Wednesday, January 12, 2000

Doggie's day worth the wait




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[perez]
Tony Perez smiles at his home in San Juan Tuesday.
(AP photo)
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        There is no pecking order at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The plaques are arranged chronologically, by the year of induction, and not by the relative vote totals of the honorees.

        The bronze tablets of first-ballot enshrinees are hung no higher than those of the stragglers sanctioned by the Veterans Committee. Babe Ruth's likeness is no larger than Eppa Rixey's. Willie Mays rates no more room than Rabbit Maranville.

        Immortality is not a relative concept in Cooperstown. It is absolute, indivisible and indelible. Tony Perez was made to wait nine years for the call he received Tuesday, for official recognition of his greatness, but now it is his forever.

        “I'm in?” the Big Dog asked Jack O'Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “Are you sure?”

        O'Connell was positive. He and Michael DiLecce, an accountant for Ernst & Young, had counted the ballots twice Monday night. Both times, Perez gained his passage to Cooperstown with 10 votes to spare. The Big Red Machine's remarkable run-producer was named on 385 of the 499 votes cast -- a 77.2 percent approval rating. If this was not exactly a landslide, neither was it an issue.

        “I think only a couple of times I got a little disappointed,” Perez said in a conference call from his home in Puerto Rico. “Now, it doesn't matter. It's sweet now.”

        Jim Bunning grew so weary of waiting for his achievements to be acknowledged by the baseball writers that he twice asked that his name be removed from their ballot. Yet when the call finally came (from the Veterans Committee), and the pitcher-turned-politician looked out on the crowd in Cooperstown in 1996, he declared it “the best day of my life.”

        If players are occasionally embittered by the indignity of delayed immortality, it is only because the prize means so much. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the one place smug ballplayers admit reverence.

        Once you qualify, you don't quibble about the percentages or the wait. You express your joy and thank your God. When Tony Perez finished fielding phone calls Tuesday, he hoped to find time to go to church.

        If he has sometimes been frustrated by the pace of consensus-building, Perez always understood that his base of support was strong. Except for his first year on the ballot, he has annually commanded a higher percentage of votes than did Abraham Lincoln in either of his presidential campaigns.

        With lower-profile competition on this year's ballot and a higher-profile campaign by the Reds, Perez believed he was close to a breakthrough.

        “I really was feeling if I didn't make it this year, I would never be elected,” he said. “I know in the next couple years there are some really good players who will be (eligible). If I missed it this year, I might be out of it.”

        Perez' case for Cooperstown has never been as strong as was Johnny Bench's or Joe Morgan's. He finished among the top six in the Most Valuable Player balloting only once. For a first baseman with limited range and sub-par speed, he was widely viewed as a one-dimensional player who was not quite dominant.

        At his best, George Foster was better. So was Dave Parker. But Tony Perez played close to his peak for longer than nearly all of his power-hitting contemporaries. At 38 years old, he drove in 105 runs for Boston. At 43, he hit .328 in a reprise with the Reds.

        His baseball career was defined by consistency and dignity, by the ability to wait for the right pitch to get the runner home from third base. His election to the Hall of Fame is a payoff for a lifetime of patience.

        “I believe that once you're in, you're in,” said Carlton Fisk, the fine catcher who reached Cooperstown Tuesday. “The number of votes and all that are comparable to the home run. If the home run goes into the upper deck or it sneaks inside the foul pole by a foot, it's still a home run.”

        A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, whether it's the first try or the ninth.

        “If a cat can have nine lives,” said Hall of Fame spokesman Jeff Idelson, “so can a Doggie.”

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

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