Big Red Machine star is a big hit at Card Show

By on March 28, 2018
Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Famer Tony Perez autographs a baseball bat for a fan during the Ephrata Card Show last Saturday. Photo by Missi Mortimer

Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Famer Tony Perez autographs a baseball bat for a fan during the Ephrata Card Show last Saturday. Photo by Missi Mortimer

Tony Perez still speaks with a thick Cuban accent.

But beneath that native tongue, the former Cincinnati Reds’ first baseman is quick-witted and charming with his sense of humor and sharp recall.

Just a month and a half shy of his 76th birthday, Perez smiled easily at the Ephrata Lions’ 39th annual Card Show and Auction last Saturday at the Ephrata Rec Center while talking about his time with the vaunted Big Red Machine in the 70’s and then helping the Phillies’ Wheeze Kids reach the World Series in 1983.

“That was the greatest thing that happened in my career to be in Cincinnati at that time,” said Perez, a leader on the Reds’ dynasty that won the Fall Classic in 1975 and ‘76.

Little did he know what his future held upon signing his first pro contract in 1960. Unless you count the plane ticket to Miami, Fla. and $2.50 for the cost of a visa, Perez received no signing bonus.

“I just wanted to play baseball,” he said.

Growing up in Ciego de Avila, Perez had heard the legendary Major League Baseball names of Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Feller and Babe Ruth.

Then while in the minors with the Reds, he watched a TV interview with Mays which shaped his approach at the plate over a 23-year career.

“I was sitting in my hotel because we were playing at night and I was watching one of the Saturday games,” Perez recalled. “My English wasn’t that good at that time, but I could understand what he was saying. They asked him this question, ‘Willie, why you hit .350 almost every year, drive in 140 runs and steal how many bases? Why?’ He said, ‘Well, when I faced (Sandy) Koufax, (Don) Drysdale, Bob Gibson and those great pitchers, if I go 1-for-4, it’s a great day. But the rest of the guys, I get four, three (hits),’ and that was the truth. The good pitcher is going to get you out, but in between, not the great pitchers, you’ve got to hit. If they get you out too, you’re going to hit .220.”

“Doggie” — as he was nicknamed — was doing his share of hitting while surrounded by the likes of Bobby Tolan, Lee May, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Ken Griffey early in his career. But the Reds couldn’t quite get over the hump.

“Back in ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, ‘69, we had a great hitting team, but we had no pitching,” Perez said. “We could not put everything together.”

But that began to change after Sparky Anderson took over as manager in 1970. Second baseman Joe Morgan and pitcher Jack Billingham were acquired in a seven-player deal after the ‘71 season and the Reds were on their way. The Big Red Machine went on to beat the Red Sox in 1975 and the Yankees in 1976 for back-to-back titles.

“We were like a family,” Perez said.

Following brief stints with the Expos and Red Sox, he was reunited with two members of that family — Morgan and Rose — on the 1983 Phillies.

In March of that year, the three were pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, all laughing. When asked Saturday if he remembered what caused the amusement, Perez said with a twinkle in his eye, “Yeah, but I cannot tell you. I don’t even want to tell you what Pete was saying. He killed Joe there. Pete can tell a lot of jokes and stuff like that.”

The Phillies were no joking matter after they replaced manager Pat Corrales with Paul Owens in July. Although Philadelphia was in first place at the time, they were just one game above .500.

“Everybody was playing bad in the division because we were all right around .500,” Perez said, “and when they changed to the Pope, we took ‘em.”

With Owens in the dugout, they knocked off the Dodgers in the NLCS, then fell to Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and the Orioles in the World Series.

“I could never beat the Orioles,” Perez said. “They beat us (the Reds) in ‘70 and then with the Phillies in ‘83. That was tough.”

In all, Perez finished with 2,732 hits and he still ranks 30th all-time with 1,652 RBIs. In addition to his three World Series rings (including one as a coach with the 1990 Reds), he also was a seven-time All-Star in his career.

Among his personal highlights, nothing tops the 1967 Mid-Summer Classic when he homered off of Catfish Hunter in the 15th inning to lift the National League All-Stars to a 2-1 victory.

“I remember it very well,” Perez said. “Fifteen innings, man, we played a long game.”

A ninth-inning replacement at the hot corner for Dick Allen, Perez K’d against Hunter his first time at-bat. Facing the Athletics’ future Hall of Famer again in the 15th, the slugger made no mistake.

“Walter Alston, the manager, told me to go and play third,” Perez recalled. “Catfish Hunter was the pitcher and he threw about three or four innings because there weren’t no more pitchers. I faced him for the first time and he struck me out on a high fastball. I said, ‘OK, if I face him again, I’m going to look for it.’ The second time up, he gave me one fastball and I hit it out.”

Perez hit 287 of his 379 career homers while playing for Cincinnati, and of course, his Hall of Fame plaque features him in a Reds’ ball cap.

“Being in the Hall of Fame,” he said, “it’s a dream come true, it really is.”

Given his background with the Reds, it’s no surprise that he would take the Big Red Machine over many other elite teams, including the 1998 Yankees who won 114 games.

“Let me tell you about the ‘98 Yankees,” Perez said. “Our eight guys played every day. OK? The Yankees of ‘98, when they were facing a left-hander, they didn’t play some left-handers, like (Paul) O’Neill. I mean, they had two, three guys that did not play when (the opponent) pitched a great lefty like, the big guy, Randy Johnson. We didn’t do that. Everybody played every day and we didn’t change no matter who was pitching. When we played, Morgan would play. Now you figure that out. Who’s got a better team?”

The leader of those ‘98 Yankees, Derek Jeter, recently purchased the Miami Marlins, where Perez had been an executive for many years. After turning down a reduced-role offer with the club, this marked the first time in 58 years that Perez wasn’t in spring training.

Asked what he’s going to do with his time, Perez said, “Ask my wife. I’m going to spend more time with her than I did before.”

Wherever he is, Perez’s charm will be close by.

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