Juan Perez delivers key hit after learning his good friend Oscar Taveras died

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – Juan Perez didn't believe it, didn't believe his friend was dead, so he ran back to the San Francisco Giants clubhouse and swiped his phone on. He saw the text messages, at least 20, more coming in, all with the horrible news that Oscar Taveras, fellow ballplayer, fellow Dominican, was gone. Then he saw a text with the picture that confirmed it: Taveras at the morgue, on a table, blood everywhere, a horrible image Perez couldn't shake.

He started to cry. Giants closer Santiago Casilla told Perez to shut his phone off, to stop looking at the photo. And Joaquin Arias implored him: "Stay strong. Stay strong." The Giants might need him. And Gregor Blanco said: "I know it's not easy. Let's just try to do it."

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For Juan Perez, a 27-year-old utilityman playing in his first World Series, there was no time to grieve Sunday. This is an awful burden, inconceivable, the consequence of a show-must-go-on mentality pervasive in sports. Taveras, the 22-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, and his 18-year-old girlfriend died in a horrific car crash Sunday. Now one of his best friends saw the grisly result and was expected not just to ignore it but erase from his head the image, from his bones the emotions, from his soul the anguish and play baseball.

"I don't know how he played," Casilla said.

He did, though. Perez arrived in the eighth inning, the Giants clinging to a slim lead over the Kansas City Royals, runners on first and second, one out. On the mound stood Wade Davis, the best relief pitcher in baseball this season. Perez is a career .212 hitter. This might've been the biggest mismatch of the postseason.

Lorenzo Cain could only watch Juan Perez's double hit off the wall. (USA Today)
Lorenzo Cain could only watch Juan Perez's double hit off the wall. (USA Today)

To get to this place – to the batter's box with a steady heart and clear eyes – took most of the game. Toward the beginning, Perez overheard someone outside the small training room that abuts the Giants' dugout say Taveras had died. Perez did a double take before confirming the news and breaking into tears. He paced the Giants' clubhouse, back and forth, crying, processing, trying to understand, failing to do so.

Perez met Taveras in 2009, when the kid was just 17, someone you could dream on, like hundreds of other Dominicans with major league aspirations. Taveras was different, his swing honed through what must've been a million reps, his passion for baseball radiant, his personality so infectious Perez wanted to meet his mom and dad and brothers, which he did. They grew close. They played together for the powerful Aguilas Cibaeñas team over the winter starting in 2011. They texted every few weeks. When Taveras made his major league debut May 31, it was against the Giants.

"I was so excited to see him," Perez said.

Taveras was just starting a career Perez believed would teem with All-Star appearances and awards. In his second major league at-bat, Taveras hit a home run. During the postseason, he whacked another off the Giants.

"In the big leagues he was adjusting very well to it," Perez said. "And it's not gonna happen, man. He's not here."

Perez tried to reconcile this and failed. Most of his days consist of waiting on the bench for a few innings before starting a routine to warm up and prepare for either pinch-hitting duties or replacing Travis Ishikawa in left field. No way he could adhere to his stretches, his swings, his preparation. All Perez could do was get his head right, or as right as it could get.

"You feel sad," Arias said. "You don't want to play the game."

Eventually Perez left the clubhouse and returned to the Giants' bench, his tears dry, his mind ready. He hadn't forgotten about Taveras. He'll never forget about Taveras. He knew that Taveras was a ballplayer, too, that if ever they played out the macabre reality that took place, Taveras would've told Perez to get out there, to stand in against Davis and to represent the Dominican Republic.

Perez, right, is congratulated after his two-run RBI double. (AP)
Perez, right, is congratulated after his two-run RBI double. (AP)

He dug in, wagged his bat, swung and missed at a 96-mph fastball. Giants catcher Buster Posey warned him about the fastball and told him to shorten his swing.

The next pitch arrived at 96, and Perez fouled it back. Hitting coach Hensley Meulens urged Perez to pull the ball instead of trying to shoot it to the opposite field, a bold suggestion for a player with a grand total of two career home runs.

A 90-mph cutter dove for ball one. Perez called timeout afterward, composing himself, trying to dig out of an 0-2 deficit against Wade Davis, which might as well be digging a lucky penny out of hardening cement.

Davis barely missed outside with a 92-mph cutter, and Perez fouled off a 91-mph cutter, and Davis flung a 95-mph fastball high, and the count worked to 3-2, a place that didn't seem possible with the matchup and circumstances.

This is why the show goes on, though. It goes on for the 3-2 pitch, a 96-mph fastball, center cut, like a perfect filet. And it goes on for the swing, short like Posey suggested, yanked like Meulens did. And it goes on for the ball that soared into the night at AT&T Park, over the head of Lorenzo Cain, the man who catches everything but wouldn't catch this. And it goes on for the sound a baseball makes when it hits the tippy-top of the fence, a loud clank, and the sound 43,087 people make at the same time, a louder discordance. And it goes on for the men on first and second both scoring and a head-first slide into third base by the man who hit it. And it goes on for Juan Perez jumping to his feet, adrenalized, able for one tiny moment to forget about his friend and then an instant later to look up at the sky and remember him.

"It's one of those moments you get chills thinking about," Posey said.

The two runs doubled the Giants' lead to four, and behind Madison Bumgarner's shutout, the first in the World Series in more than a decade, San Francisco won 5-0 and took a 3-games-to-2 lead. It was classic Giants: brilliant starting pitching, contributions from a pair of unlikely hitting protagonists in Brandon Crawford and Perez.

Following the game, Perez retreated to the Giants' clubhouse, the place he spent an hour crying. He tried to explain his night. His eyes welled. They were still bloodshot. He composed himself, answered again and again how he knew Taveras and what he thought of him and what this meant and how sad it was. This was not a normal step in the grieving process.

None of this was ordinary, of course. The idea of playing in tribute to someone is cliché. Using sports, these stupid games we play, to honor their memory is equally trite. It's also a canvas for something greater. What Juan Perez did Sunday wasn't just play for his friend Oscar, for the whole baseball world that grieved at his loss. Perez played for himself, and on an awful night for the sport, nothing was more redeeming than that.

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