An 8-year-old boy sat in the easy chair as time dragged on, past the ninth inning, the 10th … the 13th, the 14th … and his eyelids were getting heavy.
Time trudged slowly during the 1967 Major League Baseball All-Star game in Anaheim. The little boy knew a little about baseball, was just becoming a backyard Wiffle Ball fanatic and knew a few names of the big-league stars.
But something happened in the 15th inning as the boy was dozing off. A young Cincinnati Reds’ third baseman in his first All-Star Game stepped to the plate. He had just become a regular that season, and was so obscure that he ended up spending the night before in a hotel’s presidential suite — only because his room had been given to someone else. The suite was the only one available, so they did him a favor.
“Tany” Perez was seven years removed from fleeing Cuba as Fidel Castro was consolidating power. The teen-aged sugar cane factory shortstop signed with the Reds for $2.50, and found himself in Geneva, New York, usually ordering chicken from the menu because that’s the only English he knew. He was playing second base and doing well until he was injured and put on the disabled list. He was replaced the next game by another youngster just signed by the Reds, named Pete Rose.
A couple years later he had advanced in the Reds’ farm system. But playing in the South, he and the African-American players had to eat at different restaurants than the white players, or they waited on the bus as their meals were brought to them.
By 1965, now known as “Tony” and just married, he was in the majors for good.
Two years later, he was an All-Star, batting in the 15th inning. He slowly rocked back and forth and wiggled the fingers gripping his bat in a manner that would become familiar over the next 19 seasons.
Catfish Hunter released a pitch, Perez strode forward and drove the pitch into the left field seats to put the National League ahead, 2-1.
The little boy leaped out of the chair in celebration. Why? Who knows. But he was celebrating and was never quite the same afterward.
Of course, the boy was me. I have no idea why I was so excited at the time, but I was hooked on Tony Perez.
Over the years through high school, college, and all of life’s ups and down since, Tony Perez, the “Big Dog”, was there. I filled up books with Tony Perez clippings, collected dozens of baseball cards and a few autographs, defending him in “discussions” with my friends who professed the vast superiority of Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. Celebrated most of his 379 home runs and 1,652 runs batted in. And cringed after more than 1,700 strikeouts.
I managed to fill up five scrapbooks with newspaper clippings, searched for his memorabilia at shows and wore an old gray number 24 Reds’ jersey on “special occasions.”
In a college journalism class, each student had to subscribe to an out-of-town daily newspaper. I chose the Montreal Gazette — after all, that’s where Tony Perez was playing at the time.
I sat in the stands as “The Mayor of Riverfront” returned for the first time in the uniform of an enemy. After his playing days ended, I listened to TV commentators gush about the infectious personality and accomplishments of the then-Reds’ first base coach. I steamed when Leatherpants Jim Bowden picked up the phone and fired him as Reds’ manager after 44 games. (By the way, Perez’s winning percentage that season was higher than the guy who replaced him, Davey Johnson. Not that I’m bitter or anything.)
I followed his youngest son Eduardo through a 13-year Major League career, and son Victor through one year in the Reds’ farm system followed by years as a London-based actor and even his real estate career in New York City.
I suffered every year as he annually narrowly missed election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and finally cheered wildly when he was elected in 2000. I was on the Cinergy Field turf as his number was retired. Then I followed his comings and goings as a longtime executive with the Miami Marlins and his trips to Cincinnati for various events.
That now 73-year-old player who was freshly married in 1965 has celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary. He’s in Cincinnati now for All-Star Weekend.
I just celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, and I’ll be at Great American Ballpark in August when his bronze statue is unveiled.
For 48 years through all the thrills and spills and good times and bad of both my life and his, he wasn’t far from me.
Everybody needs a hero. I still have mine.
Thanks to that 8-year-old boy.
Tom Barr is editor of the Wilmington News Journal.