Vahe Gregorian: Salvador Perez only getting better with age

Hays Daily News
Kansas City Royals Salvador Perez gestures while rounding the bases during the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.,

Salvador Perez suddenly will turn 31 years old next month, by which time he'll be closing in on catching in a major league game for the 1,000th time to pair with his 1,000th career hit milestone earlier this week.

The Royals' media guide lists him as 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, a distinctly distributed mass certainly rooted in his redwood legs and perhaps all the more imposing because of the aura cast by his considerable personality.

His age and infinite time engaged behind the plate and that size, not to mention pesky injuries such as the ones that required surgical mending for a torn meniscus in 2012 and the full Tommy John experience on his right elbow just two years ago, would suggest this is about the place in his career where sheer wear and tear might begin to diminish his game.

But as they have from the start, when they signed the 16-year-old Perez in Venezuela in 2006, the Royals continue to see beyond the superficial when it comes to Perez. Because he's not getting older, as that long-ago shampoo commercial went, he's getting better. Especially as he's become more committed and disciplined with age ... while retaining his unique exuberance.

That's why in March the Royals gave him a four-year, $82 million contract extension, a franchise record payout, both to reward him and avert any chance they could lose him to free agency as they deemed him vital toward another resurgence. If that commitment seemed a leap of faith, the trust was earned with the six-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove recipient and 2015 World Series MVP coming off his third Silver Slugger season and continuing to embody and radiate the joy of baseball.

"As he continues to play this game, he still is going to go about it the way he did when he was a little boy," general manager Dayton Moore said in March. "Those questions have been answered. Not only by everybody in this organization to a man, but in the way he goes out and demonstrates it every single day."

As it happens, he has demonstrated that just about every day in this young season, including once more against the Angels on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium. In the designated hitter role, Perez hit his third home run of the season to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. He later provided an RBI double to stake the Royals to a 3-1 lead in what would become a 6-1 victory as they improved to 6-4. This came two days after Perez went 4 for 4.

And it was delivered in a day game after a night game from Tuesday, when manager Mike Matheny said Perez "saved runs all day long" in a 3-2 victory that ended with Perez playing a carom off his chest, then Jared Walsh's groin area and throwing out David Fletcher at third base. Some might dismiss that final sequence as fluky or lucky, and even reliever Greg Holland felt compelled to joke that he had called for the "ol' trick play."

But it was testimony to plenty more: Perez being ever-alert and a trust forged through various crucibles over the years.

"He and I both know that in those situations I'm going to throw in the dirt, and we both also know that he's going to go get it," Holland said. "And that's so reassuring to a pitcher, knowing that when you're trying to expand (where you're throwing) that you don't have to try to be finite with" the pitch. Being able to just "let it rip" and not be afraid to "bounce one or two or three or four with that man on third and him back there," Holland added, "makes me a better player and makes us a better team."

That's just another of the ways Perez is not only a phenomenon in himself but a force multiplier of sorts. After he went 8 for 12 with four RBIs in three games against the Angels, I asked Matheny to try to sum up all the ways Perez makes a difference in this team, whether with his skill set or his spirit or both.

"I just always think when you see special players, there's a conscientiousness to them, especially for catchers, and that's, 'What can I do today to help this team?' " said Matheny, a former catcher. "And you just take a grinding player who has that mentality, and they're going to make an impact.

"You take a super-star caliber talent and give them that mindset, and it's grounds for wholesale change for your whole organization."

He was just getting started.

"And you mix in a little bit of the obvious passion that this guy has for the game, how much he cares about this city, about this brand," he added, gesturing to the word "Royals" across his chest. "That, to me, is a marquee player. And we're fortunate to be able to watch him. I feel fortunate to be able to watch him every day. ...

"This guy makes our whole clubhouse better by how he goes about his business. I believe he makes the game of baseball better."

Certainly, each of those dimensions makes the Royals better, from the tangible to the intangible and the area where they merge.

"His energy is infectious," said starter Brad Keller, who gave up one run in 5 2/3 innings on Wednesday after struggling through his first two starts.

His energy also seems to be steeped in a fountain of youth. He's been doing this a long time, Keller said, but he's going to be doing this a lot longer yet. Asked about how that can be, Perez smiled and shrugged and suggested it's just all about adjustments. Including, no doubt, ones about certain states of mind for a man soon to have spent half his life in the employ of the Royals ... and presumably with years to go beyond that.

"The age," he said, laughing, "doesn't matter." Something he's certainly proving early in what could be his best season yet.

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star (TNS).