SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Guanare is a 420-year-old town of about 235,000 people on the western floodplains of Venezuela. Legend has it that the Virgen de Coromoto once appeared there to the chief of a local Indian tribe, and now Guanare is considered the spiritual capital of Venezuela.
Pope John Paul II was crowned during his visit to the imposing National Shrine of Our Lady of Coromoto -- Patroness of Venezuela -- and the city has mostly avoided the political and economic turmoil that plagues Caracas and the country's other big cities.
Guanare is also in the heart of Venezuela's abundant agricultural region with sugar, rice, corn and livestock among the main sources of income. The rivers flow out of the Andes Mountains and are still clean enough to fish for catfish.
"My friends and I would go down to the river, catch the fish, camp out and cook them right there on the banks," Rangers pitcher Martin Perez said. "Guanare is just like Texas. ... A lot of horses, good steaks. I love steaks. Guanare is not a big city. It's a small city, but I've got all my family there and my friends there. I love that city."
Perez carries the spirit of his hometown in his quest to become a successful Major League pitcher. Guanare is a large part of who he is, what he has become and why the Rangers believe he has a tremendous future.
Perez was born and raised in Guanare and still makes his home there. He got his unquenchable work ethic from his father, Martin, who drove a taxi, and his mother, Leida, who was a cleaning lady at the local school. She also passed along to her youngest son a deep love for baseball as well as earning enough money to buy him his first glove.
"It was not new. It was an old glove and I had it for five days," Perez said. "A guy threw me a softball and it broke the web. Every day I get up I thank God for my mom and dad. We didn't have much money, just enough to eat, but I know there are Latin players that didn't have what I have.
"I am proud of my parents. They were always there for me and pushing me to be a big league player. They gave me my life. Now they don't have to work anymore. I want to take care of them and give my family a better life. My father is a quiet man, he's not one who is going to say, 'I love you.' But I feel it from him. When I talk to him on the phone, he says, 'Take care and God bless you.' That's all I need."
Perez's father was not a baseball fan. In fact, he used to hate the sport. It was the pitcher's mother who got him started when he was 9 years old.
"I was always running around and throwing things in school," Perez said. "So the people told my mother, 'You've got to give him a sport to play. He needs to play baseball.'"
It was either that or a singing career. Yes, the left-handed pitcher who won 10 games for the Rangers in 2013 and was their Rookie of the Year, loves to sing -- and not just in the shower. Llanera music is part of the culture on the Venezuelan plains, a form of country-western music that celebrates the cowboy lifestyle of the region.
"My dad loves that music," Perez said. "I sing in restaurants. I remember my friends said I could either play baseball or have a singing career. But if you play baseball, you can make more money and give your parents a better life by playing baseball. That's when I understood what I wanted to be."
The local iguanas probably wished he would have stuck to singing. Instead, Perez honed his pitching skill by throwing rocks at the 5-6 foot lizards native to the floodplains.
"Oh yeah, I hit a lot of them," Perez said. "My friends and I would go out all the time and throw rocks at them. I'd do my school work and then tell my mom I was going out to play baseball. Instead, my friends and I would go out and throw rocks at iguanas."
The precocious kid probably didn't endear himself to the local animal rights activists, but it helped him develop his superb command. When he was 10, he pitched Guanare to the National Series championship and got his picture in the local paper. That's when Perez knew he had a chance to pitch professionally. A few years later, Venezuela-based agent Felix Olivo came to the same conclusion.
"He said he wanted to see me pitch," Perez said. "I ran home and told my mom, 'Some guy wants to see me throw.' I didn't even know who he was. I threw two warm-up pitches and said I was ready. He said, 'Don't you want to stretch out more?' I told him I was ready. I threw five pitches and he said, 'That's enough. Don't show me anything more.'"
Through Olivo, who has become his second father, Perez started pitching in the most competitive leagues in Venezuela, including two years in Valencia, an industrial town of 2 million people. That's where he really learned his craft.
"I would sit in my room, take a towel and practice my delivery in the mirror," Perez said. "I would do that for two hours a day, about 300-500 times. That's why I have good mechanics. Then I would watch YouTube. I would watch Felix Hernandez or Johan Santana pitch. Santana was my hero. I would watch where he threw the ball, when he threw his curveball, when he threw his changeup. I'd watch his body language and what he did when things went bad. I watched everything."
Perez was 16 when the Rangers signed him on July 2, 2007. They were impressed not only with his arm, but his advanced feel for pitching. They pushed him through the Minors, and he was almost always the youngest pitcher in his league. He had a tendency to struggle immediately after being promoted to a new level, but once he learned to control his emotions on the mound, he ended up flourishing.
All those rocks thrown at iguanas and all those hours spent in front of the mirror paid off last season. Perez finally earned a spot in the Rangers' rotation, going 10-6 with a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts. The Rangers rewarded him with a four-year, $12.5 million contract with three option years last November.
"He was great," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He had a sensational couple of months in July and August when he kind of kept us afloat. He had a nice rookie campaign. He made some adjustments and came face to face with who he is and what he needs to do."
If Perez is as good as the Rangers expect, the contract could end up being extremely club-friendly 4-6 years from now. But it was more important for Perez to make sure his family was set for life and his parents never have to work again.
"This kid is pure heart," Olivo said. "He is a great teammate and an excellent person who always cares for other people with or without money in his wallet."
When you're making that kind of money, you can also host a big barbecue for your teammates at their Spring Training hotel. Perez did just that and even did all the cooking on Friday night for about a dozen teammates at their hotel. The menu included chicken, rice, pasta and arepas, a Venezuelan flatbread made from ground maize dough.
It is not enough for Perez to be a great Major League pitcher. He said it is just as important to be a leader, an example to other players and to help people in need.
"When I started to see baseball was going to be my life, I realized that I also wanted to be a better person," Perez said. "I wanted to be better in how I treat my teammates, help people who don't have something to eat, help kids who want to play baseball but don't have gloves or bats, help younger players and teach them what it takes to make the Major Leagues. It's easy to get here, but it's harder to stay here.
"That's the kind of person that I want to be."
That's the spirit Perez has brought with him from his hometown, the spiritual capital of Venezuela.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less