“Mercurial” doesn’t begin to describe the life and career of former Atlanta Braves pitcher Pascual Perez.
The rail-thin Dominican right-hander pitched less than four full seasons for the Braves in the 1980s, but he certainly left his mark on franchise history. Though he was an All-Star in 1983 and recorded back-to-back double-digit win seasons in 1983 and 1984, Perez is remembered in Atlanta primarily for four things:
1. Getting lost driving on I-285 and missing a start against the Montreal Expos in 1982;
2. Playing a central role in one of the ugliest brawls in MLB history against the San Diego Padres in 1984;
3. A flamboyant personal style that included flowing Jheri curl hair and gold chains, shooting “finger guns” after striking out opponents, sprinting to and from the dugout between innings and the occasional “eephus” pitch;
4. Cocaine problems that ultimately ended his time in Atlanta and derailed his career.
The second and third incidents happened to occur during the middle of August, and thus we’re commemorating their anniversaries this month. But before we get into detail on those memorable moments, let’s go back a bit farther.
Perez, born in 1957 in San Cristobal, D.R., signed at the age of 18 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and made his way to the big club early in the 1980 season. He appeared in a total of 19 games without distinction with the Pirates in 1980 and 1981, then failed to make the club out of spring training in 1982.
On June 30 of that season, the Braves sent left-hander Larry McWilliams to Pittsburgh for the 25-year-old Perez and a player-to-be-named-later (which wound up being infield prospect Carlos Rios, who never reached the majors). After five dynamite starts at Triple-A Richmond in which he was 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA, Perez made his Braves debut with 4 2/3 innings of relief in the second game of a doubleheader against San Diego on July 27.
’You Pascual Perez? People been waiting for you at the stadium’
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 162 pounds and possessing a pitch arsenal that included a mid-90s fastball, slider, change-up and curveball in addition to the eephus he would throw a few times a game, Perez immediately went into the rotation and made four mediocre-to-good starts leading into his scheduled date with the Expos at Fulton County Stadium on Aug. 19. According to the Atlanta Constitution, Perez left his DeKalb County apartment at 4:30 p.m., some three hours before first pitch.
Perez’s roommates had given him instructions to take I-285 to I-20 to reach the stadium, but he somehow missed the exit … at least twice. After circling the Atlanta perimeter three times, he showed up in the Braves’ clubhouse at 7:50 p.m., 10 minutes after the start of the game, and some 3 hours, 20 minutes after leaving home.
As it turns out, Perez had obtained his driver’s license earlier that day, and was driving alone for the first time. Perez apparently blamed his poor sense of direction on his car stereo, but that wasn’t enough to keep manager Joe Torre from fining him.
”There’s a big radio, and the merengue music was real loud,” Perez said years later in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz, who like many sports writers of the era insisted on quoting the pitcher in broken English. “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.”
Veteran knuckleballer Phil Niekro pitched in Perez’s place, working seven innings on three days’ rest in a 5-4 Atlanta victory. Undaunted, Perez pitched the next night against the New York Mets — and dominated.
Perez pitched into the 10th inning of a scoreless game, before allowing a Brian Giles solo home run and a Rusty Staub double. Steve Bedrosian got the final out of the 10th, then vultured a win from Perez when the Braves scored twice in the bottom of the inning on an error and a bases-loaded Dale Murphy walk to claim a 2-1 victory.
“Easy getting here today. Easy, easy,” Perez told reporters after the game. “I follow map. I got on I-85, not I-285, and it took about 15 minutes. I know the way now.”
Perez picked up nicknames such as “Perimeter Pascual” and “Wrong Way Perez” after his driving adventures, but later cashed in on his infamy. He filmed a popular fast food commercial the following year, urging viewers to “get a map” when planning to visit any of Atlanta’s numerous Krystal restaurant locations.
Perez remained in the Braves’ rotation the rest of that season, contributing a 4-4 record and a 3.06 ERA in 79.1 innings as Atlanta won the National League West by one game over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He took the loss in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, pressed into duty after the original series opener was washed away by rain after Niekro pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings.
Trouble emerges on, off the field
Perez began 1983 as Atlanta’s No. 2 starter, and turned in an All-Star performance for a team that led the NL West much of the year before fading in August and September. In 33 starts, Perez went 15-8 with a 3.06 ERA that was 14 percent better than league-average. (He also allowed two runs in 2/3 innings of the NL’s 13-3 All-Star Game loss that July in Chicago).
