On Sal Perez’s improbable journey from, ‘Well, how good can he be?’ to KC Royals icon

·8 min read

Perhaps by now you’re familiar with the improbable Salvador Perez origin story But, just in case, let’s reset with a few of the captivating details.

Such as how he grew up in a home with dirt floors in Venezuela and nurtured and inspired by his adoring grandmother, Carmen Ramos, and loving mother, Yilda — who worked relentlessly to sustain them but perhaps set an everlasting tone with her inclination to dance and sing when she cooked.

And how she spent hours pitching corn kernels and bottle caps to the broomstick-wielding boy.

About how at a tryout camp he caught the attention of alert Royals’ scout Orlando Estevez, who suggested Perez move from third base to throw a couple balls from behind the plate to see how that went.

And about how a panicked Perez ran his fastest 60-yard dash after a German shepherd broke loose from his handler ... and how he mesmerized anyone watching with his exuberance and sheer love of the game.

All of that and more helps explain why, Estevez once recalled, everyone in the room was weeping when the Royals signed then-16-year-old Perez for $65,000 in 2006.

Now to what few might know: how perhaps the most momentous signing of his tenure as general manager would initially be perceived by Dayton Moore, whose first hire when he took over was Rene Francisco as special assistant to the general manager/international operations.

Since the Royals had lagged dramatically over the decade before in expenditures and development of players in Latin America, Moore had viewed that initiative as essential to reviving the franchise.

Turned out it was a crucial emphasis that became part of Moore’s legacy, an element best illuminated by the through line of Perez as Moore moves into the president role and makes way for JJ Picollo as general manager.

Since Moore views the shift in roles less as the end of an era than a revitalizing restructuring, he remained more focused on the present and future than revisiting that past and how we got here.

But those converge in the form of Perez, who certainly would be near the top of any Dayton 500 of Royals moves in the last 15 years and remains a source of wonder to him.

And maybe all the more so since he had no idea of what was to come in 2006.

In his suite at Kauffman Stadium earlier this week, Moore sheepishly recalled his skepticism over the bargain that keeps on giving in the unique form of the captivating Perez — who has earned consideration as an MVP and is staking out ground toward a candidacy for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Because when Francisco told Moore “we signed a big, strong catcher from Venezuela” for $65,000, Moore remembered thinking to himself, “Well, how good can he be?”

“I never told Rene that,” he said, grinning, “but that’s what I was thinking.”

Before he came to Kansas City from Atlanta, after all, Moore recalled top Latin America prospects receiving signing bonuses in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

When he met Perez a few weeks later at their academy in the Dominican Republic, Moore had more of an inkling of what others saw: Perez had a striking frame, a great smile and charisma and “might turn into something, you never know. And that was about it.”

By the next spring, the notion of what was to come was reinforced in what turns out to have been a spectacularly foretelling way.

One evening after seeing Perez practice and play in the Arizona Rookie League, forever coach Bill Fischer called Moore in Kansas City.

“‘I’m watching the Latin Johnny Bench,’” Moore recalled.

This carried particular currency coming from Fischer, who wasn’t prone to embellishment and coached with the Reds as Bench established standards for all catchers.

From left are Royals catcher Sal Perez, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and Rafi Cedeño.
From left are Royals catcher Sal Perez, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and Rafi Cedeño.

Flash-forward: On Thursday against Oakland, Perez matched one of Bench’s milestones by hitting his 45th home run of the season.

That tied Bench’s 1970 record for most home runs in a single season by a player who is primarily a catcher (playing at least 75% of his games behind the plate). Perez also added to his major-league leading RBI total (112 as of Thursday) and moved into a tie in the home-run race with Toronto first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

As he pursues the Royals’ single season record of 48 established by Jorge Soler just two years ago, Perez’s next home run will surpass Bench and move him past Mike Sweeney (197) into second place on the Royals career list behind only George Brett (317).

As he considered Perez’s power, Moore turned through a Royals media guide to remind himself of how that part of his game had grown. Through 529 at-bats in his first three years of professional baseball at three different levels, Perez hit a total of three home runs.

Gradually, as Perez matured and grew into his body more, the home runs became part of his repertoire … but never more than 27 in a single season with the parent club before now.

“That speaks to the evolution of a power hitter and how long it takes,” Moore said, adding that it also was testament to Perez’s faith in himself and support around him.

To be sure, the home run fever is great theater, of course, gaudy and easy to gawk at.

But maybe the best thing about it is how it has called more attention to Perez overall. And, with that, all the other dimensions that make him a singular force, one who literally changes the tempo of a game with his demeanor and has an uncanny knack for the big moment.

All things considered, It seems to make for a case as the most important signing in Moore’s tenure with the Royals.

No doubt contemplating other moves and players, Moore didn’t explicitly say yes. when asked. But maybe he implicitly did after pausing then speaking of the seven-time All-Star who has won five Gold Gloves and was the 2015 World Series MVP.

“When you look at all those things, he’s going to go down probably as the very best catcher in Royals history. And he’s going to go down as one of the best catchers in the history of the game,” Moore said. “And he’s going to go down as one of the best people and personalities in the history of the Royals.

“And he’s got a lot of baseball left, a lot of baseball left, and he’s one of the most revered and beloved and admired players in all of baseball.”

Which helps explain why Moore thought it was vital to set up a visit with owner John Sherman and Perez over the winter at Perez’s home in the Miami area.

Given that Sherman bought the Royals relatively recently, in 2019, and that the pandemic inhibited personal contact for so long, the two hadn’t gotten to know each other as much as seemed desirable to Moore while the Royals were negotiating a contract extension with Perez.

“I wanted John to feel his heart and to see what this guy’s about,” Moore said. “And I wanted Salvy to know that John Sherman is a man of character and a man of vision and somebody who values Salvador Perez and what he means to this organization’s history.”

A few weeks later, the Royals gave Perez a four-year, $82 million contract extension, a franchise record payout that has been worth it many times over already:

At 31 now, Perez somehow is better than ever, and, tellingly, as passionate and dedicated as ever.

By way of a fresh example, Moore let on that the Royals medical staff had not wanted Perez to participate in the Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game.

What had at the time been described rather generically as back tightness that caused Perez to leave their July 10 game at Cleveland (and would have kept him out the next day if the game hadn’t been rained out) was, in fact, what Moore called an “oblique issue.”

But Perez was “adamant” about wanting to represent the Royals and the community and simply compete. And he ultimately persuaded the medical staff that he could do it without added risk. (Or, at least, no one forcibly stopped him.)

Perez proceeded to thump 28 home runs, a record for catchers, in the first round of the derby but didn’t advance since he was bracketed with the Mets’ Peter Alonzo — who cracked 35.

Some guys, Moore said, tired at mid-season would have looked to find a way out. Many would have just accepted the delicate nature of the injury and figured they’d better sit.

“Not Salvy,” Moore said. “He’s going to want to play baseball as long as he’s breathing. That determination and drive is really unmatched.”

Same as it was the first time Moore saw him on the field at Salcedo in the Dominican Republic.

Even if he had no way of knowing what that would come to mean to the city, the franchise ... and to him.

That’s how good Perez could be.

“Salvy reminds me, truthfully, every day of how special the game is and how we should always look at it through the eyes of our youth,” he said. “Salvy reminds me of that. Every single day.”

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