Perez walks fine line with outgoing personality
Closer insists he's just having fun despite controversial statements
CLEVELAND -- The colorful closer and the legendary leadoff man crossed paths outside the Cleveland clubhouse the other day.It was not what you'd call a cordial encounter. Chris Perez, you see, had recently uttered some choice words about an Indians fan base that he deemed to be too fickle and too negative for his liking. And Kenny Lofton, member in good standing of the Indians' alumni base, had gone on a local radio show and offered a few choice words of his own about Perez, essentially saying, "He just doesn't get it." So when Lofton passed Perez and extended his hand and a greeting, Perez walked right past him without uttering a word. Asked about it after the fact, Perez said, in effect, "If you're going to say that stuff about me on air, don't try to be nice to me in person." And Lofton, unexpectant of such an encounter, could only look back in amazement at the brash young man who just blew him off. "Really?" said Lofton, his mouth agape. "Wow." Perez has been getting that kind of reaction a lot lately. We're talking here about the first player fined for violating MLB's social media policy, after writing to the Royals, "You hit us, we hit you. Period." A player whose fist pumps and primal screams have offended the opposition. A player whose public sentiments about getting booed by his home fans and the small attendance tallies at Progressive Field became the biggest Tribe talking point in recent memory. And a player who, just this week, made a WWE hand gesture -- "You can't see me" was, apparently, the message behind the wave of the hand over the face -- after striking out Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson. All this boldness, all this brazenness, all this brutal honesty has made Perez -- who goes by the nickname "Pure Rage" -- something of a polarizing figure. In a sport that values, more than most, respect of the game and of the opponent, and in an era in which clichéd quotes and media training sessions are the status quo, Perez is an outlaw. And his "antics," as one opponent called them, have caused some consternation in opposing clubhouses and, yes, even his own. One member of the Indians organization quipped that Perez's comments should all come with the television-ready caveat that "the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the club." Perez's take? This is a game. Let's have some fun with it. "I'm doing something that I've wanted to do since I was 4 years old," said Perez, who has converted 17 straight save opportunities since blowing one on Opening Day. "And I'm doing it all right, right now. So I'm going to enjoy it." Suffice to say, his critics aren't enjoying it at all. "That's just a sorry guy looking to be loved," Royals catcher Brayan Peña told the Kansas City Star this week. "Nobody pays any attention to him, so he has to do stuff like that. You don't see guys who people know, guys like Mariano Rivera, do that, do you?" Well, no, you don't. But such statements don't rattle Perez in the least. The notion of the quirky, cocksure closer has become something of a cliché in and of itself, yet lately the 26-year-old Perez has been taking that posture to another plane. And if recent fan reaction is any indication, it's actually won him some followers. Two weeks ago, in the midst of a rant about getting booed by his home crowd for putting two runners on base in a save against the Mariners, Perez called the fact that the then-first-place Indians ranked last in the Majors in attendance "a slap in the face" and "embarrassing." Honesty, indeed. "That's just how I am," Perez said. "I learned that from my dad. My dad's a small business owner. When he did a good job, he expected to get paid and for the other person to honor the contract. When that didn't happen, he stood up for his rights. I was in his office a lot of times when he chewed people out. He didn't back down. He stood up for himself." What did Perez's version of standing up for himself and his team earn him? His next trip to the mound was met with a standing ovation. "It seems to have worked," he said. "I've heard from a lot of people who said, 'We needed to be called out for being so-called great fans.' Because that's what we always hear is, 'Oh, in the '90s, we sold out [455 straight games].' Well, we haven't seen it. We don't believe it until we see it. Good or bad, people are responding to what I said." And Perez has backed up his words by offering up three pairs of tickets to every home game to fans through his Twitter account. But one thing he said in that rant was that Indians fans don't have it nearly as bad as fans of the Royals and Pirates, who "haven't won anything in 20 years." Dyson heard that remark and told his friend Tony Sipp, an Indians reliever, that he wasn't happy about it. Sipp relayed the message to Perez, who did the hand gesture when he put Dyson away in Monday's game and performed an exaggerated celebration when he completed the save. "Different players have different ways that they act," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Mike Maddux used to say to our pitchers in Milwaukee, 'You never want to give the opposition any more reason to beat you.' But some players have a lot of energy, and they display it." How long Perez can effectively back up all this energy remains to be seen. His string of saves is indeed impressive, and he's a big reason the Indians, currently besieged by injuries in their lineup, are four games over .500. But within the Tribe clubhouse, there is some concern that Perez has earned the Indians more enemies than they're comfortable with. "There is a line," Perez allowed. "I don't think I've crossed it yet. Some people may disagree with me, but I'm just having fun out there." Just don't ask him to pal around with Kenny Lofton.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.