How Roberto Perez overcame Bell's palsy to become an unlikely World Series hero

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

CHICAGO – Three times a week, Roberto Perez retreats to a back room at Progressive Field, eases himself off his feet and gets needles jabbed into his face. Sometimes, they are juiced with an electrical pulse to stimulate his facial muscles, too. Usually it’s eight or so – one in the Pupil Bone Hole, another in the Welcome Fragrance, and can’t forget about the Earth Granary. Perez is here at the World Series because of these acupuncture points. Without them, he may not be playing baseball period.

Every October offers a surprise or two, and Roberto Perez – 33rd-round pick in 2008, skimpy $10,000 bonus baby, veteran of the minor leagues for more than a half-decade and sufferer of Bell’s palsy, a debilitating autoimmune disease that paralyzes the facial muscles – is assuredly the biggest. In this World Series between his Cleveland Indians – and the pitching staff is very much his – and the Chicago Cubs, the 27-year-old Perez’s ascendance was evident in Game 1, when he hit two home runs, and will be paramount as Game 3 dawns at Wrigley Field at 8 p.m. ET Friday.

He is the Indians’ catcher, their game-caller, their pitch-framer, their last line of defense in outwitting a Cubs lineup that put 19 runners on base in a Game 2 victory that evened the series. He is the one who guided Cleveland’s threadbare pitching staff through the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays and is endeavoring to spoil Chicago’s October likewise. As recently as last year, he was also someone who couldn’t passively close his left eye.

“I could blink,” Perez said. “But I had to help myself to do it.”

Roberto Perez's two home runs helped lift the Indians to their Game 1 victory over the Cubs. (USA Today)
Roberto Perez’s two home runs helped lift the Indians to their Game 1 victory over the Cubs. (USA Today)

Bell’s palsy attacked him out of nowhere, as it does the tens of thousands of people in the United States victimized by it every year, on June 16, 2013, soon after the Indians had promoted him to Triple-A. Perez awoke, and the left side of his face was numb. His eye drooped. His mouth sagged. It looked like his face was melting. He tried to move it. Nothing.

Frightened, he scurried to see the team trainer, who feared it might be a stroke. Not until a day later did a doctor diagnose Bell’s palsy, a disorder without an immediate cure.

The effects were profound. Because he couldn’t close his left eye, Perez had trouble sleeping. “I used to wear a patch at night,” he said. “Kind of like a pirate.” His catcher’s mask couldn’t deflect the perils of squatting behind the plate for nine innings, be it blowing dirt or feisty gusts. “When the wind hits you in the eye,” Perez said, “it gets kind of watery, and you want to blink, only you can’t.”

With no guaranteed course of treatment, Indians president Chris Antonetti said the team looked beyond baseball: “How do you help the person get through it, because it not only affects his baseball life but his life in general.” They wondered whether a disabled-list stint might befit Perez.

“The organization talked to me about shutting me down,” he said. “I told them I want to keep playing. I’ve got a family I’ve got to take care of. I’m playing baseball. I’ve got pride in what I do. I want to make it. You guys are not shutting me down.

“You start thinking and wondering whether you’re going to make it or not, if it’s for you or not. I was going to make it.”

Acupuncture helped give Roberto Perez relief from Bell's palsy. (Getty)
Acupuncture helped give Roberto Perez relief from Bell’s palsy. (Getty)

Already Perez was a long shot, the 1,011th overall pick, territory of many a never-was. He did come from Puerto Rico, a cradle of high-caliber catchers, but like so many behind the plate couldn’t find the bat to match his defensive prowess. Still, Perez’s strengths there, from the top-flight arm to the elite skill at making a ball look like a strike to the conviction with which he called a game, convinced the Indians that perhaps a major leaguer lived inside of Perez after all.

And come 2014, when he was crushing Triple-A pitching and an injury to everyday catcher Yan Gomes created an opening, Perez arrived in Cleveland. While his Bell’s palsy still affected him, Perez had learned to succeed in spite of it, something that told the Indians their intuition about his makeup was right on.

Perez’s curiosity behooved him as well. In researching Bell’s palsy, he read about cases in which others’ was supposedly cured through acupuncture. No clinical studies have validated its use in treating Bell’s palsy, but Perez was sold. Living on a minor league salary, he said he couldn’t afford it when he went home to Puerto Rico in the offseason. Starting in 2015, though, the Indians’ acupuncturist, a Cleveland Clinic specialist named Jamie Starkey, put Perez on a thrice-a-week treatment regimen, and suddenly, he started to blink without trying.

“I’m back to normal now,” Perez said.

Roberto Perez has helped guide the Indians' pitching staff through the postseason. (Getty)
Roberto Perez (right) has helped guide the Indians’ pitching staff through the postseason. (Getty)

He smiled, and the left side of his mouth curled up. He was looking out toward the ivy that lined the outfield wall at Wrigley, sucking in the cool fall breeze, taking a moment to recognize the splendor of where he was and what he’d done following another injury to Gomes that gave Perez the every-pitch job. After struggling to a .183/.285/.294 line before October, he matched his regular-season total of three home runs this postseason, including the pair in a Game 1 World Series win. The long sessions with Indians hitting coaches Ty Van Burkleo and Matt Quatraro had manifested themselves at the best time possible. And Perez hadn’t stopped dictating the game on the other side of the ball, either.

“I’ve come a long way, man,” he said. “I’m proud of myself. I never gave up. And now I’m here in the World Series.”

The talk about a catching controversy between him and Gomes can wait, as can any comparisons to another defense-first Puerto Rican catcher with a late-blooming bat, Yadier Molina. For now, Perez can stand at the plate and track the pitch with his left eye, no problem. He can sidle into his crouch and not worry about wind or dirt or any of the elements. And if he’s feeling really good, maybe he can offer a knowing wink, a nod to the moment that almost never came but now is unquestionably his.

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