In the afterglow of a World Series championship, in a packed clubhouse with champagne bottles popping and beer spraying, Salvador Perez pushed through a mob of bodies and rested his World Series MVP on a large red cooler, its silver base glistening in the light. He had a bottle of Bud Light tucked into the back of his baseball pants, ski goggles on his head, and a megawatt perma-smile on his face.
Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie pushed through the crowd and pulled Perez into a selfie. A reporter pushed a microphone into his face. Perez picked up the trophy and let out a guttural bellow.
“Ahhh!,” Perez shouted. “My family!”
This was after 1 a.m. at Citi Field, nearly 30 minutes after the Royals had claimed the second world championship in franchise history, nearly 10 minutes after Perez, the ever-smiling, ever-bruised, ever-jubilant catcher had become the World Series’ Most Valuable Player after batting .364 in the series and setting the table for the winning run in the 12th inning of a 7-2 victory in Game 5 on Sunday night.
All around him, there were bodies, a wave of champagne soaked T-shirts, and grown men hugging, and Perez could not stay still. He pushed forward, lugging the trophy with him, and headed out to see the Royals fans who had amassed in the rows behind the first-base dugout at Citi Field.
“It’s unbelievable,” Perez would say. “I always say we feel like a family here.”
One year ago, on a cool night in Kansas City, Perez had ended Game 7 of the World Series by hitting a soft pop-up into foul territory off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. Alex Gordon was stranded at third. The Royals came up 90 feet short.
This time, the Royals brought the runner home. In the top of the ninth, Perez helped score Eric Hosmer with a broken-bat flare to third. In the top of the 12th, he led off a five-run rally with a single to right field, exiting for pinch runner Jarrod Dyson.
“We never quit,” Perez would say. “We never put our heads down.”
As Perez cradled his trophy and the fans chanted into the night — “MVP! MVP!” — Royals general manager Dayton Moore took up residence in a corner of the dugout, away from the raucous party and bedlam. For nine years, Moore had watched Perez grow, from a raw 16-year-old prospect from Venezuela to a 21-year-old rookie to a backbone of the organization he has rebuilt, a core member of the best baseball team in the world.
“Sal’s smile … ” Moore said. “What you see today, is the same smile he had when we met him.”
This was a smile that first came onto the radar in the summer of 2006, just months after Moore was hired as the club’s new general manager. A Royals scout named Orlando Estevez, a holdover from the past regime, had seen a 16-year-old catcher from Valencia, Venezuela. The kid was a colossus, even at the age, and he possessed a preternatural coordination which was most apparent in his feet. A few Royals scouts worried that he would never hit, that he was nothing more than a flier prospect, a decent investment for the price. But Moore was in his first year on the job, and he had set out to rebuild the Royals’ dilapidated international scouting department. This was exactly the type of investment the Royals needed to make.
From 1996 to 2006, the Royals had been last in all of baseball in money spent in Latin American, and from those first weeks on the job, that had to change. Moore hired Rene Francisco from the Atlanta Braves, and he turned his scouts loose, and just a month later, the Royals were signing Perez for $65,000.
“You didn’t know if he was going to hit,” Moore said, sitting inside that Citi Field dugout. “You wonder about big catchers.”
From the beginning, though, Perez proved himself to be an intriguing prospect. He had the cannon-caliber arm, and he had the ballet dancer’s feet, and he possessed the natural leadership skills — the aptitude, Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo says, to connect with anyone in the clubhouse. Then came his third spring training with the Royals, and the bat began to catch up. His body began to fill out. And the power started to emerge.
“All of a sudden,” Picollo said. “He went from being kind of a young kid to a man.”
For the price of $65,000, the Royals had landed one of the best catchers in the American League, a three-time All-Star at the age of 25, and now a World Series MVP. In five games, Perez collected eight hits, including two doubles, and three runs scored. As the playoffs wore on, Perez took a pounding, a collection of foul tips and errant swings and more bruised. Until he was lifted for a pinch runner in the 12th, he had not missed an inning.
“A beast,” center fielder Lorenzo Cain said.
“It’s my job,” Perez said.
“I think if I had one regret during the whole playoffs,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, “(It) was I had to pinch run for Sal there in that inning. But it opened up the door for us to score five. I really wish that Sal could have been out there to jump in (Wade Davis’s) arms when we got that final out.”
As the party raged inside Citi Field, Perez paraded the MVP trophy down the left-field line, and Moore watched the scene from the dugout. A moment later, his phone rang.
“It’s Orlando Esteves,” he said, looking down at his screen.
It was after 1:40 a.m. in New York, the Royals were world champions, and the man who signed Salvador Perez was calling.