R.I.P., Pascual Perez: The Ultimate ’80s ‘Perimeter’ Player

Pascual PerezFor an eighth-grade class of just 50 kids, we had vastly different spending habits. Some would run to the corner dep, determined to blow their allowance in a frenzy of Garbage Pail Kids and Slush Puppies. The video-gamers would save for weeks at a time, then splurge on Nintendo’s latest. The richer and more fashion-conscious kids would blow their allowances on clothes — Esprit, Jordache, Guess Jeans.

Not me. The second I got my weekly pouch stuffed with loonies, I’d run to my pocket-size Expos calendar, cross-reference it with the newspaper’s probable pitchers section, then call my fellow baseball-crazy buddies. We were going to see Pascual Perez.

The Dominican right-hander was found in his home today, dead at the age of 55. Reports suggest robbers broke into the home and attacked him with machetes, possibly to steal the MLB pension payment he had just received. Talking to baseball fans of my generation this morning, there was a sense of great sadness, for the way Perez’s life tragically ended, and for the loss of one of baseball’s all-time characters.

An 11-year veteran who played for the Pirates, Braves, Expos, and Yankees, Perez counted scores of supremely talented teammates along the way. His first cup of coffee came with the 1980 Bucs, a team that featured one Hall of Famer on his last legs (Willie Stargell), another with plenty of big years left (Bert Blyleven), and one of the baddest dudes of that era, the great Dave Parker. He played with Dale Murphy during his two straight MVP seasons, and a 40-something Phil Niekro still putting up big numbers. He saw the Hall of Fame–worthy Tim Raines and the resurrected Dennis Martinez at the height of their powers in Montreal and the beloved (if by then diminished) Don Mattingly in New York. But everywhere he went, Perez had a way of outshining even the brightest stars, sometimes with his pitching, far more often with his incomparable style.

You won’t find a more ’80s clip than the above four minutes and 10 seconds of YouTube goodness. The first thing that jumps out at you is Perez’s glorious hair. He owned a Hall of Fame–caliber Jheri curl, the kind that made you wonder if he owned a majority interest in Soul Glo Enterprises, and made him a prized find in any set of ’80s baseball cards. There are shots of Perez gesticulating wildly after strikeouts and pelvic-thrusting after covering first. All set to an instrumental version of “Eye of the Tiger,” for some reason. Oh, and the entire clip consists of still shots rather than actual video footage, because Major League Baseball’s video policies are also straight out of the ’80s. The 1880s.

Which is a shame, because Perez in his prime was a twitchy bundle of entertainment. Rail-thin at 6-foot-2, 162 (and probably skinnier than that), Perez was a taunting beanpole, punctuating strikeouts by shooting finger-guns toward home plate. If he put a runner on, he’d peer through his legs to keep tabs on him. If a strikeout ended a pressure-packed inning, you’d get the finger-gun, fist-pump, leap-off-the-mound shimmy shake, accompanied by a sprint to the dugout and a Ric Flair special. Perez was a headhunter, too, jawing at batters who pissed him off, throwing at them on days when he was really on tilt; when Pedro Martinez came on the scene years later, rocking the Jheri curl and firing fastballs way inside, we thought we were witnessing the second coming of Pascual rather than a next-generation Walter Johnson.

As eye-catching as he was on the mound, Perez earned his greatest share of notoriety for something that happened on a highway. On August 19, 1982, Perez set off for Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium to make his scheduled start that night. Franz Lidz’s great SI story on the baseball-playing Perez brothers takes it from there:

Pascual was tagged Perimeter Perez in 1982 after he got lost just before a game while driving a borrowed car on the interstate that rings Atlanta. “There’s a big radio and the merengue music was real loud,” he says. “I forgot my wallet, so I have no money and no license. I pass around the city two times easy, but the car so hot I stop at a gas station. I ask for $10 worth, and the guy say, ‘You Pascual Perez? People been waiting for you at the stadium.” I’m 20 minutes away, he tell me. I feel like a heart attack. I think I get fired, maybe. Boss Torre say he fine me $100. I say, ‘What you say, $100?’ He smile, say, ‘Ciento pesos.’ I smile. Ciento pesos worth only 10 bucks.”

