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.