Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Perez gets goosebumps at Hall of Fame

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tony Perez walks through plaque room.
(AP photos)
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        COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Everywhere Tony Perez turned, he kept stumbling upon Bob Gibson's image. On the huge “All-Century Team” photo in the lobby. On the wall of Hall of Fame plaques. Even in the holiest off-limits sanctuary of Hall treasures, where Perez donned white gloves and hefted a Jackie Robinson bat, Gibson's image was on top of the stack of baseball cards.

        Not one of these ghosts escaped Perez's notice.

        “If it was up to Bob Gibson, I never would have made the Hall of Fame,” said Perez, in that deep bass voice of his, still heavily accented from his days growing up in Cuba. “He didn't help me one bit.”

        Only one of his 379 home runs came off Gibson, and few of his 1,652 RBI. But it didn't matter Monday.

        The Big Dog was home.

        He was here only once before, during a 1967 Hall of Fame Day exhibition game when the Reds were beaten by the Orioles 3-0. He took a quick tour of the Hall that day, but best remembers the soft, unsolveable slants of 39-year-old O's right-hander Stu Miller.

Perez and wife Pituka inspect the Big Red Machine exhibit.
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        Perez was in a light-hearted mood Monday, walking on a cloud as he took his orientation tour of the Hall and the town in preparation for the biggest day of his life: July 23, when he will be inducted into baseball's Valhalla.

        Only once Monday did Perez come down to earth, and that was when he first laid eyes on the rows of Hall of Fame plaques, which his image and record will join in two months. As though in disbelief, he shook his head, then bowed it. He raised it, then touched his left arm with his right hand.

        “I get goosebumps,” he said.

        He checked the Hall of Fame plaque of Martin Dhigo, the only other Cuban native here. Dhigo played in the Negro Leagues. Tony's father, Jose Manuel, talked to Tony of Dhigo, and then, wonder of wonders, Tony played rookie ball with Dhigo's son, Martin Jr., in Geneva, N.Y., in 1960.

        “I'm not going to tell you it wasn't a long nine years (of waiting for election),” Perez said. “But as soon as I got the call that I'd been elected, those nine years vanished just like that,” he said, waving his hand. “In that moment, those nine years never existed. That's how sweet it was. And I still feel that way now.”

Perez pases with a group of sixth graders who were visiting the Hall.
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        From the time he had coffee and danish at 8:30 a.m. with the Hall of Fame staff, to the 5:30 p.m. wrap-up on what to expect Hall of Fame weekend, Perez had a big smile on his face. Sight-seers at the Hall on Monday met the most approachable Hall of Famer of them all.

        Sonny and Missy Yeary, of Richmond, Va., were touring the “Great Teams” exhibit when they turned the corner of one of the display cases and saw the eight-person entourage that included Perez.

        “I can't believe it,” said Sonny, 36. “I grew up watching Tony play — 25 years ago with the Big Red Machine. I was 11. When does baseball mean more to you than when you're 11?”

        It was like that all day.

        Tony, with Steve and Rita Tharp of Bedford, Ky., who was shocked to come face-to-face with a real-live Hall of Famer in the middle of the Hall of Fame gallery.

        Tony, watching the nine-minute video of his career, and smiling broadly when he saw himself in 1968 make a diving stab of a no-man's land popup as a third baseman: “See, I wasn't so bad at third as they say,” said Tony, nudging his wife, Pituka, with his elbow. Tony, seeing a picture of Sandy Amoros' great catch against the left-field fence in Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series: “I can still see it. I was watching the game on TV with my dad. I was 13 years old, and I was a Dodgers' fan. My father loved the Dodgers.”

        At the end of the Hall tour, as Tony and Pituka rode up on the elevator, somebody asked him what his day here was like.

        “It's like coming home,” he said. “Baseball is my life. It's just an incredible feeling of coming home.”


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