MESA, Ariz. – It was the greatest night of Juan Perez’s career, and the worst night of his baseball life.
“It was crazy,” he said.
The Cubs signed the nondescript, 5-11 outfielder with a .224 career average to a minor-league deal this winter and invited him to camp. And all anyone needs to know about what a team with such big plans would see in a guy like this happened in the span of two hours on the night of Oct. 26, 2014.
You could see it in the red, tear-puffed eyes and hear it in the halting emotion as Perez talked softly to continuous waves of reporters, long after playing a major role that night in helping the Giants win Game 5 of the World Series.
Oscar Taveras was dead.
The Cardinals’ top prospect, Perez’s close friend and Dominican winter league teammate, was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic earlier that night. Perez, who was not in the starting lineup, overheard two workers on the broadcast crew talking about Taveras’ death in the second inning – turning the middle innings into blur.
He rushed upstairs to the Giants clubhouse to check his phone, which was “blowing up” with texts, including photos of the crash.
“When I saw him in the picture they sent me, that’s when my emotions went crazy in the clubhouse,” he said. Teammates Joaquin Arias and Gregor Blanco tried to help. “Some of the veteran guys said, `Take it easy, let it go right now. We have a game going on.’ “
“I let it out for a few innings inside, and then I went out [to the bench].”
“How do you process that?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Not even Perez seems to know the answer. But he came off the bench that game and made what might have been a run-saving catch down the left-field line in a 2-0 game, then in the eighth drove a ball to the top of the wall off late-inning stud Wade Davis for two runs that put the game away (even taking taking thirdon the play afterbad relay throw).
“My mom always says I have a big heart,” said Perez, who was seen tearing up in the dugout even after returning from the clubhouse, “that I kind of go through a lot of tough moments and deal with it and still perform. I think that’s because of my dad. He’s kind of a tough guy that deals with a lot of moments like that.”
His father (also Juan) moved the Perez family from the Dominican to the Bronx, N.Y., without job certainty, to find better opportunity for the family when Juan was 14. He got a job with a plumbing company, where he still works.
Perez, who went on to become a national junior-college player of the year at Western Oklahoma State, credits his dad’s bold decision and hard work for making his baseball career possible.
Perez, 29, still is looking for his first full season in the majors, and it won’t be this year with this team, which sees him more as versatile insurance and depth.
“This guy’s got ability, and he’s got heart,” Maddon said. “He needs opportunity. Now I don’t know how much he’s going to be able to get that here or anyplace else. But I do believe he’s a major-league caliber player. And he’s a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy that’s going to help you win.”
Any slim chance Perez had of making the roster this spring disappeared with the additions after camp began of Dexter Fowler and Shane Victorino.
“It’s a long season,” Perez said. “You’ve just got to be ready for anything.”
If anybody has proven the ability to do that it’s him.
Perez remains close to Taveras’ family and visits every time he returns to the DR. He has known Taveras’ older brother Raul longer than he knew Oscar.
“They still live that moment,” he said. “His mom’s face is still broken from that time.”
The family keeps a “huge” picture of Taveras in front of the house, Perez said, and inside it’s filled with photos and mementos, including his baseball shoes from that four-month big-league career.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” Perez said.
He thinks of his friend often. It’s hard not to when baseball was so much of what they shared.
Harder still is figuring out how he managed to do what he did that October night in 2014 against one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game, with all that emotion coursing through his mind.
“He wasn’t on my mind at the moment I hit the ball,” he said that night. “But when I got to third, I took a peek to the sky, thinking, `That’s for you.’ “