PROFILE: Winning at Life: Thompson High’s Frankie Perez teaches success both on the field and in life as a baseball coach and ESL teacher

Published 11:20 am Monday, March 18, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

In 2018, Frankie Perez sat at the top of the baseball mountain. He was not only the coach of state champion Hazel Green, but the first Latino to win a baseball state championship in the top two classifications of Alabama high school sports.

It was a start to a head coaching career coaches dream of, yet, he felt empty.

“I remember sitting in my room at 2 a.m. with a trophy in my hand,” Perez says. “Everybody was asleep and I still in my uniform, going, ‘This is it? Really? We’re the best. This is it?’”

Fast-forward five years later, and everything has changed. Perez is the head coach at Thompson High School, the program that gave him his first chance to coach high school baseball over a decade ago. The miserable man who valued winning at all costs is gone, and in his place is a man passionate about helping his English as a Second Language (ESL) students, smiling and cracking jokes to staff in the hallways and beaming about the opportunities his players are getting at a camp built for minority baseball recruits.

For Perez, his life as a baseball coach, ESL teacher, husband and father is a dream come true and a full-circle moment, but it didn’t go the way he planned it.

He endured trials and tribulations, experienced many highs and lows and worked tirelessly to get to where he is now–a place he never thought he would be but couldn’t imagine leaving.

Frankie Perez has played an instrumental role in the success of Thompson High School’s baseball and ESL programs with his dedication to building relationships with the people around him. (Contributed/Alabaster City Schools)

Started from the bottom

“To know what brought me to Thompson, you need to know what got me to Alabama,” Perez says.

Perez grew up in Venezuela, where baseball was all he knew from a young age. He spent three years learning baseball in the Houston Astros’ academy in Venezuela, and his parents sent him to Houston to pursue his dream of becoming a professional baseball player.

He played high school baseball while staying with a host family that he grew very close to, and eventually that turned into an opportunity to play on scholarship in junior college in west Texas. From there, he was set to play Division I college baseball at Western Kentucky, but after the coach that recruited him left, his scholarship offer was pulled, and one of the few schools that offered him and remained interested was the University of Montevallo.

And off he went to Alabama.

The next season of life was a mixed bag. He recognizes he was blessed with an opportunity to finish his bachelor’s degree on scholarship while still playing baseball, won a Division II national championship and met his future wife, Stephanie, during his time at UM.

However, Perez had to reckon with a dream denied as he knew he couldn’t play professional baseball after a knee surgery prior to coming to Montevallo. The dream that brought him to America would never come true. That left him disappointed and angry at baseball, and he ran away from his longtime passion.

“I was so disappointed and angry with baseball. Why? Because I left home at such a young age, my goal was to make it big and take care of my family and make millions of dollars,” Perez says. “I didn’t want anything to do with baseball after I graduated college.”

After graduating, Perez stayed in Birmingham and sold insurance to senior citizens. By his own admission, he wasn’t good at it and he hated it. Stephanie, then his fiancé, saw how miserable he was and tried to get him back to his passion–baseball–by getting involved in coaching.

There was just one problem. Coaches in Alabama need to teach at the school, and he wasn’t thrilled with that idea.

“She said, ‘You know, Frankie, baseball’s what you love. It’s your passion,” Perez said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to teach. I can’t stand kids. I’m not patient enough.”

However, unbeknownst to him, Stephanie sent in his resume to Shelby County Schools for a para-professional ESL translator job. She told him to try it for a year to see how it went. He got the interview and was open to the job, but only if he could coach.

“[The interviewer] said, ‘I think you’ll be great for our local school named Thompson High School. We got a lot of Hispanics there. They need a positive male figure,’” Perez said. “I was like, ‘Whatever, if I can coach, I’m good.’”

“Honestly, I thought it was a one-year deal,” Perez said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to (struggle with) these ESL kids. There’s no way I’m going to have the patience to these kids, no way.’ But being an ESL student myself, when I got to Texas, I was in their shoes. I was that Hispanic kid that understood what the ESL teacher was telling me. So, I was like, ‘Maybe I can give back, kind of pay forward.’ And I fell in love with the profession. I fell in love with helping Hispanic kids, just helping kids, period. And the coaching parts came naturally. Honestly, I feel like that’s when God said, ‘Listen to me, idiot. This is what you’re supposed to be doing.’”

Perez joined an ESL department that has only grown since he first arrived to Thompson in 2008. He is continually blown away by the opportunities and the resources the students have because of Alabaster City Schools, as well as the technology they have that didn’t exist when he came to America for high school in 2000.

Perez, however, wasn’t satisfied and wanted to become an even better teacher, so he applied for UAB’s Shelby Stars program to earn his master’s degree in ESL, and he received a full ride. He even later returned to UAB’s Bartow Arena to give a commencement speech at his alma mater, which he called one of the proudest moments of his career as he represented ESL teachers and immigrants on the stage.

At the same time, he coached on some of Thompson’s most successful baseball teams in program history, earning his first head coaching job at Montevallo High School as a result.

That led to his chance at Hazel Green before coming back to where it all started at Thompson High School.

While his baseball dreams didn’t turn out the way he thought they would when he immigrated to America, he feels blessed that the game has given him the life he has now.

“Baseball has given me three degrees, a wife, a life,” Perez said. “Baseball has given me everything you can imagine, and it’s because the good Lord has blessed me with the game of baseball. If you cannot match my passion that I have for the sport, it’s because the game has given me way more than I deserve.”

