Thursday, December 30, 1999

Perez's case for Hall backed by friend, stats




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nicolas Villageliu specializes in bringing ledgers into balance. He is an accountant by trade and a Tony Perez lobbyist by love.

        He continues to campaign for Perez's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame because the numbers still don't add up after nine years. Every spreadsheet Villageliu studies suggests Perez is the victim of an outrageous oversight. Every year that the Big Dog is excluded from Cooperstown strikes Villageliu as a statistical aberration.

        Why, he wonders, is the Baseball Writers Association of America so slow to grasp what ought to be obvious?

        “I think the numbers are there,” Villageliu said Wednesday afternoon from his Miami office. “We did some comparisons, and it's really no contest. It really bothers me that such a class guy is left up in the air for no apparent reason.”

        Villageliu is Perez's accountant, but his Hall of Fame support is supplied pro bono. Last month, he mailed Perez T-shirts and detailed statistical analyses to 500 members of the BBWAA. He persuaded John Allen, the Reds Chief Operating Officer, to endorse Perez's candidacy in a letter distributed to the voters. He has invested a lot of time in the project without the comfort of tangible progress.

        Last year, Perez's support level actually slipped. He was named on 302 of the 497 votes cast, 71 voters short of the 75 percent approval rating required for induction. While this decline may have been attributable to the quality of the competition — Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount were all first-ballot selections — it does not augur well for a sudden surge at the ballot box.

Big-time run producer
        Tony Perez is the only eligible Hall of Fame candidate with 1,600 runs batted in and no plaque in Cooperstown. He is the only candidate to be named on at least half of the ballots in his first year of eligibility who did not gain enshrinement by his fifth try.

        “I think we've opened up a lot of eyes,” Villageliu said. “I've gotten letters from Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann and they're behind me 100 percent. But they don't vote.”

        The problem with Perez's candidacy is that it demands a closer look rather than a rubber stamp. He never led his league in a significant statistical category and he was always overshadowed by higher-profile teammates. You don't check his name off by reflex, but through further review.

        Perez had more hits (2,732) than Lou Gehrig or Ted Williams. He drove in more runs (1,652) than Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. If he was never quite the best player in any single year, he was the personification of staying power.

        Between 1965 and 1984 — a span of 20 seasons — Perez produced more RBI than any man in the major leagues. If his batting average (.279) was ordinary, if his defense was pedestrian, Tony Perez excelled at getting runner homes when it mattered.

        In baseball, there is no higher praise.

Cultural bias?
        Some of Perez's supporters believe he is the victim of cultural bias; that the predominantly white voters fail to appreciate the contributions of Latino stars.

        If such a bias exists, however, its numerical impact is probably negligible. Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez have captured three of the last four American League MVP awards. If baseball writers aren't completely color-blind, the box scores are.

        Perhaps Villageliu will persuade some writers to examine Perez's case more carefully. Perhaps he will provoke a backlash. When the San Francisco Giants lobbied for Orlando Cepeda in 1993, club officials feared their campaign might prove counterproductive.

        Yet the Giants' efforts succeeded in raising both Cepeda's profile and his vote total. Though he missed induction by seven votes that year, Cepeda was later elected by the Veteran's Committee.

        A comparable push could get Perez to Cooperstown.

        “I think this is the best year for Tony,” Villageliu said. “Other than Carlton Fisk, I don't think anyone else will be elected.”

        The voting will be announced Jan. 11. The party is pending.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE