Tony Pérez is one of the greatest players to have ever played baseball. Whether you agree or not depends on how you define greatness.Embed from Getty Images
As a teenager growing up in Cuba, his choices were a career in baseball or a life working in a sugar factory. The 18-year-old followed his dream and left his homeland to sign with the Cincinnati Reds in 1960. Shortly afterwards, Fidel Castro and his communist revolution dissolved professional baseball on the island, and the young Pérez was ‘trapped’ in the USA, separated by an iron curtain and unsure whether he would ever see his parents again.
In fact, Mr & Mrs Pérez never once saw their son play ball at the highest level, despite him enjoying a Major League career spanning over 10,000 plate appearances.
He progressed from a kid who only ate chicken “as it was the only word I knew in English” to a multiple All-Star and then a Hall of Famer. Sabermetric analysis cannot measure the challenges he overcame, so don’t tell me he is not one of the greatest players ever.
There is a noticeable absence of black ink, signifying a league-leading stat in a particular year, on Pérez’s Baseball Reference page. This adds to the lack of appreciation he gets from the media. You can almost hear the mutterings of disapproval when he finally made it to Cooperstown ahead of players with more tangible success.
In the ten-year period after becoming a regular in the Reds lineup in 1967, Perez was arguably the best player in the world. He outhomered Carl Yastremski, scored more runs than Hank Aaron and drove in more players than anyone else on the planet.
Integral to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, Pérez, although less high-profile than Johnny Bench, Pete Rose or Joe Morgan, was a leader; an inspiration; the quiet, unassuming guy who kept the team of superstars and their egos under control.
Ask Reds fans from that era, and the word you will hear most often is clutch.
He never was ejected from a game … his reason? His team may need him later. The best clutch hitter in baseball for ten years.@DokeleyJoe
Great leader and role model for other Latin players. Heart and soul of the Big Red Machine.@MarkRey92717108
Competitor, leader, RBI machine, Big Red Machine never won again together when he was traded. His trade cost the Reds one more World Series Championship.@shgkrc
As a child of Moneyball, the theory of a clutch-hitter seems an outdated notion to me. Nothing more than opportunities being presented and a small sample size of data. Does a clutch-hitter really not try as hard when the bases are empty?
Anyway, the extraordinary production by Pérez is undeniable; 12 seasons of at least 90 RBI. His best-ever year was 40 homers, 107 runs and 129 RBI. It looks very similar to a good Nolan Arenado campaign.
According to Peter Gammons, one of the most highly-respected opinions in baseball, “with a runner on second and two out, Pérez was the best who ever lived.”
It is often said that staying healthy is a skill, in which case Pérez exuded talent with an incredible 23-year career. He averaged 151 games per season over a 12-year span in his prime. To put that in perspective, only one player (Nick Markakis) has averaged that many games during the last 12 years.
When he finally retired, the seven-time All-Star had helped guide the Reds to five World Series appearances, winning twice. He finished with a career total of 379 homers and 1,272 runs with 1,652 RBI.
As part of an initiative by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, in collaboration with Major League Baseball and the American Museum and Gardens, I was honoured to get the opportunity to meet the Reds superstar in person during the London Series weekend.
Before we continue, you need to understand that nothing that follows is intended as derogatory to Tony Pérez. Any misunderstandings or the lack of concise answers are 100% the fault of the interviewer.
Gav: Tony, can I start by saying what a privilege it is to meet you. Your career, your life is inspirational. I have spoken to many Reds fans over the last couple of weeks, and almost everyone used the same word to describe you: clutch. In the big games, when a run was needed, you were the guy to drive it in.
Tell me about your mindset. Did you go up to the plate with a different approach when there was a teammate on second compared to going up with the bases empty?
It is apparent that we have a language problem. The Hall of Famer is in his late-70s, conversing in a second language in a hall with unusual acoustics and having Estuary English questions thrown at him from an overly enthusiastic British baseball fan with a nervous lisp.
The question is repeated to which Tony answers that there was no difference. He was always just looking for a pitch to hit.
What a disappointing, formulaic answer. Although did I really think I would crack the mystery of clutch-hitting at 9:00pm on a Friday evening in the British Library?
Gav: You scored more than 1,200 runs with over 1,600 RBI. Which gave you the most enjoyment? What did you prefer most? Say there were two-outs in the bottom of the ninth. Did you want to be the player who crossed home plate for the victory or was it a bigger thrill to be the guy who drove in the winning run?
Once again, the enthusiasm of my delivery meant that a slower, repetition of the question was necessary.
Tony: I like both. Both are good.
I had spent 20 minutes crafting that last question.
Gav: Life is tough for Reds fans at the moment. Five straight years with a losing record and the team is currently bottom of the trickiest division in the league. But the roster is good. With veteran stars like Joey Votto and Yasiel Puig, along with sensational youngsters like Luis Castillo, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker, the future looks promising. The Reds have a small but growing fanbase here in the UK. Can you offer them any encouragement? Can you see Cincinnati back in the playoffs within the next year or two?
Tony: No. It’s too difficult.
Ok, so this one threw me. He was Cincinnati through and through. If you cut Tony, he would bleed red, so I hadn’t contemplated such a negative response. The division is tough, but the front office appears motivated to recapture the glory days.
Final question and I’m sure Tony wasn’t too disappointed that I would soon be leaving the stage.
Gav: Speaking on behalf of all British baseball fans, we are so excited MLB has come to London. When you are at home, what current players do you enjoy watching? Joey Votto? Derek Dietrich? Eugenio Suarez?
Tony: Chapman. I like Chapman.
I thank him for his time, and we agree that we are both looking forward to seeing Aroldis Chapman pitch for the Yankees in London tomorrow. Tony returns to providing autographs for the queue of fans still patiently waiting. I shuffle off the stage.
While on the train back across London, two things run through my mind. One, Ken Rosenthal’s job is safe, and two, I still think Pérez is one of the most underrated players the game has ever seen.
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