SAN FRANCISCO — There was a time when Salvador Perez hated everything about catching: the awkward squat, the suffocating equipment, the way you were smacked around by errant baseballs and wild backswings. But more than anything else, he hated how he felt trapped, locked up in a cage, in that small patch of dirt behind the plate.
Perez fell in love with baseball because he could be himself on a baseball field, spontaneous and wild and free, but as a catcher, he felt anything but. He was 12 years old when they threw the mask and pads at him and told him to try the position, and he swore he would never do it again.
But growing up in Valencia, Venezuela, Perez also had a dream: to escape his crime-ridden neighborhood, to make enough money to buy his mother a house with a shiny car in the driveway, to make it to the big leagues someday. So when a family friend told Perez that wearing the equipment was his ticket to the major leagues, the boy, then 15, said to the man, "OK. Whatever it takes."
Now it seems like Salvador Perez was born to be a catcher. The boy from Valencia is one of the breakout players of the World Series, blooming into a star in front of our eyes on the biggest stage as he has outplayed and outshined the other team's superstar catcher, Buster Posey.
Entering Game 4, the Giants' backstop should be feeling the most pressure with the offense sputtering: Over the last 23 innings of the Series, San Francisco has scored just four runs and has four extra-base hits. Posey has gone 2-for-13 with one RBI through three games, and after going 1-for-4 in the Giants' 3-2 loss in Game 3, Posey still doesn't have an extra-base hit in October. His last one came on Sept. 28, a home run against the Padres on the last day of the regular season.
After homering in a Game 1 loss, Perez, meanwhile, had one of the biggest hits for his team in Game 2, a two-run double in the sixth off Hunter Strickland to break the game open in Kansas City. And on Friday night in San Francisco, it was his defense that shined.
In the second inning, with the Royals up 1-0, Perez gunned down Hunter Pence trying to steal second. (The next batter, Brandon Belt, singled.) Then, with one out in the eighth inning, Gregor Blanco, facing Wade Davis, laid down a bunt. Blanco finessed the ball where he intended to, between home plate and the mound, but Perez showed his athleticism when he pounced on it and lasered the ball to first base for the out.
At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Perez is imposing in person — with his long face, massive torso and thick lower body, he's as huge and rock-solid as an Easter Island Moai — and behind the plate, squatting low, he looks like an immovable force. But he has the soft hands of a world-class tennis player and the feet of a dancer. You see his athleticism when he jumps into throwing position as fast as anyone in the game.
According to the player tracker Statcast, Blanco, perhaps the fastest Giant in the lineup, reached a top speed of 22.0 mph on the eighth-inning play on Friday. Perez, picking up the ball and throwing it in one motion, still gunned Blanco down.
"That's Salvy right there. That's a huge play for us to make sure they don't get something going in that inning," Lorenzo Cain said after the game. "We see plays like that all the time. You expect him to do it."
"His athleticism is off the charts," Mike Moustakas said. "He's a guy who does it all. He gets big hits, he manages the pitchers, he plays awesome defense. I think America's getting to know Salvy Perez a little bit."
Posey is the best catcher in the game and one of the best players in all of baseball, and at 27, he's in the prime of his career. This week in the World Series, we're seeing why in another year or two, Perez, 24, could be the best all-around catcher in the game. For years now, he's been one of the most underrated players and one of the best catchers in the league, and has been indispensable in Kansas City since his arrival in the majors in 2011.
Though he was a relative nobody in the most hyped, most-scrutinized minor league system ever, Perez seemed to arrive in the majors fully formed: In his major league debut in August 2011 against the Rays, he picked off two Tampa base runners and caught five popups. James Shields loves talking about the first time he saw Perez, from the opposing dugout in Tampa. "We're sitting in the dugout, and we don't know who this kid is," Shields said. "But he's diving around, and behind the plate he's in on every pitch, yelling at the pitchers, pumping them up, saying good job. We're like, who is this kid? As an opposing player, that's the kind of player that's fun to watch."
It has been fun to watch Perez in the World Series, to see up close how, all along, through the great K.C. revival, he has been the real rock of this team. His rise has embodied the rise of the franchise. Once a forgotten prospect, he's now a two-time All-Star and a Gold Glover, and he'll go down as the man who won the legendary 2014 Wild-Card Game against the Athletics with his hit down the leftfield line, sending the Royals into history.
Yes, there was a time when Perez hated catching, but now he has come to love everything about it: the relentless nature of the job, the scrapes and bruises that come from it, the brutality, pitch after pitch, inning after inning, game after game. It's the job that has made him a star, an October hero, and, with his team now just two wins away from a World Series title, a legend in the making in Kansas City.