"That night I went home, I didn't think about it. Every time you give an interview, just like now, it's up to the interviewer to paint the picture and atmosphere and mood. And sometimes you can take two or three words from a five-minute interview and make a headline out of it."
It was odd timing, but just a sliver of what was to come.
Chris Perez had just finished off his 13th save of the young 2012 Indians season in a 2-0 win against the Miami Marlins at home. 29,799 fans filled The Jake that May Saturday -- the most since Opening Day -- and the Tribe pushed its record to 23-17, first in the AL Central, 3.5 games up on the Chicago White Sox.
But desoite the healthy weekend crowd, the Indians still ranked last in attendance at that point, and by the conclusion of the season would top only baseball-apathetic Tampa Bay in that department. And despite the hot start, the team would finish 68-94, 20 games behind the eventual World Series runner-up Detroit Tigers.
For his part, Perez would get his second All-Star nod along the way to a career-high 39 saves, good for sixth most in MLB. And along the way, the Tribe closer would have plenty to say about just about everything, and it started that Saturday in May when he talked to reporters after the victory.
"I'm tired of getting booed at home, so I figured I'd throw some strikes today. You can quote that. It doesn't bother me. It (ticks) me off. I don't think they have a reason to boo me. They booed me against the Mariners when I had two guys on. It feels like I can't even give up a baserunner without people booing me. It's even worse when there's only 5,000 in the stands, because then you can hear it. It (ticks) me off.
"I'm not calling out the fans. It's just how it is. That stuff is reserved for road games. We don't want to deal with that crap. You see their true colors.
"Guys don't want to come over here and people wonder why. Why doesn't Carlos Beltran want to come over here? Well, because of that. That's part of it. It doesn't go unnoticed — trust us. That's definitely a huge reason. Nobody wants to play in front of 5,000 fans. We know the weather (stinks), but people see that. Other players know that."
Perez wasn't saying anything that anyone else wasn't thinking, but take a swipe at the fans who spend their ever diminishing discretionary dollars to come watch you play and you're bound to ruffle some feathers. To no one's surprise but Perez, a few folks took notice, including his bosses and teammates.
"That first night, nothing from the front office. Nothing from the agent," Perez tells Scene from spring training in Arizona. "The next day, I get to the ballpark early and as soon as I walk in, everyone's smiling. Look at the sports section. That was kind of tough when reading it. I had to meet with Shapiro and Antonetti. They said, 'We have to make a public announcement,' and they told me I had to make a public announcement. There was no punishment, though. No censure. They just said to tell them first if I really felt that way."
The comments left a sizable portion of the fanbase calling for Perez to be traded, to apologize, to sympathize with Joe Fan who can't afford to go to a game.
Which is all funny considering that Perez is exactly the brand of athlete fans want -- open, direct, honest, talkative, wary of cliches and baseball-speak. It's the same reason he's a reporter's dream. And as the mouth runs and opinions spew, especially in a season heading toward the tank, fans don't want to hear about taking it one game at a time and... shit, it's boring to even type the words that come out of players' maws.
"With the fans, it's a double-edged sword," says Perez. "You go through public media training. You hear the same public relations answers day after day -- it's boring. And sometimes it's not truthful, it's not truthful. It might be the right thing to say, but... Every year in spring training, every team is ready to compete. 'We're in this.' 'This is our year.' Or whatever. Then you get into the season and you start making excuses and you start saying stuff that's not true. I try to give insight. Here's why we're not winning. Here's what we can do better."
If the Tribe slumps to start 2013, if the turnstiles don't spin until The Jake is filled to capacity to watch a rejuvenated and rebuilt Indians roster struggle, you have Chris Perez's permission to stay home. Just so you know. He's not against you, he just likes winning and thinks you might, too. And losing, man that blows.
"When I called out the fans, we we're in first place," he says. "Winning should bring out the fans. We spent a lot of money this year, have a new manager, younger guys have another year under their belt. I expect the fans to show up and support us. But if we're losing, I completely understand. I don't expect fans to show up. I don't want to show up."
I don't want to show up.
Six words. Not a headline.
"I think every player, when there's chatter about, ya know... The last year and a half, every deadline or offseason, my name is linked to rumors. You play the 'What if?' game."
Chris Perez is very candid in saying last year was the lowest point in his professional career.
And as the season spiraled, the Tribe was rumored to be doing exactly what it had been doing in recent memory: trading assets and their few serviceable players for future prospects, dumping contracts, etc.
And as one of the few players on the roster that would draw interest from any other team, Chris Perez's name came up in trade rumors.
Playing for Manny Acta, who would be fired shortly before the end of the season, was not what Perez wanted to do. Acta was not right for the team, Acta had lost the clubhouse, and the blame -- on the fans, the owners, the GMs -- fell on Acta, too.
Yeah, Chris Perez wouldn't have minded a ticket out of town hypothetically from the sounds of it, but he'd play his ass off if he didn't. This guy had to go, though. If nothing else.
"Losing the clubhouse is different for every team," says Perez. "For our team, the way we were constructed, we had a really young team. The manager's job is to, in my opinion, to make players feel more at ease and comfortable. It's the little stuff, the little stuff the public wouldn't think about. Stuff like maybe telling a bench player, 'You're going to start tomorrow.' It was just that type of communication. It all builds up over time, and it all came crumbling down in the second half. He's a great guy, he just wasn't a great manager. No fault to him. He's a young guy. I wasn't relieved, but more like okay, they've come around to making a change and now we can look forward."
