Perez's tragic death stirs fond memories of righty
ATLANTA -- Basketball has featured its eccentric souls, ranging from Dennis Rodman to Chris "Birdman" Andersen. There is the NFL's Crazy Hall of Fame boasting the likes of Jim McMahon, Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson and any placekicker who ever lived. Just to play in the NHL, where fighting ranks with breathing, you have to be a little goofy.
That said, baseball invented the word "flake," and I mean so literally, which I'll explain later.
For now ... Pascual Perez.
He was the flake of flakes. At 55, and with a personality that kept everybody in his world smiling and giggling during his 11 seasons as a solid pitcher in the Major Leagues through 1991, Perez was killed Wednesday night in his native Dominican Republic. Police in that Caribbean nation believe it was the result of a robbery attempt.
That's sad, of course, but there is joy with Perez's memory. He spent four seasons with the Braves as a favorite among fans, teammates and reporters in the mid-1980s, and I remember his overall impact well -- well enough to make a suggestion. It's rooted in something that struck me 27 years ago, when I first moved to Atlanta as a sports journalist.
I discovered back then how nearly every stretch of interstate surrounding this part of northern Georgia is named after somebody.
Ever hear of Tom Murphy or Carl Sanders? Yeah, well, the former was the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, and the latter was a backup quarterback for the University of Georgia along the way to becoming governor of the state.
Maybe you recognize Ralph David Abernathy, the former lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If not, how about Pascual Perez -- you know, beyond what I've just typed about the right-hander? He doesn't have his name attached to an Atlanta highway these days, but he should. More specifically, his name should be somewhere on the interstate comprising the outer perimeter of the city called I-285, which was Perez's nickname, by the way, during most of his career with the Braves.
The story gets more hilarious with every telling.
Here's the setting: During the 1982 season, when the Braves went from blowing away their competition early in the year in the old National League West to gasping down the stretch after losing 19 of 21 games, Perez became the biggest of distractions.
Then, in a flash, he became the biggest of catalysts.
Soon after Perez was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates that June, he was scheduled to start in the middle of the Braves' slump at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He never showed up before the game. In a panic, the Braves used future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro as an emergency replacement while fretting over the whereabouts of Perez. And remember: This was before Twitter, Facebook, cell phones -- any of today's forms of instant communication.
When Perez finally arrived, it turns out that he had been lost on I-285. He kept going round and round Atlanta's perimeter in search of the right exit to the stadium, but that exit never came for Perez until long after the Braves' scheduled first pitch.
The Braves were so angry with Perez that they laughed. And they laughed some more. And then they did something else. They won that night with Niekro on the mound, and then they won some more. They kept winning to capture 13 of their next 15 games. They eventually survived a tight battle in late September against three other teams to win the division.
And, to hear some tell it, much of the credit went to the guy who became "I-285" forever. Perez kept them loose.
Former Braves star Dale Murphy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that it was "a sad day" to learn of Perez's death, but he added, "I'm glad to be able to have some good memories with Pascual. Fun memories. He was part of our best years in the early '80s, and there was never a dull moment with Pascual."
Perez often infuriated opposing teams by sprinting from the mound to the dugout between innings. Braves fans loved it, though, and the same went for the way he pointed his finger as an imaginary gun at opponents, and how he loved to mash the baseball against the ground.
He also triggered one of the ugliest brawls this side of the NBA's 2004 disaster in Detroit. Twenty years before that one, during a game in Atlanta against the San Diego Padres, Perez was the target of head-hunting pitches each time he batted after he opened the game by whacking the Padres' leadoff hitter with a pitch.
Fists flew. Even fans got involved, and before long, 19 players and coaches were tossed -- including Perez, of course.
He sounds like just another baseball "flake" to me, and there have been a slew of them. In fact, the Los Angeles Times traced the origin of "flake" to a 1973 book by Maury Allen on Bo Belinsky. In the book, Allen said Wally Moon mentioned in '56 that his St. Louis Cardinals teammate Jackie Brandt was acting so wildly on and off the field that "his brains were falling out of his head, or flaking out of his head."
Before Brandt, there was pitcher Rube Waddell, noted for getting distracted in the dugout or on the mound by passing fire trucks on the street and puppy dogs in the stands.
Babe Herman was called "The Daffiest Dodger" for doing things such as putting lit cigars in his pocket to answer the phone, and then placing them back in his mouth again.
The Dean brothers -- Dizzy and Daffy.
Then came baseball flakes of the latter 20th century, such as Joe Charboneau, who used his eye socket to open beer bottles, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Mark Fidrych and his conversations with baseballs, Jay Johnstone, Roger McDowell, John Kruk and Turk Wendell.
The list never ends. Not even in death, which is why Mr. I-285 continues to live, with or without a stretch of highway in his honor.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.