Long before anyone ever paid him to swing a bat, Broderick Perkins was so enchanted by the feel of the cool, smooth wood in his hands and the graceful arc of his swing that scarcely an hour passed in which he didn't think about hitting. When no one was around to throw him the ball, Perkins swung at make-believe curves and fastballs. If a bat wasn't handy, he would go off by himself and take his cuts with an imaginary one. Even now Perkins will sometimes spend as much as half an hour in front of a full-length mirror just watching himself swing. To a certain extent, the ball and the bat are variables in Perkins' mental hitting equation; only the swing is constant. "That's the whole thing," he says. Broderick Perkins' life don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
Perkins, 26, plays first base for the San Diego Padres, but that isn't where he began the season. On Opening Day, and for three weeks thereafter, he was on the Padre's bench while rookie Randy Bass, whose bat was supposed to give San Diego some much-needed power, was at first. Throughout most of April, Perkins did most of his hitting in front of the clubhouse mirror. It wasn't until April 29 that San Diego Manager Frank Howard decided to give Bass, who was batting .197 with only two home runs, a couple of days of rest.
In his first game as a regular—facing Cincinnati's Frank Pastore instead of a mirror—Perkins was 3 for 4. After a hit-less game the next day, Perkins went on a 15-game hitting tear, raising his average to .422, tops in the major leagues. Early last week Perkins was still the leading hitter, with a .384 average, and what finally seems clear is that he and his velvet swing have come all the way through the looking glass. Even a 2-for-18 slump that lowered his average 67 points in eight days didn't prevent Perkins from finishing the week at .346, third in the National League. "This is what I always dreamed of doing," he says, "and now I'm living the dream."
Perkins and his dream almost didn't make it out of his hometown of Pittsburg, Calif., just northeast of Oakland. During his senior year of high school, a time when most future major-leaguers are proving themselves to the scouts, Perkins went to the plate exactly twice, drawing a base on balls and being hit by a pitch. He had to walk on to the team at Diablo Valley Junior College, and even then he didn't start until the man ahead of him was injured. The Padres didn't take him until the 15th round of the free-agent draft in 1975, and after they had him, they didn't seem to know what to do with him. Despite minor league seasons in which Perkins hit .355 at Walla Walla, .345 at Amarillo and .327 and .312 in Hawaii, he couldn't get the Padres very interested.
"Generally speaking, you look for a big, strong, hairy guy who can rap 30 or 40 home runs to play first base for you," says Howard, the rookie manager, who is himself 6'8" and 270 pounds, some of it hair. Bass, who is 6'1", 210 pounds, comes from Lawton, By God, Oklahoma and in his last four seasons in the minors hit 120 home runs, seemed to fill Howard's specifications nicely. "Our lineup is devoid of what you'd call power," says Howard. "We were hoping Randy would give us that."
Perkins had gotten some attention by hitting .370 over 43 games after being recalled from the minors last season, but he still didn't appear to be what the Padres wanted—perhaps because he is only 5'10", 180 pounds, has a high-pitched voice, and in 162 big league games before this season had hit only four homers. In any case, during spring training, first base was handed to Bass. "After going out and busting my tail at the end of last year, it felt like the same old slap in the face," Perkins says. "It just looked like a wasted year. I thought I had proved myself, but they thought different." Nothing seemed to be working in Perkins' favor. Even his initials—B.P.—are standard ballplayer shorthand for batting practice, which was where Perkins figured to do most of his hitting this year.
"He had a right to be upset that he wasn't starting," says Padres President Ballard Smith, "but he never complained. He told me that one day he was going to get his chance, and when it came he was going to show me that he should have been starting all along." Perkins was reportedly on the verge of unburdening himself to the press on a road trip late in April, but decided to wait until the team returned to San Diego so the hometown fans could hear what he had to say. His opportunity to play came before he had the chance. Even when Howard told him he was starting, Perkins thought it meant just a brief respite for Bass. "I figured I'd be in there a few days, then boom! back on the bench," Perkins says.
By the middle of May, even Bass was beginning to realize that Perkins might be a hard man to move. "The guys are starting to call me Wally Pipp," Bass said, referring to the New York Yankee first baseman who was given the day off on June 1, 1925. That was the day a youngster named Lou Gehrig started a streak of 2,130 games.
The only weakness ever detected in Perkins' game was his work around first base, and even that was a result of his preoccupation with hitting. "He would have mental lapses," says Padres announcer Dave Campbell, who managed Perkins in Amarillo, "like standing out at first base and swinging an imaginary bat."
"He's his own biggest enemy," says Bobby Tolan, the Padres' batting coach, "because he's so caught up in hitting that he sometimes starts talking to himself. He hit .370 for us last year, but when I saw him in spring training he had a new stance. It was something he had tried in winter ball and liked. I said, 'Listen, you hit .370 with your old stance, why do you want to change?' Eventually he saw it my way."
Perkins still spends as much time as ever at the mirror, examining and analyzing every inch of his swing. "A lot of players think it's old-fashioned, or that you're some kind of a sissy if you stand in front of the mirror," Tolan says. "But Perk doesn't let stuff like that bother him. He doesn't have great speed and he's not an outstanding defensive player, but he knows how to hit and he's willing to work at it."
Hitting, says Perkins, is "just a matter of getting that good groove and keeping relaxed. If you're standing up there all stiff and tight, your rhythm is going to be off. The swing can't be in two or three pieces; it has to be all of one piece. Hitting is a science, which means that like any science it can be broken down, the same way you would break down a formula over and over again if you were trying to find a cure for a disease. To do that, you've got to be able to see yourself, see your whole swing. Whenever I can find a mirror big enough, I'll stand there for a while with the bat, just practicing my swing and thinking about things."
Perkins had plenty to think about last week, not the least of it being that his wife, Olga, was expecting their first baby on May 28, the day before the players' strike was scheduled to begin. "It would be tough," said Perkins, "being unemployed and having a new kid." He also had to contend with his first slump of the season, a trying happenstance for a pure hitter. Perkins is a line-drive hitter who sprays the ball to all fields, but the only thing he knocked out of the park last week was an umpire. In the Padres' 6-2 loss to Montreal at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on Wednesday, Perkins drilled a ball foul down the rightfield line, striking umpire Paul Pryor on the right knee and forcing him to leave the field for X rays. It wasn't until the Padres got to Atlanta that Perkins broke out of his slump, going 4 for 9 in the first two games. He was blanked on Sunday, but the Padres took the series two games to one.
Only five players in the woeful history of the Padres organization have hit over .300 for a full season, and Perkins would like to be the sixth. "It would be great to hit .390 or .400," he says, "but I'm just trying to do what I can. At the outcome, though, I'd like to be right up there at the top." And who knows, if the batting championship trophy is big enough and shiny enough, Perkins could spend hours standing in front of it, basking in his reflected glory.