His was a story that was bound to have a sad end. Pascual Perez vexed hitters and baseball executives throughout his career until it came to an end thanks to a drug suspension and recurring arm issues.
Following his exit from the game, Perez returned to his beloved Dominican Republic; living not as a recluse, but as someone who was inaccessible to outsiders. He would die there as well, found in his bedroom yesterday at the age of 55, the victim of a gruesome attack that occurred in the midst of an apparent home invasion.
Perez’ death, like any other, is a tragedy, but the widespread coverage and nostalgia that it has inspired feels uncommon for a pitcher who hasn’t been on a Major League mound in 21 years, and whose uneven career included one All-Star appearance and a sub-.500 won-loss record. With that said though, the word “uncommon” describes Pascual Perez perfectly.
The word “athlete” does not.
Spindly, at 6’2″ weighing barely 160 pounds soaking wet with a haircut that could have gotten him a Soul Glo sponsorship deal, Perez dominated opponents with a non-standard repertoire that included the slow-motion “Pascual Pitch”, a variety of arm angles, and his patented look-through-the-legs “move” that kept runners in check and delighted fans. At least that’s what he did when his arm worked and his personal demons were held in check.
Perez’ career was officially thrown off by his drug problem three times: first in 1984 when he served a 3 month drug sentence in the Dominican, then in 1989 when he was sent to rehab and missed spring training with the Expos, and in 1992 when he was suspended for a year, ending a disastrous three year term with the Yankees and his career.
On top of Perez’ substance abuse issues, teams had to deal with his general flakiness. In 1982, on the way to his first start with the Atlanta Braves, Perez earned the nicknames “Perimeter” and “I-285” after he wound up getting lost before the game, causing him to show up to the stadium late.
In 1985, Perez disappeared for 5 days after a series against the Mets. Where was he? According to SI he was visiting a Dominican spiritualist, who told him that they saw “bad spirits” all around him. Perez finished the year with an ERA over 6 and a 1-13 record. He was cut by the Expos in Spring Training the next year and again disappeared, this time for the whole of the 1986 season, only to return to baseball with the Expos in late 1987.
Perez was also constantly late for Spring Training throughout his career and earned the ire of opponents with on-field antics that included beanballs, finger-guns, pelvic thrusts, and once, a stray fastball that sailed into the Cubs dugout.
That we remember the fantastic spectacle that was Pascual Perez, a spiritual descendant of Bill Lee and Mark Fidrych, and the first of the enigmatic Perez clan (brothers Melido and Carlos played in the majors and also had success), is far from shocking. Pascual Perez was without peer when he was both at his best and at his worst, and his antics will likely never be bested, especially as we exist in an era of media scrutiny where players are more guarded.
Oh sure, players mug for the camera and showboat, but it’s different now. Pascual Perez didn’t act out between the lines in an effort to make a name for himself, he did it because it was a manifestation of his pure jubilation.
Sure, ballplayers misbehave still, but those acts are either boring (an errant tweet) or unconscionable misdeeds like sexual assaults and other violent crimes that are destructive to others. Pascual Perez wasn’t a monster like that, his failings were ultimately innocent, comical, or self-destructive, costing him a better kind of immortality.
Yes, Pascual Perez — that electric shadow — is now forever gone, but he will indeed live on — not as the great hurler he could have been, but as someone who was as tragic as he was magic, a cautionary tale, and baseball’s last great headcase.