Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Perez's major-league sacrifice

Hall of Famer left his life behind in Cuba to play baseball in America

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A lot is made about the sacrifices athletes make to obtain greatness. But it is fair to say no one gave up more than Tony Perez to get to the top of his game.

        Perez left his country, his family and his life to make it as a big-leaguer.

        Perez, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday, left Cuba in 1960 to join the Reds' farm club at Geneva, N.Y. He returned home after his first three years in the minors.

        But as the United States' relationship with Fidel Castro's Cuba grew more icy, Tony's father, Jose, told him it was too dangerous to come back. If baseball was to be Tony's life, he would have to leave Cuba behind.

        He did in '63. It would be nine years — 1972 — before Perez returned to his homeland. And then it was to bid his dying father goodbye.

  The Enquirer is running a weeklong series of Hall of Fame stories leading to Sunday's inductions:
  • Sunday: Bid McPhee didn't need a glove most of his career.
  • Monday: How Sparky Anderson became Reds manager
  • Tuesday: How Marty Brennaman became Reds broadcaster
  • Today: How Tony Perez went from Cuba to the Reds system
  • Thursday: How Anderson became “Captain Hook.”
  • Friday: Brennaman's broadcasting style is sharp-edged
  • Saturday: Perez's needle wove Big Red Machine fabric
  • Next Sunday: Special coverage on each of the Reds' inductees.
  • Hall of Fame travelers better act fast
        “It was hard,” Perez said. “You miss your country, your mother, your father, your family. I wasn't with my father when he died, or my older sister. It was very difficult.” Even Perez's son, Eduardo, didn't know the price his father had paid when he left Cuba and his life there behind.

        “I didn't realize it until I went to Cuba in January of 1993, then again last year,” Eduardo said. “It gave me an appreciation for what he'd gone through.

        “Latin families are very close. It's unheard of to leave the town he came from. It had to be very traumatic.” Perez is the first Cuban player to be elected to the Hall of Fame. It could be 20 or more years before another makes it. Cuba dominates the world in amateur baseball, but Perez was one of the last players to get out freely. If he had been born in 1945 — instead of 1942 — his life would have been different.

        “The guys two or three years behind me didn't make it out,” Perez said. “I don't know what would have happened to me.”

        Perez is from Camaguey. The people there make their living growing sugar cane. Perez's father, his two brothers and three sisters worked the fields or at the processing plant.

        Perez worked at the plant briefly, but he didn't like it. He had grown up idolizing Minnie Minoso and decided to give baseball a try. His mother warned him against it.

        “She said I was too skinny,” Perez said.

        Perez was rail thin, carrying only 147 pounds over his 6-foot-2 frame, but he could hit. Tony Pacheco, the scout for the Reds, discovered Perez at a camp. He put Perez in the Havana Sugar Kings' instructional program. The Kings were the Reds' Triple-A team in Cuba.

        Perez was signed and sent to play for Geneva in the New York-Penn League. His bonus: the $2.50 it cost to get a visa. It might as well have been Geneva in Switzerland. Perez neither spoke nor understood English.

        “Not at all,” he said. “I don't know how to communicate. It was hard for me to play the game early.”

        There were two other Cubans on the team. One of them, Marty Dihigo Jr., spoke some English.

        “He helped me some,” Perez said.

        Ironically, Dihigo's father, Marty Sr., is the only other Cuban in the Hall of Fame. Dihigo, a Negro Leagues star, was elected by the veteran's committee in 1977.

        Perez was decent his first year, but he showed his first flashes of greatness during his second year at Geneva, hitting .348 with 27 home runs and 127 RBI.

        Perez was clearly on his way to the big leagues. He put together two more good years in the minors. It was when he left for spring training in 1963 that he said his goodbyes to his family.

        It was after baseball was over that the finality of the decision hit him. But that year in the instructional league, he met a friend who would make the pain of separation a little easier to deal with. It was Lee May, a black first baseman from Birmingham, Ala.

        The two hit it off.

        “Tony was a little down because he couldn't go back to Cuba,” May said. “I felt like he needed a friend. He taught me a little Spanish. I taught him some English. We had some good times.”

        It's no coincidence May was the guy behind the plate when Perez threw the first pitch the day the Reds re tired his number in May.

        “Lee really helped me out,” Perez said. “He's been a great friend.”

        Perez went to Puerto Rico to play winter ball in 1964. He and a teammate, Jose Martinez, went to dinner one night at the home of a Cuban family that had left to escape Castro.

        The oldest daughter, Pituka, was awestruck by Tony.

        “He was so tall and handsome,” Pituka said, “and that smile.”

        They were married four months later.

        “Thirty-five years ago,” Tony said. “Thirty-five wonderful years.”

        The Mays and Perezes became like family. Pituka and Lee's wife, Terrye, were as close as Tony and Lee.

        “Terrye was wonderful to me,” Pituka said. “She taught me English. The only thing bad about Terrye is she never taught me to cook American food. I taught her to cook Spanish.”

        Cooking Cuban food was a way to bring a little of his homeland to Tony.

        Pituka would stock up on rice, beans, bananas and spices at Madera's Latin & American Market on Montgomery Road.

        Now, those early years in Cincinnati bring a smile to Pituka's face.

        “Cincinnati will always be in my heart,” Pituka said.

        The Perezes spend their winters in Puerto Rico. Tony played winter ball there when he was coming up, and the place grew on him.

        “It reminds me of Cuba,” he said. “It's an island; the scenery is the similar.”

        Tony and Pituka split their time between Miami, where Perez is director of international relations for the Florida Marlins, and Puerto Rico.

        “We've been blessed,” Pituka said. “No complaints.”

        Perez is proud to Cuba's first elected Hall of Famer.

        “It's a great honor,” he said. “There are a lot of good players who never got a chance. It's a tremendous feeling to be the first one.”


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