No one ever doubted Pascual Perez’ talent. At times, he even seemed destined for stardom. Unfortunately, he just kept getting lost along the way.
On Thursday, Perez was the victim of a robbery that escalated to murder. He was reportedly killed by burglars lured to his home by the fame he cultivated many years ago while pitching in the majors leagues. During his time in uniform, Perez never seemed comfortable dealing with the expectations of his notoriety. In death, he was betrayed by it once again.
Born in San Cristobal, on the Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic, Perez was like a fish out of water in the United States. Signed off the island by the Pittsburgh Pirates at the tender age of 19, the gawky right hander didn’t have much success in the minor leagues. However, despite struggling through parts of seven seasons in the Pirates’ farm system and two brief stints in the majors, there were flashes of brilliance, perhaps none more prominent than when Perez out pitched Fernando Valenzuela in the championship game of the Caribbean World Series. During this period, Perez came close to quitting on several occasions, but instead he persevered. The reward was a ticket to Atlanta.
Since winning the N.L. West in 1969, the Braves were a mediocre team for most of the next decade. Then, in 1982, led by new manager Joe Torre, Atlanta turned the tide, winning a then record 13 straight games to start the year. The season would ebb and flow from that point, but on June 30, still in first place by three games, the Braves pulled off a relatively anonymous deal when they sent Larry McWilliams to the Pirates for Perez. Although news of the trade was reported briefly in the section of the newspaper reserved for footnotes, Perez would soon become fodder for headlines.
When the Braves recalled Perez from Richmond on July 27, they were not looking for a savior, just another arm to help out during what was beginning to look like a victory lap. Atlanta held a comfortable seven game lead in the West when Perez made his debut with the team, but he still managed to make an impression. An effective appearance in relief soon led to a job in the starting rotation, and before he knew it, his major league career was reborn.
When I get lost, I been in Atlanta for four days. I rent a car and get my driving permit that morning, and I leave for the stadium very early, but I forget where to make a turn right.” – Pascual Perez, quoted by SI, May 23, 1983
Perez went 0-2 in his first four starts with the Braves, but his 3.03 ERA kept him in the rotation. However, despite his contribution, the Braves went into a free fall, losing 19 of 21 games to fall four back of the Dodgers. So, on August 19, with the team in jeopardy of falling out of a race they once led handily, the Braves turned to Perez for another solid outing. He was nowhere to be found. Earlier in the day, Perez, who was still learning his new surroundings, received his driver’s license and decided to rent a car instead of take a cab to the ballpark. He missed a turn. And then another. Finally, he ran out of gas. What should have been a leisurely afternoon drive to the stadium had become an ordeal.
Perez finally made it to the stadium, but not before Phil Niekro was forced to take his place. It was the kind of incident that might have ended Perez’ days in Atlanta before they began, but the Braves won the game anyway, and everyone had a good laugh at his expense. Braves general manager Bob Watson probably said it best, telling AP, “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find yourself.”
Perez did more than just find himself. He became star, both on and off the field. In addition to the notoriety he received for his misadventure, Perez also gained attention for his performance on the mound. The right hander went 4-2 with a 3.08 following his ordeal, which also seemed to light a spark under his team. The Braves won 13 of the next 15 games and eventually hung on to win the division by one game. Perez’ contribution was a big reason why. In fact, he was chosen to start the opening game of the NLCS, and for five innings limited the Cardinals to only one run before he and his team were overwhelmed by the eventual World Series champions.
Although the Braves lost the pennant, they seemingly found an ace. In 1983, Perez picked up where he left off, and the Braves did as well. The right hander won his first five starts of the new season and entered the All Star break with a 10-2 record and ERA of 2.46. Then, the bottom fell out. Not only did Perez struggle down the stretch, losing six of seven decisions during the pennant race, but the Braves dropped out of first place at the end of August. For two seasons, the Braves and Perez had found success together, but they would soon lose their way.
Maybe it was the suddenness, and unexpected level of his success. Or, perhaps, he was overwhelmed by the stardom that accompanied being a pitcher in the major leagues. Perhaps it was a pre-existing problem, especially considering his time in the Pirates organization. Whatever the reason, Perez turned toward to cocaine. On January 9, 1984, the pitcher was arrested in the Dominican Republic for possession. He was sentenced to three months in a local jail and eventually suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for one month. However, an arbitrator overturned the suspension because of a lack of evidence. Perez had claimed the cocaine wasn’t his, and baseball’s justice system seemed to agree. The lanky righty had won his first battle before the season had started, but his war with cocaine was just beginning.
Perez was back on the mound by May 7, but, despite having a sold season in 1984, there was little he could do to keep the Braves alive in the pennant race. The real nightmare began the following season. After starting the 1985 campaign at 1-8, the right hander went missing again. This time, however, it wasn’t an amusing interlude that kept him away from the team. After a particularly poor start against the Mets, he walked out of the Shea Stadium clubhouse and simply disappeared. For four days no one heard word from Perez, who eventually reappeared as if nothing had happened. The Braves took him back with a slap on the wrist, but their loyalty was betrayed when Perez missed another start because of tardiness. This time, the righty reported late after the conclusion of a three-day strike that disrupted the season. Although the Braves continued to tolerate his erratic behavior, their patience was wearing thin.
