiosk where they were giving free WiFi. There were so many people, because everyone would end up there! And that's when I went to his player page and saw everything he did and all the hits he had."

Until Hurricane Maria, Martinez had never missed a game, ever since Perez put on his first uniform labeled Bebe (Baby) when he was 3 years old -- that jersey was one of the few baseball mementos she was able to recover from her home.

"I never had a dad, so she raised me," Perez says. "She was my dad and my mom at the same time. Without her I wouldn't be in this position right now. I am here because of her."

April 18, 2018. The Cleveland Indians will play the Minnesota Twins, looking for their 10th win of the season. The game will be held at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, the first regular-season series in Puerto Rico since the Mets and the Marlins played a three-game series in June 2010. Perez will play in the second of the two-game series.

"To represent the Cleveland Indians and to play in front of my family ... I hope they enjoy it, and I think my mom is going to be so proud," he says. "I think I'll be emotional, especially [with] what Puerto Rico [has] gone through."

It will be a particularly memorable day for Perez, for one reason more than any other: His mom will be there, watching from the stands.