However, the year 1984 got off to an ignominious start for Perez, who was arrested on cocaine possession charges in the Dominican Republic on Jan. 10. Perez admitted to Braves officials that drugs were found in his car, but insisted the cocaine wasn’t his.
Baseball was embroiled in one drug-related controversy after another in the mid-1980s, and MLB officials took a hard line with Perez. After he was imprisoned for several weeks while awaiting trial in his native country (he ultimately paid a small fine and was sentenced to time served), baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Perez for the first 35 games of the season, knocking him out of the Atlanta rotation until May and costing him about a quarter of his $150,000 salary (Perez’s suspension was later reduced to 25 games on appeal).
Perez went right back into the Braves’ rotation as soon as he was eligible to return, working 5 2/3 innings of an 8-6 win in Philadelphia on May 7. He won his next two starts and six of his first seven, and carried a 10-4 record and a 3.91 ERA into his August 12 start at Fulton County Stadium against the first-place Padres.
The Braves were 59-58 coming into the day, good for second place in the NL West, albeit well off the Padres’ 68-48 pace. And though Atlanta won 5-3 on that Sunday afternoon, no one really remembers the final score.
What people do remember, of course, was one of the wildest brawls in baseball history. Actually, it was two separate brawls, and numerous near-fisticuffs, which ultimately resulted in 14 ejections, five suspensions and five spectator arrests.
It all began when Perez hit San Diego’s Alan Wiggins in the lower back with the first pitch of the game. There was no particular bad blood between the Braves and Padres coming into that game, and no discernable history between Perez and Wiggins.
“I wasn’t trying to hit him,” Perez later told reporters. “I was trying to pitch inside on him, and the ball slipped. The San Diego players got mad at me, and I don’t know why.”
Perhaps taking note of the fact that Perez had hit only two batters in 135.2 previous innings that season, the Padres made up their collective minds to get even with the Atlanta pitcher. The Braves led 3-0 in the second inning when Perez came to the plate for the first time.
Ed Whitson’s first pitch came well inside, but Perez got out of the way. Home plate umpire Steve Rippley warned both teams, and Perez eventually struck out.
Perez came up again in the fourth inning, and Whitson went after him again. He threw three straight inside pitches at Perez, but Perez dodged each one and eventually walked. Rippley then ejected both Whitson and San Diego manager Dick Williams.
Leading 4-0 by this time, Perez came to bat again in the sixth, and again the Padres threw at him. San Diego pitcher Greg Booker missed (if nothing else, Perez was agile) and both he and acting manager Ozzie Virgil Sr. were ejected.
‘It took baseball down 50 years’
The Padres finally hit Perez in the eighth inning, with reliever Craig Lefferts doing the honors, earning his ejection along with Padres coach (and acting-acting manager?) Jack Krol. The Braves at that point decided they’d had just about enough, and the benches emptied, with Perez initially brandishing his bat to keep the Padres at bay.
While various Padres and Braves wrestled nearly the mound, Perez retreated to the dugout. Padres outfielder Champ Summers charged the Braves’ bench in a rage, only to be stopped by Bob Horner, who was on the disabled list with a broken wrist, but had raced down from the press box and changed into uniform earlier in the game.
Braves fans seated near the dugout began throwing drinks and other items at Summers, and several jumped onto the field and joined the fight. After police finally put a stop to the chaos, five players — San Diego’s Summers and Bobby Brown, along with Atlanta’s Steve Bedrosian, Rick Mahler and Gerald Perry — had been ejected.
Torre removed Perez for a pinch-runner — probably for his own protection — and the Braves took a 5-1 lead into the ninth. Then things got ugly again.
Atlanta reliever Donnie Moore hit Graig Nettles with his second pitch, and the benches emptied again. The teams engaged in another extended tussle, with Torre, Moore and Nettles all ejected.
After order was restored again, the Padres scored twice off Gene Garber, before the Braves closer finished out a two-run victory. Crew chief John McSherry later told reporters he considered forfeiting the game to the Padres in the ninth inning.
“It took baseball down 50 years,” the veteran umpire said. “It was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life … pathetic, absolutely pathetic.”
The war of words continued between the two teams after the game.
“There’s not enough mustard in the state of Georgia to cover Mr. Perez,” Williams said. “We know who started it. We were the ones who went out there to finish it.”
