March 31, 2009

Poise Under Pressure

March 31, 2009

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Just after dawn, Matt Perry and his roomie John Sills trudge up ice-crusted campus steps, crunching their way through the hilltop tundra to reach the fieldhouse. They will thwack baseballs into drapes of netting, hitting from tees and the underhand and overhand tosses of teammates.

On braver days, the Crusaders will grab their gear and venture forth to the artificial turf behind the Hart Center, to field balls and play catch in the frigid January air, just to get the feel of baseball. It is repetitive, grey work, getting arms into shape and swings into synch, long before any sunshine will take off the chill. Yet the players remain determined, knowing soon a smattering of cold-weather fans in the Fitton Field grandstands will poke their heads through parkas like spring crocuses.

Matt and his friends practice without much notice: lifting weights evenings, sweating through early-morning agonies, hitting and throwing in the confinement of a gussied up war-surplus hangar. Eagerly they await their opening quest to the west in late February, hoping to thaw out in time for eight games against perennial powers Loyola Marymount in California, Arizona in Tucson and Arizona State in Tempe.

The tanned Crusaders, having been tested by the best, will jam 42 games into a seven-week span before the Patriot League Tournament in early May.

"Just Matt'' is how his teammates think of Perry. He is a junior, a third baseman who hits from the left side. His shortstop sidekick Sills, a tri-captain, describes him as a hard worker, a fierce competitor and a quiet kid. His coach Greg DiCenzo calls him "a great teammate,'' the ultimate accolade an athlete can receive in sports.

Perry will execute his sweet swing and draw extra notice. Fans will start pointing at him, connecting the purple dots. Perry to Perry to Perry. Stacked like some family three-decker in Somerville or Worcester.

Some greybeard in the stands will say, "See that kid up at the plate ... he's Ron Perry's grandson and Ronnie Perry's son. Where has the time gone!"

Growing up, Matt lived in the Sudbury, Mass., neighborhood of Home Plate Farm, once the residence of Babe Ruth. Now the Perry family of six lives in another section of town, up the road from a batting cage.

Matt's dad coached his youth baseball and basketball teams. "I tried to keep it simple and not overcoach him,'' says Ronnie Perry. "Nothing highly technical. Just basics like keeping your shoulder in when hitting, having your feet apart for balance, holding your bat at the proper angle."

Ronnie repeated to his only son his own father's mantra: "Keep your poise under pressure." He passed on the lessons he had learned when he tagged along to practices, clinics and camps that his dad coached during his enormously successful days (1958-72) at West Roxbury's Catholic Memorial High.

At St. Sebastian's, an all-boys Catholic prep school in Needham, Mass., Matt flourished. He excelled academically. He is still featured on the school's Web site video, explaining the school's philosophy and how it affected his growth and development. In sports, Matt won nine varsity letters. In the fall, he ran cross country to stay in shape. He was a sharp-shooting guard in basketball. As a crafty control pitcher and solid shortstop, Matt led the varsity in hitting as a sophomore (.386), junior (.400) and senior (.425).

Yet at a shade over 6 feet and soaking-wet 160 pounds, Matt wondered if he would be too frail to play Division 1 college ball.

"Physically he is a late bloomer," Matt's dad recalls. "But he always had a calm confidence. I remember his season opener in Senior Ruth: The bases were loaded in the late innings. Matt was playing shortstop. I was coaching and needed to make a pitching change. I call him in to relieve -- I was trying to keep it light and told Matt `just throw strikes and let's see what happens.' He pitched us out of the jam.''

At 17, Matt proved he could "keep his poise under pressure." Yet he was still on the skinny side.

Getting to the Hill
"I never thought much about going to Holy Cross,'' says Matt. He had heard the stories of his dad's All-American hoop exploits and his grandfather (Ron S. Perry) winning national championships in baseball and basketball. Matt didn't want to deal with the comparisons or worry about measuring up to two Crusader legends. He wanted to be himself, to be "just Matt." He wanted to go somewhere he could play baseball, wondering if Division 1 would be a stretch.

Matt had top-notch options. He made visits to Williams and Dartmouth and had Amherst on his to-do list. He set up a meeting with then Holy Cross baseball coach Craig Najarian, who had scouted him at St. Seb's.

He was no stranger to Mount St. James. Matt had been to a half-dozen basketball camps here. He had been to his share of games. From the old timers, Matt had heard the stories of the Perry Legacy. His "grampie" pitched two complete-game victories in three days as Holy Cross won the 1952 College World Series; and he starred as a Crusader guard for the 1954 NIT champs. His dad, an All-American scoring machine at Holy Cross, was drafted to play pro baseball and basketball.

Matt understood his family ties to the College. Grand-father Ron, still a senior adviser, served as Holy Cross' director of athletics from 1972-98. His mom's father, the late Joseph Galligan, received his degree from Holy Cross in 1940. So did his aunts, Maryellen Perry Collins (Class of 1978) and Patrice Perry Berens (Class of 1984), and his cousin, Christine Collins (Class of 2008).

