CINCINNATI -- This is a big year for the "Big Dog," which is saying something considering he is someone who made something of a career out of big years. Yet this one is different for another reason, one involving posterity and the game Tony Perez loves and that hallowed piece of ground in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I know it's coming," Perez said the other day, in his familiar spot behind the batting cage at Riverfront Stadium. "People remind me."
The date is December, when the Baseball Writers of America vote on 1992 inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the announcement coming the second week of January. A couple of Perez's Big Red Machine teammates have already gained admittance. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan. December may be Perez's turn. Five years have passed since 1986, when he last swung a bat professionally. His time has come.
"I think I got a pretty good chance," he said. "I had a good career and I had good numbers out there."
Better than just "good" offered a visitor.
"Yeah," Perez said. "I hope you writers remember. It's not up to me. I think I did my share on the field. Now we'll just have to wait and see."
Tony Perez turned 49 on May 14. This time next year he will have spent half a century on this earth and more than half of that time, in one way or another, with the Cincinnati Reds. This is his 25th year with the organization: five years in the minor leagues, 15 years as a player, five years as a coach.
Talk about Pete Rose and Bench and Morgan and all those other Big Red Machine greats, but only Perez is still around, still in baseball. Rose had his problems. Bench has his endorsements and his businesses. Morgan has his broadcasting. But "Doggie" is still a Red.
"It's fun to coach here," Perez said while watching another Red take his pregame cuts in the cage. "It's like you stay home. It's not like going someplace else. People know what to expect from you."
As a player, Perez was expected to come through in the clutch. And he did. Few were better run-producers. Twelve times -- including a string of 11 straight seasons -- Perez drove in 90 runs or more. Seven times he topped the century mark. He finished with 1,652 RBI, 16th on the all-time list. All 15 above him -- with the exception of Reggie Jackson, who is not yet eligible -- are in the Hall.
But that was just one measure of Perez's worth. In the clubhouse, he was the leader who kept his teammates loose. He was "The Big Dog" or "Doggie" with his wonderfully upbeat disposition, laughing, joking, kidding around.
"Every club he's been with he has been a major positive influence," said Marty Brennaman, the longtime Reds broadcaster who saw Perez's Big Red Machine days firsthand. "It was obvious what kind of influence he had on this team when he was traded away [in 1977]. Unfortunately, I think the people realized that after the fact."
But the Reds brought Perez back in 1984 as a part-time player. He served in that role for three seasons before joining the coaching staff in 1987. He became hitting coach in 1988.
"I enjoy what I'm doing," Perez said. "I'm working with the young guys and the old guys with their hitting. And I like to do that. I really enjoy it, especially last year. We win and we go all the way."
Was the sensation the same as when Perez won two titles (1975 and 1976) as a player?
"It's different," he said. "It was my first World Series as a coach. That was nice."
This year has been different, too, but for the wrong reason. The defending champs have struggled at the plate, bringing up the rear in the National League. A year ago, they led the league in hitting.
"We're having trouble with hitting offensively," Perez said. "A lot of the guys weren't swinging the bats good. We started swinging the bats better the last few games. We lead the league in hitting last year, so I don't understand why we can't this year. JTC We were swinging at a lot of bad pitches. We weren't being patient at the plate, trying to win the game with one swing. That's what happens sometimes. You get a bad habit and it's hard to get rid of. It take a little while."
In the meantime, Perez does what he can, when he can.
"I go to them when I see something wrong and I can help them," Perez said. "That's what I'm here for. You don't need to wait for a player to come to you and say, 'What am I doing wrong?' You just go to them and say: 'I think you're doing this or that wrong. If you do it this way you're going to be better.' Some players are just easy, some take a little more time."
Take catcher Jeff Reed, one of the few Reds hitting the ball well right now. He was struggling along, batting .189, when a couple of weeks back, Perez offered a piece of advice.
"Tony told me to move my front elbow up," Reed said. "He told me it was down too low and that I couldn't get around on the ball. Ever since then, I've felt a whole lot better."
So much so Reed has lifted his average to .297.
"That's the way Tony is," Reed said. "He'll tell you something and then he'll let you try it and see if you like it. Most of the time, he's just giving you suggestions. He doesn't make you do anything. He gives you something to try and if you like it, you go with it."
"He took me into the cage just a couple of days ago," said Hal Morris, the Reds first baseman, who has struggled of late but is still batting .306. "He saw some things I was doing wrong and worked on them with me. He stands behind the cage every day and watches you and picks up things that help."
"It's just knowing the players and watching them hitting, watching when they're going good and watching when they're not going good," Perez said. "We have film. We film every game at home. We take them over and show them what they're doing. Then we come back here and work on it. I watch every player."
Son Eduardo has also benefited from Perez's knowledge, though his father rarely sees him play in person. Eduardo, 21, just finished his junior year at Florida State, playing for the Seminoles, who were the No. 1 seed in the College World Series before being eliminated. Like his dad, Eduardo wore No. 24 and played first base. Like his dad, Eduardo can hit. He batted .316 last year and .377 this season. It was good enough to rate a first-round selection by the California Angels in this week's amateur draft, the 17th overall pick.
"Oh, well, he doing great," said his father. "I talk to him almost every night. He call me almost every night."
"Sure. He call me the other day and say, 'I went 0-for-6.' He call me Sunday night and say, 'I go 0-for-6.' I said, 'What happened?' He say, 'I doing this and that.' I said, 'Try this or that.' Next game he play, he went 4-for-5 with home run. He love to play. One thing he love to do, he love to play."
Same with the old man.
"It's great having him around," Reed said. "He knows what he's talking about and he can feel things. You can't always feel things up at the plate, not like he can."
"It's a big boost, I think," Morris said. "I remember watching him when he was in the World Series. It's good to have somebody like that, who's proven what he can do, around. You hope some of it rubs off on you."
Might Perez one day be able to apply similar magic as a manager?
"I cannot say no because I might change my mind someday," Perez said. "But not this day. They're firing a manager every day."
That's the main reason?
"Nah," Perez said. "It because I don't feel like it. I like what I'm
"I think his Hall of Fame chances are good," Brennaman said. "I don't know if he'll make it on the first ballot. But I think he will eventually get in. I think his numbers definitely justify him being .. in the Hall of Fame."
Perez finished with a .279 batting average and 379 home runs to go with his RB. He ranks among the Reds' top five all-time in at-bats, hits, doubles, homers, extra-base hits, total bases and runs batted in. One day short of his 43rd birthday, he became the oldest player ever to hit a grand slam.
He could be in the Hall of Fame at age 50.
"I would love to, on the first ballot I would love to," Perez said. "But if I don't, I'll wait till next year, I guess. There's nothing you can do. I'd be disappointed, I guess. It's nice to get in the Hall of Fame."
Nicer still when you are a nice guy who deserves it.