Meetings of the Neifi Pérez Marching and Chowder Society are not crowded affairs, but the membership is genuine in its feelings for the banished shortstop. Well, I’m reasonably genuine. Put it this way. My regard for Neifi Pérez is as legitimate as Neifi’s big-league talent, my fondness for him as real and true as his ability to help a major-league club ever was.
Wait, come back.
Neifi Pérez, shunned in Chicago, detested in Detroit, cursed in Kansas City, really was a legitimate big leaguer over a checkered twelve-year career that apparently ended in disaster when he was suspended twice for positive drug tests in 2007. And while I’ve beaten him up as much as any stathead — even naming a statistic that measures futility after him — and I join in making him scorned in San Francisco, I have also come around to genuinely admiring him. Life is complicated.
When I tell people that Neifi Pérez is my favorite player, I don’t exactly mean that I love Neifi Pérez the human being or even some idealized, media-created version of him as a human being, one who does good work in the community or happily signs autographs for the kids or jokes around winningly with the morning guys on the radio. I’m also not joking, though I will admit that my fascination with Neifi began as a goof.
He began his career with the Colorado Rockies, spending a few years in the starting lineup and producing decent offensive numbers for a slick-fielding shortstop — thanks almost entirely to playing half his games at Coors Field, which aided hitters to a preposterous degree. He needed that boost just to get to decent. For a slick-fielding shortstop. But people paid less attention to park factors then than they do now, and while any baseball fan knew Coors Field was a pinball machine, most tended to take Rockies stats more or less at face value.
Then, on July 25, 2001, Pérez was traded as part of a three-team deal to the Kansas City Royals, for whom the trade boiled down to Pérez for Jermaine Dye, a twenty-six-year-old All-Star outfielder who had been a fine slugger for two years and would continue to be one for the rest of the decade. Dye was the World Series Most Valuable Player in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox. Pérez spent a year and a half in Kansas City hitting not like a slick-fielding shortstop but like a pitcher.
That performance, combined with the idiocy of the trade that had brought him to Kansas City, made him a hated man among Royals fans and a favorite whipping boy of the sabermetric crowd that was just beginning to make itself heard. A slick-fielding, fast-running scrapper who rarely took a walk, got caught stealing entirely too often, and had no power, he was exactly the kind of player the old-schoolers loved — he led the league in sacrifice bunts one year! — and the Bill James disciples hated.
A recent convert to sabermetrics — shorthand for the idea, championed by James, that baseball can be analyzed through objective evidence rather than just listening to wisdom passed down from one generation to the next — I joined in, a little. But it wasn’t until he went from Kansas City to my home team, the San Francisco Giants, that I really took an interest in Neifi.
It was in early June 2003, his first and only full season with the club, when I noticed he was a sort of secret weapon. The Giants were a good but not great 26–22 on the days when Pérez made it onto the field. But when he stayed in the dugout, they were 13–1. The Giants were in first place, five games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Neifi not playing accounted for the entirety of that difference.
So I invented the Neifi Index, a measure of the contribution a player makes to his team by not playing. The Giants had a .542 winning percentage when Pérez played, .929 when he did not. So his Neifi Index was .387 (.929 minus .542). I concocted the Neifi Award, given to the bench player in each league with the highest Neifi Index, and unique among baseball awards in that you or I, if we could only find our way onto a major-league team, would be a shoo-in to win it. I got a couple of funny columns a year out of it.
Giants fans weren’t quick to hate Neifi the way Royals fans had been. The expectations were different. He’d been picked up on waivers, not in a trade for a young All-Star, though the team had then signed him to a two-year contract. As that season wore on, mild puzzlement over the Giants spending more than $2 million a year on Pérez turned into exasperation at seeing him take the field 120 times. Why is he playing again? He’s an out machine!
He was even worse in 2004, and the Giants finally released him in August. He was thirty-one. It had been three years since that fateful trade from Colorado to Kansas City, and in that time, in exactly 1,400 at bats, he’d hit seven home runs. Dye had hit fifty-nine over the same period in sixteen fewer at bats. Since Pérez had left Colorado, his onbase percentage hadn’t come within a cab ride of .300, the Mendoza Line of that stat, the minimum output required even to be considered lousy.
A few days after the Giants let him go, Neifi signed with the Chicago Cubs, who shipped him to their top farm team in Iowa, where he was three orders of magnitude worse than lousy. But he could still play a sweet shortstop, and the Cubs had the always-injured Nomar Garciaparra at the position. They called Neifi up when rosters expanded in September, and in his first few games he went six for six with a double and, stunningly, a walk.