There had to be some high points so far. If last year was rock bottom, something in the previous seasons had to be better.
"I've had some personally and some as a team," he says. "Two years ago we were the best team in baseball for the first 45 games. I got my 100th career save last year, which was great. But as a team, besides one particular moment maybe, it hasn't happened yet."
"Sometimes I see them doing cardio. Paul lifts weights."
Perez wasn't done talking yet. Not even close.
Late in the season, with the Tribe playing out the string in a dismal, depressing year, he returned after a brief absence from the team to be with his wife for the birth of their child to unleash hell on the front office and the folks that sign his paychecks.
In an interview with Foxsports.com on the struggle of small-market teams trying to compete against the economic landslide of richer organizations, Perez gave a very non-PR-friendly answer to question about the success of the Detroit Tigers.
"Different owners. It comes down to that. [The Tigers] are spending money. [Ilitch] wants to win. Even when the economy was down [in Detroit], he spent money. He's got a team to show for it. You get what you pay for in baseball. Sometimes you don't. But most of the time you do."
"Josh Willingham would look great in this lineup. They didn't want to [pay] for that last year. ... That's the decision they make, and this is the bed we're laying in."
Willingham would sign a three-year, $21- million contract with the Twins.
And it wasn't just free agent talk; Perez targeted the front office for bungled trades and decisions.
"You can't miss. You have to be right. That's why I say it's not just ownership. They don't make the trades. It's the GMs. It goes hand in hand. The GMs can only spend the money the owners give them, but they pick who they spend it on or who they don't. They pick. The owners don't pick."
Perez doesn't take back much, but that's one he'd like to have back. Sorta. And he basically gave up giving interviews for a while afterward. No comments here, a brief comment there, but not much more.
"I thought it was not really an interview, just a conversation," says Perez now. "He asked me interview questions at the end, but I had nothing premeditated. It was my honest opinion and the first thing that came to mind. Looking back, yeah, I regret it. That's not the place and time, not my job. At the same time, that's how I was feeling, that we needed to go in a different direction."
And that the club did this offseason, committing over $100 million to first baseman Nick Swisher (which Perez found out about, like everyone else, on Twitter), center fielder Michael Bourn, pitcher Brett Myers, and outfielder Mark Reynolds. They also shipped Shin-Soo Choo, Tony Sipp and minor leaguers to Cincy and Arizona to land outfielder Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer. And new manager Terry Francona. It was a bankrolled mic drop by the Dolans.
What say you now, Mr. Perez?
"It's a combination of Tito [Terry] and the players," he says. "He's a great manager, but at the same time you need to make more moves. [The Dolans] have backed it up. If it was just Tito and no Swisher, Bourn, or Reynolds like previous years, it would have been a half-hearted effort. But they brought the free agents in to help him win."
If you're wondering whether he's chatted with the owners of the big pocketbook, or if they've chatted with him -- not really. They might meet with the team after the season, but mainly he'll catch them working out.
"They or the front office has never come to me and said to play good soldier," he says. "They want my personality to come through."
"It's a complete 180 degree change in mindset from last year -- a complete 180."
You think you're happy the Indians retooled on the field and in the dugout? You're not as happy as Chris Perez, trust us. Especially with the addition of Terry Francona.
"The first big thing, honestly, was Francona," says Perez. "That signaled a different change in the organizational mindset. And then when Swisher came on board, that cemented it. The first step, though, was getting Tito. We missed out on Victorino, so it was nice for the front office to commit money to secure free agents. It was nice, not like in years past. And we didn't stop there."
Acta was distant, and at least a few players grumbled about his lack of interaction with the squad. More telling, however, was that you could count on one hand how many players reached out to him after he was fired.
Tito is different. You'll find Francona chatting with players and telling stories, maybe about the time he was Michael Jordan's manager in Birmingham when No. 23 retired from basketball and decided to pick up a bat. Doesn't matter what it's about, really, just that he's talking, teaching, bring the team together.
"He's just more open," says Perez. "He really cares about how you're doing as a person instead of just how you're playing. Baseball is such a small part of everyone's life in the grand scheme of things. Other things matter. You get caught up in the season in winning and losing, but we're people, we go through ups and downs. We're all men. You have to get personal. He's one of the guys, but at the same time, he's my manager, my boss, and I have that respect factor that, hey, you need to start doing this."
The Indians finished 68-94 last year.
"I think we can get to 88 wins this year," says Perez. "I don't think enough to win the division. The Tigers, on paper, they're better. But 88 wins though."
"I'm not going to miss the extra limelight."
Chris Perez is a good quote. And on a team with few veterans and more than a few quiet types, he was a lightning rod and a consistent voice through the 2012 season.
Yeah, there were some slips, but as the de facto voice of the players, someone had to talk.
This year, there are more veterans and more personalities -- Nick Swisher might not stop smiling, talking and charming the room until well past the season ends.
And that's just fine with Perez. He doesn't need to always be talking. He'll say something when it matters.
"It kind of got old after awhile last year," says Perez. "Guys like [Jason] Giambi and [Scott] Kazmir, we got more guys that are more vocal. There's plenty of time for me. There will be a lot more stories this year and a lot more about winning and hopefully all the good stuff will write itself."
If not, you can be sure Chris Perez will have something to say.
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