Said Perez, “I no hot dog. I pitch my game against every team. I no like to fight. I want to play baseball.”
“Dick Williams is an idiot,” Torre said. “Spell that with a capital ‘I’ and a small ‘w.’”
Replied Williams, “Tell Joe Torre to stick that finger he’s pointing.”
Veteran Padres reliever Goose Gossage directed his anger elsewhere, “I wanted a piece of Donnie Moore so bad I would have chased him to the airport.”
The five fans who were arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, with one adding on a simple battery charge for kicking a security guard. San Diego’s Williams got a 10-day suspension and a $10,000 fine, while Brown, Summers, Torre and Bedrosian got three-game bans.
Here’s a YouTube video recap of the wild and memorable beanball war, from WTBS’ “Baseball Behind the Scenes”:
The Braves and Padres didn’t meet again that year until late September, by which time cooler heads had prevailed. Perez and Whitson actually matched up on Sept. 22, with Perez pitching eight innings in a 5-2 Atlanta win that saw no on-field incidents.
The beginning of the end, for the Braves and Perez
Perez finished the 1984 season with a 14-8 record in 30 starts, with a 3.74 ERA that was 3 percent above league average. The Braves ended up 80-82 that season, a distant second in the NL West behind the World Series-bound Padres.
That would be the end of Perez as a productive member of the Atlanta Braves, and the end of the Braves as an NL West contender for the remainder of the decade. The team collapsed to 66-96 in 1985, finishing fifth in the division and losing 90 or more games for the first of five times in the next six years (they lost 89 in the other).
Perez went 1-13 with a 6.14 ERA in 22 starts (good for an astoundingly bad 62 ERA+), disappearing for several days in July while supposedly visiting with a spiritualist. After showing up late to spring training the following year, he was released just prior to the 1986 season, ending his Atlanta tenure with a 34-33 record and a 3.92 ERA (good for a 98 ERA+) in 601.2 innings.
Perez’s ouster was part of a purge by new Braves general manager Bobby Cox, who also released pitchers Len Barker and Terry Forster and sent one-time top prospect Brad Komminsk back to the minors. Perez expressed surprise at his sudden removal from the roster.
“They told me they wanted to use young pitchers,” Perez told the Atlanta Constitution. “Am I old? I’m 28. I was pitching good. I never have a spring training this good. I don’t understand it. I feel bad.”
Perez sat out the entire 1986 season before signing a minor-league contract with the Montreal Expos in 1987. Promoted to the big club in late August, Perez went 7-0 with a 2.30 ERA in 10 starts for the Expos, then was 12-8 with a 2.44 ERA in 27 starts the following year.
Perez went 9-13 with a 3.31 ERA for Montreal in 1989, when he spent part of spring training in a drug rehabilitation facility. Nevertheless, prior to the 1990 season he signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees for three years and $5.7 million. Troubled by shoulder problems (and possibly more drug issues), Perez made just 17 starts in two years with the Yankees, posting a 2.87 ERA and a 3-6 record.
Perez’s substance abuse difficulties finally got the best of him in 1992, when he was suspended for one year by MLB commissioner Fay Vincent following a third drug violation. His career was effectively over at age 34, and he never pitched in American professional baseball again.
Perez faded from public view after that, though his name often surfaced in stories regarding younger brothers Melido and Carlos, both of whom pitched in the major leagues with varying degrees of success — Melido from 1987-95, Carlos from 1995-2000. He never appeared at any of the various Braves reunions over the years honoring the 1982 NL West champions.
In a sad post-script, Perez was murdered in an apparent home invasion in the Dominican Republic in 2012. He was 55 years old.
In a tribute story published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Perez was remembered fondly by his former teammates.
“One thing for sure, he was a real competitor, he really was,” Niekro said. “He really competed as hard as he could. I haven’t heard of Pascual in quite a few years. I didn’t even know if he was still around, but I was hoping he was. I really would have liked to have seen him again.”
In the minds of Braves fans of a certain age, Perez will always be there, his Jheri curl flapping, his long arms and legs flailing, his skinny body — as Jack Curry of the New York Times once put it — hopping around “as if he has a pesky mosquito in his uniform pants.”
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; Newspapers.com; The New York Times; Sports Illustrated Vault; Sporting News archives (via PaperofRecord.com); The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers; San Diego Padres: The First Half-Century (SABR)