Garciaparra’s injuries flared up, and manager Dusty Baker began writing Neifi’s name on the lineup card every day. After two weeks in a Cubs uniform, Pérez was hitting .382, with a .414 on-base percentage and a .564 slugging percentage. These are outrageous numbers. His OPS was .977, 400 points above his career norm. Garciaparra came back for the last two weeks of the season, and Neifi played sparingly. But he’d earned himself a one-year contract and, with Garciaparra missing a big chunk of the season and then moving to third base, the starting shortstop job for most of 2005.
That April, he started in like gangbusters again. This was a whole new Neifi! Three weeks into the season he was hitting .393, with three home runs and an Albert Pujols–like OPS of 1.028. Then it was over.
Over the next three weeks he hit .175 and was typically unproductive at the bat for the rest of ’05 — though thanks to that first month it ended up being easily the best year of his post-Colorado career. His on-base percentage, .298, came tantalizingly close to qualifying as lousy.
For this, the Cubs signed him to a new contract, a two-year deal that didn’t exactly thrill Cubs fans, who, over the course of 154 games played by Pérez, had come around to hating him just as Royals and Giants fans had. He can’t hit! Caught stealing! Why. Is. He. Playing?!
He had two-thirds of a poor season in 2006 before being dealt in August to the Detroit Tigers, who were in a pennant race and had an emergency at second base. Neifi was ridiculously bad down the stretch, yet there he was on the Opening Day roster in 2007 — to the howls of Detroit’s fans. Will he ever take a walk?
Somewhere in there, I began to feel for Neifi Pérez. It wasn’t his fault managers kept writing his name on the lineup card. And those managers weren’t a pack of fools either. Baker and Detroit’s Jim Leyland have their critics, but they’ve each won more than 1,000 games and three division titles. Baker has won a pennant, Leyland two pennants and a World Series — the latter with Neifi on the postseason roster. Felipe Alou, Neifi’s manager in San Francisco, won a thousand games, too.
But more than that, I came to appreciate something important about guys like Neifi Pérez. To be a guy like that, to be a guy who makes fans in four cities tear their hair out, to be possibly the single worst regular player in the major leagues in multiple seasons, to last for a dozen years in the big leagues, start more than 1,200 games, get caught stealing an astonishing 45 times in 102 attempts, you have to be a hell of a ballplayer.
The worst player in the major leagues is a hell of a ballplayer. The worst player in the history of the major leagues, whoever he was, was a hell of a ballplayer. Neifi Pérez was a hell of a ballplayer.
It’s only in the context of the major leagues that the guy with the lifetime OPS of .672 is oh-my-gosh-is-he-playing-again awful. You see this if you ever watch big-league pitchers, who struggle to hit .100, take batting practice. They drill line drives all over the place. They’re the guys in your muni softball league who hit balls over the houses across the street from the park and everyone says, “He must have played pro ball.”
You see it when marginal major leaguers drop back down to the high minors and dominate. If Neifi Pérez wasn’t my favorite player, my favorite player might be Trenidad Hubbard, a light-hitting outfielder who in ten years got into 476 big-league games with the Rockies, Giants, Indians, Dodgers, Braves — still with me? — Orioles, Royals — almost there now — Padres, and Cubs. But his real achievement, for me, was spending at least part of sixteen different seasons at Triple-A, where he was a consistently solid hitter into his forties.
How would you like to be that guy? Everywhere you go for most of your life, you’re the best. As a kid, you’re the guy who can play ball. In high school, in the minors, you’re a star. There’s really only one place in the whole world where you aren’t much good, and that’s where almost everybody who knows you knows you from the major leagues. That’s life as Neifi Pérez.
We fans buy our tickets and sit in the stands and boo lustily when our team’s current Neifi grounds into a double play or gets caught stealing or serves up a three-run homer in a tie game. But really, who are we to judge? We’re the tone-deaf knocking the choir, illiterates mocking poetry. The player has to stand out there near first base, waiting for a teammate to bring him his glove and cap, listening to the catcalls of people who couldn’t carry his jock. Then again, the pay’s nice.
Pérez was hitting .172 — but still with Detroit — in early July 2007 when he tested positive a second time for amphetamines. A first positive test carried no public punishment at the time, a second resulted in a twenty-five-game suspension. Just as that sentence was ending, he was banned for another eighty games for a third positive test. The Tigers released him.
Neifi called the testing process unfair, claiming the positives were a result of his using Adderall, which he said he’d been prescribed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He also said all three positive tests had been administered before his first suspension, that he hadn’t continued using the drug through the numerous dirty tests.
No matter, really. The bitter stuff of appeals and depositions. It’s been more than two years now. His career appears to be over. Most of those who remember Neifi Pérez at all will remember him as the first major leaguer to be hit with an eighty-game punishment for drugs. For me, his legacy will be his lousiness, the infuriating sight of his name on the home team’s lineup card day after day, the greatness required to induce so much rage in so many fans of so many teams.
I’ll never forget Neifi Pérez. He was the greatest lousy player I’ve ever seen.