He wasn’t the best Brave (although for 2 1/2 seasons he was pretty darn good), and he wasn’t, goodness knows, the most reliable, but Pascual Perez was the one most apt to make us smile. His enduring gift was that he, without appearing to try, made people happy. He made us happy when he ran from the dugout to the mound, happy when he pitched and won, happy that day in 1982 when he got on I-285 and just kept going.
That was the year a lot of folks fell in love with the local nine, and not just those who lived within spitting distance of Pascual’s Perimeter. It was a time when much of the U.S. first got cable, and the SuperStation staple began the season by winning 13 in a row. Then the Braves started losing, and folks from Montgomery to Missoula started agonizing for this suddenly beset crew, and lo and behold …
Pascual Perez, recently acquired from Pittsburgh and just up from Richmond, was scheduled to start on a Thursday night in August. His new team had lost 19 of 21 to fall four games behind the hated Dodgers. Only just outfitted with a driver’s license, Perez went literally in circles, stopping only because he was almost out of gas. A guy at the service station recognized him and spotted him a splash of petrol — Pascual had forgotten his wallet, too — and by the time he arrived at the old stadium Phil Niekro was on the mound in his stead.
The tension broken by Pascual’s misadventure, the Braves won 13 of the next 15 to reclaim first place. Come the season’s final week, the wayfarer started twice — both games were on the road, so no worries about Atlanta navigation — and won both times to keep the Braves a game in front of L.A., which is exactly where they finished.
Turned out the middling motorist could really pitch. He threw hard and wasn’t afraid to work inside. (The epic 1984 brawl with San Diego was a result of Perez’s plunking of Alan Wiggins and the Padres’ repeated attempts — darned if the agile target didn’t keep ducking out of the way — to nail him in retaliation.) He was 15-8 in 1983, the year of the lost-and-never-regained lead, and 14-8 in ‘84, Joe Torre’s final run as manager.
The Braves fired Torre and replaced him with the overmatched Eddie Haas, who lasted 121 games and succeeded only in breaking a good pitcher’s spirit. Perez’s season had started late because of his arrest on drug charges in the Dominican Republic, and the Braves and Haas set about to rein in his excesses. Being honest, Perez said he’d try to comply but wasn’t sure he could.
By midsummer, the joy was gone. He’d hurt his shoulder, which didn’t help. The eyes that blazed like searchlights from beneath his two-sizes-too-big cap, the jerk of the head toward left field whenever he struck somebody out, the incessant attempts to bunt for a hit … all that went away. The Braves took a manchild and tried to make him just a man, and all they had left was a sad and confused pitcher who went 1-13.
But let’s not remember Pascual Gross Perez, who was killed in an apparent armed robbery in the Dominican Republic, as the broken pitcher who exited this city after being released on April Fool’s Day 1986. Better to recall those happier days, when he helped the Braves win by pitching and helped save a season by, of all things, getting lost. Better to reflect on all the smiles he gave us, and to note that the world’s sunniest smile belonged, fittingly enough, to Pascual himself.
Further viewing: Here’s a link to MLB.com’s video recount of that Perez-inspired Braves-Padres brawl.
By Mark Bradley