To this day, Perez might be the only player to earn two different nicknames (“Perimeter Perez” and “I-285″) and a poster for the ages because of a single off-field incident. What made you love the guy was the way he embraced his own quirks and screwups. After the incident, Perez could be seen wearing a jacket with “I-285″ emblazoned on it in big characters.

There were other incidents, too. Like the game in San Diego, where Perez was called on to squeeze-bunt with lumbering catcher Nelson Santovenia on third.

“The squeeze is on … and Pascual swings away!” recalled Michael Farber, the former Montreal Gazette columnist now writing for Sports Illustrated. “Somehow, he fouls it off … miraculously, with Santovenia fearing for his life. They put the squeeze on again. He swings again. I asked Santovenia about it afterward. ‘I’m screaming at him, in Spanish, SQUEEZE!’ So I asked him, what’s the Spanish word for squeeze. He looked and me and shook his head. ‘Squeeze!’”

None of that should discount Perez’s pitching accomplishments. When he was on, there were few better. In 1983 and 1984, Perez made a total of 63 starts, posting a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 3-to-1 and making the ’83 All-Star Team. He kept that up despite the specter of drug charges back home in the Dominican. His methods were unorthodox, but highly effective. Lacking the blazing fastball of some of his contemporaries, Perez made up for it with a dizzying array of pitches, thrown from a variety of arm angles. His signature offering was an eephus pitch, a huge, tantalizing looper sometimes called the “Pascual Pitch,” or as Jacques Doucet and other French-language broadcasters dubbed it, “l’arc-en-ciel” (the rainbow).

Those Montreal years saved his career. Perez went 1-13 with a 6.14 ERA for the Braves in 1985, and was forced to the disabled list three times with shoulder pain and suspended two weeks for disappearing after a loss in New York. He was out of organized ball in 1986, but the cash-strapped Expos signed him anyway. This was a typical move at the time for a Montreal club that had blown up its dynamic core from the late ’70s and early ’80s and hadn’t yet rebuilt the farm system that would later produce stars like Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. Perez, like Dennis Martinez and Oil Can Boyd, were talented pitchers but also lost souls by the time they found their way to Montreal. From a distance, it made no sense that players struggling to kick serious drug and alcohol habits would find salvation in baseball’s most notorious party town. But somehow they made it work, with Perez one of the biggest beneficiaries.

Delayed several weeks due to visa problems, then a couple more months as he pitched his way into shape, Perez finally made it to Montreal for his Expos debut on August 22, 1987. What followed was a minor miracle: In 10 starts that year, Perez went 7-0 with a 2.30 ERA. This despite not throwing a single pitch the year before and battling back from shoulder injuries and a lingering coke habit. You might note Perez’s BABIP during his first two years with the Expos (a low .244 in 1987, and a microscopic .217 in ’88, which helped fuel a 12-8 record and 2.44 ERA that season), but even with luck on his side, this was still Perez at his best, posting career-high strikeout-to-walk rates while in Montreal.

Expos employees from that era, including PR maven (turned Toronto Star columnist) Rich Griffin, swear Perez drew an extra 8,000 fans per start, in a city that rarely packed the park for specific starters the way fans do elsewhere. That’s a debatable claim, one that ignores other variables such as weekend-and-holiday vs. weekday dates, quality of opponent, stadium promotions, and other factors.

I can confirm at least one 13-year-old lunatic who did show up, one would do everything in his power to see him in action. The Jordache kids might’ve looked sharper. The Nintendo kids were more skilled at Super Mario Brothers. But if you were fortunate enough to see a Pascual Perez start in those days, you’d always come back with two things: a story to tell and a smile on your face.

Filed Under: Rest In Peace

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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