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Friday November 23, 2012

A rascal known for pitches he didn't throw

Eccentric celebrated and criticized for his antics on the mound sparked one of the most memorable brawls in baseball history

Special to The Globe and Mail

They called baseball pitcher Pascual Perez a man-child. The description, while apt, does not capture the happy madness of a scofflaw who indulged eccentricities as well as an appetite for cocaine.

Perez, who has died in his native Dominican Republic at 55, pitched for 10 seasons in the major leagues. He was killed in a suspected robbery, beaten to death in a home invasion targeting his monthly baseball pension.

He pitched for four different teams, but seemed best to fit in with the collection of characters to be found on the roster of the Montreal Expos for three seasons in the late 1980s. The club's fans certainly accepted Perez as he was.

With high cheekbones and a penetrating stare, Perez cast an unforgettable figure on the pitching mound. He stood beanpole thin (at 6-foot-2, 162 pounds), a cascade of slick Jheri curls flowing from his cap. He glared at opposing batters, snuck a peak at baserunners by bending over deeply to peer between his legs. He raced off the mound after ending an inning, marked strikeouts with celebratory fist pumps, and was known to shoot rivals with his fingers, as though he were a Little League gunslinger pleased by his own success. Needless to say, such antics did not endear him to opponents.

The pitcher instigated one of the most notorious brawls in baseball history in 1984 by throwing a beanball, but the incident best capturing Perez's flawed but lovable personality is better remembered for a pitch, or pitches, he didn't throw.

The pitcher was scheduled to be the starter for his Atlanta Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but got lost on the city's beltway, going in circles on Interstate 285.

The player described his dilemma to Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated magazine in a memorable profile published several years later.

"There's a big radio and the merengue music was real loud," Perez said. "I forgot my wallet so I have no money and no licence. 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 [manager Joe] 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."

Perimeter Perez, as he was soon dubbed, did not object to the notoriety and even wore a windbreaker with the identifier I-285 on the back.

On a day when Perez did not get lost on the way to the Atlanta ballpark - Aug. 12, 1984 - he plunked San Diego's lead-off batter Alan Wiggins with the first pitch of the game. This led to retaliatory attempts by Padres pitchers, one of whom even threw at Perez's head. Finally, on his fourth trip to the plate as a batter, Perez got nailed by a San Diego pitcher, even though he had backed out of the batter's box. This led to a melee that lasted for several minutes, as scattered fighting among players broke out. One of the Padres, Champ Summers, charged the Atlanta dugout to get at Perez, who had withdrawn from the field after being hit by the baseball. Meanwhile, fans jumped out of the stands and joined in the donnybrook.

The final linescore: Two brawls, three batters hit by pitch, 16 ejections, five fans arrested. Oh, and Perez recorded the win.

Perez broke into the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1980. In Atlanta, he enjoyed two excellent seasons, recording 29 wins against 16 losses around a three-month jail sentence in his native land for cocaine possession. A dreadful 1985 campaign, in which he went 1-13, led to consultations with spiritualists. He then disappeared from organized baseball for an entire season.

He revived his career as a free agent in Montreal, enjoying a 7-0 comeback campaign in 1987. The Expos fans embraced his eccentricity, seeing in his sly smile a free spirit's disdain for convention. Thus encouraged, he unveiled his Pascual Pitch, a slow, looping ball at which hitters would take a forceful, though usually unsuccessful, swing. The French-language broadcasters in Montreal described it as "l'arc-en-ciel," a rainbow. In baseball terminology, it was an eephus pitch, a lobbed ball whose high arc was intended to bamboozle a batter.

He spent time talking to a psychologist, attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and endured a two-month stint in a drug rehabilitation program after suffering a relapse. He agreed to serve a one-year suspension if he tested positive again. He wound up his major-league career with two inconsequential seasons with the deep-pocketed New York Yankees. The third season of a $5.7-million contract was lost when he tested positive on his arrival for spring training in 1992, ending his baseball career. His career record was 67-68 with a 3.44 earned-run average.

Pascual Gross Perez, who used his mother's family name, was born in San Cristobol in the Dominican Republic on May 17, 1957. On Nov. 1, his body was found at his home at San Gregorio de Nigua in his homeland. He had suffered severe head wounds. He leaves, among others, two brothers who also pitched in the major leagues - Carlos Perez and Melido Perez, the mayor of the town in which his brother died. Three people were arrested in his slaying, including a known friend of the former pitcher. It was also revealed Perez suffered from a terminal kidney condition at the time of his death.

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