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ON BASEBALL

Long-distance greetings from friend

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the middle of it all -- teammate Toby Hall needling, "Eddie, you shocked the world," and owner Vince Naimoli bursting into Lou Piniella's office and boasting he had predicted the walkoff home run, and the manager leaning back with a celebratory beer in hand and joking, "He silenced the home crowd tonight, didn't he?" -- Eduardo Perez recalled the Christmas card he'd gotten from the folks back in Natick, Mass.

"Sheldon and Sandy Bass, good friends of mine back in Boston, they came to my wedding, they're posing with the World Series trophy on their Christmas card," said Perez with a smile. "I'm sure they were watching and they're probably leaving me a message now."

Eduardo Perez is the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who turned 40 in a Boston uniform in 1982, the last of his three seasons with the Red Sox. That year, the Perez and Bass families cemented a friendship that began when Tony Perez was playing with Cincinnati and they were introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

Last night, Eduardo Perez had a Hallmark moment all his own, hitting Alan Embree's first pitch in the bottom of the ninth for a home run that gave the Tampa Bay Devil Rays one of those sweet wins that have come with painful infrequency in their eight-year history, a 5-4 victory over the world champion Red Sox. The home run hit the "D ring" catwalk, the lower of the catwalks in this erector-set dome, right by the Tropicana Field sign. The crack Devil Rays public relations staff estimated that from bat to catwalk, the ball traveled 459 feet.

A wise guy might say it went at least as far as the home run Papa Perez hit when Bill Lee foolishly threw him an eephus pitch in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. Last night's home run struck by Eduardo Perez didn't resonate with quite the same significance, though it succeeded in spoiling the evening for those Sox fans who had turned Tropicana Field into their own personal fruit bowl, in which those cheering for the visitors outnumbered the hardy loyalists for the home nine.

"It's definitely been a fun week, to have done what I've done," said Perez, who on Tuesday night hit two home runs in Yankee Stadium off Randy Johnson, then was the last position player Piniella had on his bench after the Red Sox had tied it with two runs in the top of the ninth off Rays closer Danys Baez.

"You feed off the fans cheering against us," Perez said. "It's different. There must have been 20,000 of them. When they came back and tied it, I'm going, `Wow, where's my meal money?' "

(For the uninitiated, players receive meal money only when they're on the road, not home.)

"Weird? Not at all," Perez said. "Red Sox Nation is all over the place. I know that. My dad played in Boston for three years."

The head count was 30,530, the largest crowd of the season, which included a walkup of 7,595, the biggest spontaneous demonstration of interest ever at a Devil Rays game.

"Thirty thousand five hundred people, and 18,000 or so were probably Red Sox fans," Piniella said "That's nice. Good. I don't care if they're Red Sox fans or Yankee fans or whatever, let 'em come in. But thank God we won."

So many times when the Sox and Devil Rays play, the expansion team finds a way to lose. Last night the Rays got seven terrific innings from their young lefthander, Scott Kazmir, who held the Sox to a run on four hits, pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth, got David Ortiz to tap out with two on in the fifth, and bears all the markings of a future star in this league.

But the 4-1 lead he left with was never safe, not with the Devil Rays bullpen overtaxed after a rough weekend in Boston, a blowout in New York, and a 12-10 slugfest against the Rangers two nights ago. Sanchez played Manny Ramirez's liner into a leadoff triple in the eighth, and Kevin Millar's single made it 4-2 before Baez got an inning-ending double play. But a leadoff walk to pinch hitter Trot Nixon started an unraveling in the ninth, though Baez kept it from morphing into all-out disaster when he speared Edgar Renteria's liner and turned it into a double play, keeping the score tied.

"Danys hung in there, even though he didn't have his best stuff," Perez said.

Perez broke into the big leagues in 1993 with the Angels; the Devil Rays are his fourth big league team, plus there was a tour of Japan with the Hanshin Tigers. Mostly, he has been a bench player, with 62 career home runs to his name. Living up to his father? He smiled broadly.

"The last thing I'm going to do when I'm standing at the plate to hit is to think about whose son I am," he said. "But I understand why fans would. If I were a fan, I'd do the same. It doesn't bother me."

But last night, after one of his better moments, he thought about Sheldon and Sandy, back in Natick. And he was right. They did watch the game, and they were thinking of him, too.

"We think the world of the Perez family," Sandy Bass said, graciously taking a late-night phone call. "They're good people. Friendly, warm, caring. We're very proud of Eduardo tonight."

Willing to forgive him for beating their favorite team? "Is this off the record?" she asked. "We're not the biggest baseball fans you've ever met. We like the people. We don't really think too much about what they do."

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