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Rubino: Giants' new statue of Gaylord Perry a strange tribute

Umpire Bob Engel reaches up to pat the back of the neck of San Francisco Giants Pitcher Gaylord Perry in a game against the Phillies in Philadelphia on June 19, 1968. The check came after Phillies manager Bob Skinner apparently protested that Perry was putting something on the ball in a current campaign against spitballs. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

ROBERT RUBINO,

We had begun the day among 57,000, two holdover New York Giants fans rooting for the visitors from San Francisco, sitting in the upper deck, just to the fair side of the left-field foul pole. But by the 13th inning of the second game of that 1964 Memorial Day doubleheader between the Giants and Mets at Shea Stadium, with the score 6-6 and three-fourths of the original crowd gone, we had maneuvered into the lower deck, behind third base.

When the stentorian voice of the public address announcer informed us Gaylord Perry had entered the game, not much notice was taken. Perry was known, if at all, as a struggling young pitcher whose older brother pitched far more successfully in the American League.

But Perry would throw shutout inning after shutout inning, and on Saturday, more than 52 years later, the Giants will unveil a statue of him.

Strange.

Strange because the statue won’t depict the lean, mean, allegedly foremost modern-era practitioner of the long-banned spitball placing the fingers of his pitching hand in his mouth. Nor will the statue depict him wiping his fingers through his hair or under the bill of his cap or across his forehead or behind his neck, or wherever he had hid (or at least made hitters and umpires suspect he had hid) a smear of Slippery Elm or glob of Vaseline or any other substance that, when applied with the finesse of a master magician, would aid him in the art of turning an already formidable fastball into a wicked (wink, wink) “sinker.”

No, the statue will be a dignified depiction of Perry in the middle of his delivery, balancing sturdily on his right leg, his left leg extended parallel to the ground, eyes fixed on his target, ball gripped in his right hand behind and just below the raised leg, a classic vision of a pitcher practicing his craft.

And that’s fine, but come on. That could be any pitcher.

And Gaylord Perry wasn’t just any pitcher.

He was a two-time Cy Young Award winner, those honors coming six years apart, the latter coming at the ripe old age of 40.

In a career spanning 22 seasons, he won 314 games, pitched 303 complete games and 53 shutouts, the 53rd coming 12 days before his 45th birthday.

He had consecutive seasons in which he pitched more than 340 innings, an astronomical figure by today’s standards but mighty impressive even back then, in 1972-73.

But what’s also strange about the unveiling of a statue of Perry in San Francisco on Saturday is that neither of those Cy Young Awards came as a Giant, only 43 percent of his wins came as a Giant, and fewer than half of his complete games and shutouts came as a Giant.

And those consecutive seasons of gluttonous innings eating? Not as a Giant.

He was never the Giants’ ace, not with Juan Marichal in the rotation. Even when Marichal missed about a dozen starts because of illness in 1967, Perry didn’t emerge as the ace. Mike McCormick did, winning 22 games and the National League Cy Young Award while Perry went 15-17.

Perry did throw a no-hitter as a Giant, in 1968, but does that rate a bronze sculpture? Will the Giants someday unveil a statue of Jonathan Sanchez or Ed Halicki or Chris Heston?

Sure, better late than never, but the timing of the statue is strange. Perry will turn 78 next month. It’s been 25 years since he was elected to the Hall of Fame, 33 years since he pitched in a big-league game and 45 years since he pitched for the Giants. He’s never worked in the Giants organization nor does he have roots in the Bay Area.

Perry’s relevance to Giants fans younger than 60 might rest mostly on the fact that former Cleveland teammate Duane Kuiper, the Bob Newhart of baseball broadcasting, has shared deliciously droll anecdotes illustrating Perry’s notoriously prickly personality as a player.

But when the second game of that doubleheader in 1964 finally concluded, we didn’t know all the statistics, all the stories that would eventually comprise Perry’s fabulous and intriguing career. We didn’t know that 10 years later, in his provocatively titled autobiography, “Me and the Spitter,” Perry would refer to this game as his breakout performance, thanks to an illegal pitch taught to him by teammate Bob Shaw.

All we knew, after having moved into seats about 20 rows behind home plate as midnight approached and being among the few thousand who would stay to the end, was that Gaylord Perry pitched 10 shutout innings and earned the win in the Giants’ 8-6, 23-inning victory.

Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.