Frankie Perez met his wife Stephanie while he was at the University of Montevallo, and their family has since grown with their children Isabella, Sophia and Dylan. (Contributed)

Winning at life

While some may say that Perez failed at his dream of turning professional, he doesn’t see it that way. One of the many lessons he learned through baseball was how often you can fail and still be called successful.

He draws a comparison to the best batter in baseball in 2023, Miami Marlins star and Venezuelan immigrant Luis Arraez, who hit for an average of .351 during the season.

“The game of baseball teaches so much about failure that that’s what I’m passionate about,” Perez said. “You’re going to fail in life. Life is not easy. You’re supposed to fail in life, that’s what life is about, right? Learning from your mistakes and growing? Well, let’s use baseball for that.”

He uses those lessons to teach his players how to overcome failure and be mentally strong. In addition to normal practices, Perez leads his Thompson players through daily mental training, including book studies and podcasts, of how sports can help with daily interactions.

His goal is for his players to become 1 percent better every day, not just in baseball, but in life as well. In fact, he’d rather have his players be successful at life than be the best on the field.

“I do not care how good or how bad my baseball players are,” Perez says. “Can’t care less, because I invest in the kid first. Why? Because I want to make sure that they are good dudes, plain and simple.”

Rewind to the start of his coaching career, and that wasn’t always the case. He prioritized winning and making his players the best at baseball as he could, by any means.

When Perez was an assistant at Thompson, former head coach Pat Hamrick saw a young and passionate man, but one who struggled to relate to his players.

“Whenever you have the passion for the game that he has, you want to see kids excel and have the same desire that you have as a player,” Hamrick says. “Well, high school kids usually aren’t there, especially ninth graders.

He would get all upset and then come in here, blowing up, talking to me about the players. And I would just tell him, ‘Hey, calm down, you’re teaching the game of baseball. Just relax, you’re doing a great job.’ He was frustrated that they were not responding the way he wanted them to with the same passion he had.”

Players respected him, but they were also intimidated by him. Just ask Stephen Poplin, who started going to Perez’s workouts as an eighth grader at Thompson and has known him ever since.

“He used to be very intimidating, especially the younger you were,” Poplin says.

Perez, however, grew from this and the life lessons learned through his own family, which ultimately set him on the path toward success.

The bigger picture

So, what changed along the way? Perez became a father of three to Isabella, Sophia and Dylan, all under the age of eight. Along with his decision to become a Christian, they changed his outlook on life and how he viewed his players.

He is proud to be a father and says that becoming one is one of the best things that has ever happened to him.

“The best thing I ever done to my life is give my life to Jesus. It’s not even close. I’m a Christian man and I believe it,” Perez says. “But I also married my best friend in Stephanie Perez. And the most amazing thing that we have done, what our love has created, is three humans. I still can’t believe it that there’s three humans that have my last name, and they’re my kids. It’s the best thing.”

He gained more empathy for how parents felt about the kids that he coached because he sees his own children as a gift from God that he deeply cares about.

“I did not see why the parents of a program would baby their players so much,” Perez said. “I was like, ‘Let them be a dude, man.’ And then I had my kids and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s why. Because they’re your treasure.’

“So, I’m more understandable now. I’m like, ‘OK, I get it. You want him to be OK, you want him to feel comfortable.’”

He also gained a great deal of patience while raising three kids under the age of nine.

“I can tell my players what to do and they’ll do it,” Perez says, and then cracks a smile. “I can’t tell my own Perez kids what to do and what not to.”

Perez has grown tremendously since becoming a father. By his own admission, he has become mature enough to see the areas he needs to improve on, including learning how to coach different types of personalities and players.

“He’s young enough that he can relate to young players, but he’s also passionate enough that he can instill his desire in them now after tweaking a way to do it,” Hamrick says.

Looking back, Perez hates the way he used to treat his former players at Thompson, Montevallo and Hazel Green. He despises how angry he was and how focused he was on winning. He still keeps in touch with many of his former players, and he always makes a point to apologize.

“I love them to death,” Perez says of his former players. “They’re my boys, they’ll be my boys forever. But I tell them all the time to this day, ‘man, I’m sorry the way I coached you because I abused you. It was not right.’”

One of the many deep friendships he has built is with Poplin, who now works under Perez as an assistant coach and regards him as a second father. He’s witnessed the many changes that Perez has made in his life.

“He used to be really tough, which we needed, but I guess he started changing a little more when he started having kids,” Poplin says. “But even when he was hard on us, he’s that coach that kids just love to play for because he would be the first guy to get on you, but then at the same time, when you do something good, he’s always the first guy there congratulating you or picking you up.”

Here to stay

Alabaster City Schools superintendent Dr. Wayne Vickers, who first hired Perez, told him back when he was an assistant that the time wasn’t right to become the head coach of a program like Thompson. Notably, he wasn’t as concerned about wins and losses as Perez was.

Ironically, the wins kept coming even after he stopped focusing on them. In 2023, he broke the school record for the best start to a season with a 20-0 record and the best winning percentage in program history, the latter breaking a record that he helped set as an assistant coach.

But after the biggest win of his Thompson career to advance to the state semifinals in 2023, he did two things–pray to God and embrace his wife and kids.

Frankie Perez kneels in prayer surrounded by his family after Thompson reached the state semifinals in 2023. (Reporter Photo/Alec Etheredge)

It may just be the best display of how he lives his life now and the people and things he values–seeing what Vickers mentioned to him years earlier about becoming a leader for a team.

“If you’re the Thompson head coach for baseball, you’d better win,” Perez says. “But I started thinking if I focus so much on the winning and don’t enjoy the process, and don’t enjoy the ride, and don’t enjoy the relationships that I’ve been in with these kids, then winning is not going to matter anyway.”