DETROIT – LeBron James took his talents from Cleveland to Miami. Chris Perez has taken his from Miami to Cleveland.
Sure that sounds silly, but Perez, the closer with the scruffy beard and the blunt demeanor, has become a leader of a winning Cleveland Indians team. The Florida native and University of Miami product has struck a nerve with a nervy fan base, raising expectations on and off the field in a city that routinely gets them crushed. Despite his nickname – "Pure Rage" – he leads a potent bullpen that has calmed an entire team down. Unlike The King and his Cavs, these guys can finish a game.
"They've been wonderful," Indians starter Ubaldo Jimenez said. "As a starter, if you get six really good innings, you'll have the win 99 percent of the time."
A bit of an exaggeration, but it says a lot that a starter is that confident considering the Indians have no true sluggers, no big names and nobody in the everyday lineup batting better than .300.
"We might not have a lot of superstar names," reliever Jeremy Accardo said, "but we have a pretty good closer who's been lights out. … Going into the eighth, you feel like the game's over. It's a nice, easy atmosphere here. It's absolutely fun."
Fun, easy and nice aren't words often used to describe Cleveland sports. The loss of James to free agency and the departures of baseball heroes CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and even Jim Thome left the whole city jaded. That's not new. But what is new is a star player speaking directly to fans by Lake Erie and calling them out.
Perez, the American League leader in saves (19), is known in Cleveland for lashing out at his adopted hometown for non-support. "It's just a slap in the face when you're last in attendance," Perez said in May. "Last. It's not like we're 25th or 26th. We're last. Oakland is out-drawing us. That's embarrassing."
Fans unloaded on Perez on his Twitter account, and even Indians president Mark Shapiro publicly distanced himself from the remarks, but Perez didn't flinch. "If the fans come," he said, "they'll come, and if they don't, it'll be just like it was in April, so who cares?"
Lo and behold, fans started coming. At the time of Perez's outburst, which came after a 2-0 win over the Marlins, Cleveland was drawing 15,188 per game through 22 home dates. Now, less than a month later, the average is 17,159. Maybe that's because of better weather. But maybe it's because someone went off.
"It shows he cares about the future of the franchise," said Indians fan Aaron Corns, 18, who was at the game in Detroit on Thursday. And Perez got cautious backing from teammates, too. Fellow reliever Vinnie Pestano, who calls Perez a "loose cannon," plainly said, "I didn't agree with the way he went about it, but he was being truthful."
Jimenez said of his closer: "He's not scared; he has some courage."
Courage and hard truth play well in Cleveland, which has seen its share of athletes, executives and even sweater-vested football coaches fail to tell the region the whole truth. Fans simply got sick of it, which is at the root of the poor attendance at Progressive Field. But before Thursday's game here, after stomping into the clubhouse with a pinstriped suit and shades, Perez said it's time for the sorrow to stop. After all, the city has a team that's been at or near the top of the division all season long. And it's mid-June.
"I've been on the outside looking in," Perez said. "I haven't felt the real heartbreak [in Cleveland]. But tons of towns have overcome losing. I understand the mentality but I don't agree with it. You can always try to change it. That's what sports are for. We're trying to change it."
Asked if he basically meant, "Get over it," Perez nodded.
"Just get over it," he said. "People usually gravitate toward a winner. Last year, when the Pirates were in first place, they were flocking to the stadium. And our fans were nitpicking us. Why?"
Comparing Cleveland to Pittsburgh is never a good idea, but this honesty doesn't come from a place of anger. Perez's father was a small-business owner in Florida who worked hard and expected customers of his tile and construction company to treat him fairly. Perez saw his dad, Tim, approach clients who were late with bills and say, "I did my work; where's my money?"
"My dad is honest and open," Perez said. "I could tell by the look on his face when he was mad. He did his best work; he expected to be paid on time. He held up his end, and he didn't like getting kicked around."
It was the same with Perez's mom, Julie, who was an ER nurse and got paged regularly at the worst times – including during the middle of one holiday dinner. The blue-collar background gives Perez more credibility in a hard-working town like Cleveland. The guy comes to play every day and he expects the fans to come and watch.
Perez isn't above pointing the finger at himself when it's needed. He says he's had to do a better job of tuning into the game before it's his turn to pitch. "I'm not gonna lie," he said. "The season is long. If we're down 7-0, you kinda check out. And it's mentally tough as it is to stay focused the whole game."
(Coincidentally, the Indians found themselves down 7-1 only hours later, against the Tigers, and came within a tricky Quintin Berry catch of taking the lead in the seventh.)
The Tribe relievers have kept their focus by listening to music in the bullpen even as the game goes on. The entire staff does it – country and easy listening for day games, and harder stuff at night.
The other ingredient has been banter – often of the hazing variety. "We're very self-deprecating," Pestano said. Those who don't pitch well are expected to give themselves grief at the first possible opportunity. Oddly, that's led to less bad pitching, and less self-hatred.
Funny how that works: Honesty leads to better performance.
Here's some more honesty: Pretty much everyone expects the Indians to fall apart. That's what happened last year after a hot start, and that's part of why the team isn't getting much attention now. After all, this is a pitching staff featuring aging Derek Lowe, who was more or less chucked into a dumpster by the Braves after losing 17 games last season. Eight pitchers wear jersey numbers of 49 or higher. That doesn't exactly scream long-term quality. The fact that Chris Perez is becoming this generation's Charlie Sheen in "Major League" – which, by the way, the team watched in the clubhouse before a game last month – is both a tribute to his ability and an indictment of a front office that has left the cupboard bare.
So the Indians are the contender nobody believes in. Everyone's just waiting for the Tigers to return them to irrelevance. Even the Orioles get more bandwagon love than the Tribe. A fan in an Indians jersey at Comerica Park on Thursday, who didn't give his name, said, "Eh, I can't really get into it until August, you know?" But at least one guy in town isn't waiting for the other cleat to drop. At least one guy is asking, "Why not us?"
That question is getting harder to answer with each passing save. Since Perez's remarks, the Indians have beaten Detroit five out of six to remain within a game of the streaking first-place Chicago White Sox. And if Cleveland does get a pennant chase out of this, we'll know who was first to wake the city from its stupor. When everyone else was waiting for the creep of fate, it was Chris Perez asking for a leap of faith.
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