It was August 1982 and Pascual Perez, recently acquired by the Atlanta Braves from the Pittsburgh Pirates, had been called up from the minors to help stop a skid that had seen the Braves lose 19 of 21 games and fall four games behind the first-place Dodgers. Perez was scheduled to start on his first night in Atlanta and, having only just gotten his driver’s license, set out in a rented car for Fulton County Stadium. Hours later, Perez was still driving in loops around the city on I-285, unable to find his way to the game. With the assistance of a gas station attendant who recognized him, filled his gas tank for free – Perez had also forgotten his wallet – and pointed him in the right direction, Perez arrived at the ballpark with the game already underway and Phil Niekro on the mound.
But Perez’ misadventure had broken the tension in the Braves’ clubhouse and the team proceeded to win 13 of the next 15 to reclaim first place. In the final week of the season Perez won twice to help the Braves finish a game ahead of the Dodgers and make the National League playoffs.
Over the next two years Perez won 29 games for the Braves and was selected for the 1983 All-Star team. Perez became a fan favorite in Atlanta for his colorful style, checking baserunners by peering upside down between his legs and often “shooting” batters with his finger after he struck them out. Perez flashed a shiny gold tooth with his ever-present smile and insisted on wearing a cap two sizes too large to avoid matting his long, Jheri curled hair. At the plate he entertained fans and his own teammates with his mostly futile attempts to bunt for a base hit.
An arrest on drug charges in his native Dominican Republic led to a late start to Perez’ season in 1985 and, further hampered by a shoulder injury, Perez slumped to a 1-13 record. Worse, staid Braves’ management had begun to pressure the pitcher to rein in his excesses on the field. In time the Braves’ joyful man-child had turned into a sad and troubled young man, and the team released him early the following year.
Perez rebounded after being signed by the Montreal Expos in 1987. In 1988 he fashioned a 12-8 record with a stellar 2.44 E.R.A. But a growing drug habit – Perez spent two months in drug rehabilitation in 1989 - contributed to the dissolution of the pitcher with the once-unhittable change-up. After two seasons with the New York Yankees, Perez was suspended by the commissioner’s office on the first day of spring training 1992 for failing a drug test. At the time he was entering the final season of a three-year, $5.7 million contract.
Pascual Perez, his career cut short at the age of 34, never pitched in the major leagues again.
Sometime in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 1, Pascual Perez was bludgeoned to death in his home in the Dominican Republic by an intruder. No one is in custody and Dominican police have not revealed whether they have any suspects. Investigators did say Perez’ home had been ransacked in what is believed to have been a search for money. A representative for Major League Baseball confirmed that Perez would have just received his pension check.
A 67-68 career won-lost record does little justice to what Pascual Perez brought to the game. In a sport already well in transition to the corporate entertainment machine it is today, Perez, with his gold-toothed smile, flowing curls and colorful antics, was a player with a gift: the gift of joy. Perez played a man’s sport like the boy’s game it used to be, like a man who could win a city’s heart by losing his way to the ballpark.