There’s no need to apologize. That’s not how it works. I shake hands with everybody and start pitching.” – Pascual Perez after an unexplained leave of absence, quoted by AP, July 31, 1985
The Braves had finally had enough of Perez’ antics, so, prior to the 1986 season, they released him. Not surprisingly, no other team was interested in giving him another chance. That was probably a good thing for the righty, who instead found time to focus on some bigger battles in his life. When Perez finally returned to professional baseball in 1987, the Expos welcomed him back with open arms. “He attends more meetings than the chairmen of most corporations,” Expos manager Buck Rodgers stated, referring to the efforts Perez had been making to stay sober. Of course, it was easy for Montreal to be so accommodating. The right hander went 7-0 down the stretch in 1987, helping the Expos remain in contention until the season’s end. Perez had found a new home, but for how long?
Perez tried to reinvent himself in Montreal, but his old demons caught up to him in 1989. For the second time, Perez tested positive for cocaine, but again avoided suspension by agreeing to enter a drug rehab program. Fortunately for Perez, second and third chances were plentiful in baseball at the time, so, after a brief stint away from the team, he returned to the mound.
Over his two-plus seasons with the Expos, Perez went 28-21 with a 2.80 ERA. He may have been a headache at times, but Perez could certainly pitch. So, when it came time for free agency, the Expos overlooked all of his problems and endeavored to sign him to an extension. Considering all he had been through, and how far he had come, the relative calm of Montreal seemed like an ideal place to remain. Instead, Perez chose a three-year, $5.7 million deal from the New York Yankees.
I hope the Yankees take good care of him. He is a very fragile individual. He has a problem. I understand this is a big business. But for the good of the individual, I thought he’d stay with Montreal. I don’t know how well he’d react to booing in New York.” – Expos’ GM Dave Dombrowski, quoted by the NY Times, November 22, 1989.
Rather appropriately, Perez’ Yankee career began just as one might have expected: late. This time, it was visa problems that forced the Yankees’ new pitcher to miss over a week of Spring Training. If that didn’t make the team think twice about its investment, the pitcher’s openly critical remarks about the laziness of his teammates might have pushed the needle.
Perez wasn’t making many friends in New York, but he was pitching well. In his debut, the right hander allowed only one hit over five innings in front of the home crowd. He followed that up by allowing only one unearned run in six innings against the Indians. Then, in his third outing on April 25, 1990, Perez began the game by retiring the first six Seattle Mariners he faced. In the third inning of that game, his streak of 13 1/3 innings without an earned run came to an end. In the fourth inning, so too did his season. Perez walked off the Yankee Stadium mound with a twinge in his right shoulder, but no one expected it to be a season ending injury. However, after months of mystery surrounding the extent of his ailing right arm, Perez finally underwent arthroscopic surgery.
Every year something different happens to me, and everybody thinks it’s funny. They think I do this on purpose. They think I like this. They say, ‘There he goes again.’ It’s all very frustrating to me.” – Pascual Perez, quoted by AP, March 27, 1990
Perez was late arriving to Spring Training in 1991 once again. A paternity suit was the reason for his latest delay. Still, the Yankees were relieved to have the right hander in camp, seemingly well on his way to a full recovery. On May 14, Perez made his first start since walking off the mound over one year earlier, and picked up right where he left off. In six innings, the righty shutout the California Angels to earn the first of what the Yankees hoped would be many more victories that season. It would be over four months until his next. The stiffness in his right shoulder had returned, and Perez was out until the middle of August.
Perez’ performance was solid over his final 10 starts in 1991, once again leading to guarded optimism that he would finally make good on his contract. During the off season, new manager Buck Showalter and GM Gene Michael repeatedly try to check up on Perez, but like so often, he was nowhere to be found. The Yankees had wanted the righty to pitch in winter ball to strengthen his arm for the upcoming season, so the initial concern was he would be out of shape when he reported for camp in March. If only the problem was that benign.
For the third straight season, Perez was late reporting to the Yankees’ Spring Training home in Fort Lauderdale, even though his brother Melido, who was acquired by the team, was in camp from the get go. However, it wasn’t until after he showed up that the real problems began. The first sign of trouble was the 15 pounds Perez had lost during the winter. The Yankees had anticipated an out of shape Perez, but being underweight wasn’t what they had in mind. Then, the results of a drug test came back positive. The right hander was immediately suspended by Commissioner Faye Vincent and the remaining year on his contract with the Yankees was voided. Another season was over before it had started. In what was supposed to be a three-year stint in pinstripes, Perez had thrown 88 innings. They would be his last as a big league pitcher.
It was three strikes for Perez. After his third failed drug test, the righty was lost for good, his career cut short by a battle with cocaine more imposing than any hitter he ever faced. Back home in the Dominican Republic, the righty faded from the baseball scene, resurfacing once to pitch in the winter league with his brothers Melido and Carlos, but otherwise staying off the radar. In fact, during the intervening years, Perez became known more as the brother of his two younger siblings than the talent that excited so many for a few brief periods during the 1980s.
Pascual Perez will probably be remembered more for his colorful antics and erratic behavior, but the skinny right hander with jerry curls and thick gold chains was also a damn good pitcher. Nonetheless, his career, and life, tell a tale of what might have been. Unfortunately, both were much too short for a happy ending. Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find yourself. Perez certainly held up his end of that bargain, so hopefully, before the tragic end, he was finally able to find some peace of mind.