His grandfather and dad naturally relished the idea of Matt playing for Holy Cross. After all, who doesn't love a three-peat? But they didn't even nudge Matt toward picking their alma mater.

During his Holy Cross visit, Matt felt very comfortable mingling with coaches, players and students. He says a family atmosphere, having nothing to do with his last name, embraced him. That day, while sharing a pizza at the Wonder Bar on Shrewsbury Street, Matt surprised his father: "No need to go to Amherst. If coach Najarian wants me, I'm coming.''

Coach Najarian, understanding the upside potential of Matt Perry, extended the invitation. Matt accepted with just one goal in mind: to become the best Matt Perry he could be.

Life as a Perry
Super Bowl Sunday provides a snapshot of life with the Perrys.

Dad Ron, a successful commercial Realtor, had the day off, sorta. He had to bring his youngest daughter Alicia to her sewing class. An eighth-grader, Alicia spends much of her time underwater. She is developing into an accomplished swimmer like her sisters, Cassandra, a junior at Lincoln Sudbury High and Jessica, a sophomore breaststroker for Duke University.

Sheila Perry is just returning from cheering on Jessie in two meets, home against Clemson and away against North Carolina, where her oldest daughter won the 200-yard Individual Medley on Friday night. Ron had been to watch Jessie perform against Virginia the weekend before.

The Perrys are no where nearly as tranquil as Sudbury, the historic hometown of the Wayside Inn made famous by Longfellow. The day before the Super Bowl, Ron worked as a Cox Communications color analyst for the Providence-Connecticut basketball telecast. During the week, he was putting together complex rental deals for high-end clients and speaking on the sagging economy to an elite gathering of concerned Boston civic and business leaders.

Sheila, a Providence College grad, is the go-to gal. She keeps Ron and the four kids on schedule, transports the girls to early morning and after school swim practices, manages the house and, oh yes, works at a local boutique just to keep busy. "We try to divide the duties. It's exhausting at times with all the traveling, but this is a precious time in our lives and we don't want to miss the kids performing,'' explains Ron.

So the Perrys go, go, go ... to work, to ballgames, swim meets and special occasions ... nonstop. To North Carolina to see Jessie swim. To Worcester, California and Arizona to watch Matt play baseball. To other venues, near and far, to cheer on Cassandra and Alicia. And, yes, to sewing class, so Alicia may someday sew as well as her grammy Pat.

Matt's Turn
"Matt is writing his own chapter of the Perry legacy,'' observes second-year coach Greg DiCenzo. "He's coming into his own. He's a smart athlete who leads by example. He's a funny kid with his own personality. Matt is a hard worker who's fine tuning his offensive and defensive skills."

As a freshman, Matt became convinced he could play at the Division I level. In an April doubleheader against Lehigh, he went 4-for-5 with two doubles and three runs scored. "After that, I knew I could compete," he says. Last season he proved that as a leadoff man, smacking 16 doubles and hitting .285 with 53 hits.

Because of his dedication to training, Matt has bulked up by 30 pounds and, at 6-foot-2½ inches, has added power to his punch.

"Matt stays focused in baseball the same way he does on academics,'' remarks Sills, his roommate for three years. "He sets goals and goes about his business. And he never quits on himself.'' Sills recalls a game against Brown last season when the Crusaders were getting crushed and Matt seemed to be struggling. "Somehow we crawled back and, by the last inning, had cut Brown's lead to 12-10. Matt has this fiercely determined look on his face. He drills a two-run off-field homer to tie the game, and we win it on another homer. Finally Matt breaks into a smile.''

Just Matty being Matty
Last summer, Matt played in the wood-bat New York College Baseball League and hit a remarkable .426. This summer, Matt has signed on to play for Chatham Anglers in the elite Cape Cod League. "He's just getting better and better,'' says DiCenzo, who forecasts a bright season as the Crusaders are armed with the Patriot League's Pitcher of the Year, Matt Shapiro. "We have an excellent group who won 21 games last season (most since 1980) and were 12-1 in one-run games.''

As his junior season progresses, Matt is a loyal Crusader and feels fortunate to be at Holy Cross. An economics major with a flair for writing and public speaking, he lavishes praise on his college, classmates, coaches and teammates. He has a burning desire to see the Crusaders return to the NCAA tournament as his dad's team did in 1978 and his grandfather's team did in 1952.

Matt also comfortably wears a special ring that is emblematic of the Perry Legacy. There are only three such rings, worn by his grandfather, his dad and himself. His dad had them made for Christmas gifts. On each ring is emblazoned an HC, crossed bats, two 14s--numbers once donned in baseball by Ronald S. Perry and Ronald K. Perry -- and a 15, the number now worn by Matt.

Nothing wrong with a little display of family pride. Not when the surname is Perry and the college is Holy Cross. Nothing at all.

 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.