There is no player on the Cleveland Indians more competitive than Chris Perez.
There may be many as competitive, but none more.
He shows it in many ways. There’s his long hair, flying out form underneath his hat with every pitch. His beard, which adds a certain something something. His nickname, “Pure Rage,” which pretty sums up his approach to pitching. And his on-the-mound reactions, which are pointed and visible.
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There also is no more honest player on the team. Again, there are some who match Perez’s candor, but none top it. Win or lose — and when a closer loses it’s always tough — Perez stands up and answers questions. He never ducks, never dodges. Ask him something and an honest answer follows.
If Perez has any attribute that causes concern — or caused concern — in the past couple years it was that he was too honest, that he didn’t know when to turn on the off switch.
More than once last season Perez let thoughts spill out that wound up getting him in trouble. From challenging Indians fans to show up to saying the front office didn’t spend enough money, Perez laid it out.
In both cases Perez was merely telling the truth.
That it bothered people didn’t really bother him.
After he challenged fans, the team politely said it disagreed with him, and Perez showed up in the dugout before the next game. The reason — not every media member was there the previous night so he wanted to be available for more questions to be sure he was understood.
His candor came from frustration that when the Indians were winning fans were still talking more about the Browns. His feelings later in the season were again about wanting to win.
His biggest mistake was getting into a vulgar argument with a fan who had been verbally harassing him for some time in Oakland.
It would be easy to get the wrong picture of Perez from his public pronouncements. He’s a player who cares deeply, and who usually backs up what he says with production on the mound. After he lambasted fans, he went out and saved three games in a row against Detroit.
Even then he couldn’t avoid being truthful. Asked what the sweep meant, he said — candidly — nothing because it was May.
Perez now admits that things got away from him last season, that he should handle things differently. He won’t avoid the media, but he might be a little less forthcoming about his every feeling.
Perez was one of the first Indians that new manager Terry Francona visited in the offseason. Francona flew to Florida to see the team’s closer face-to-face.
“He had no agenda,” Perez said. “It was more sit down and get to know each other.”
Perez explained to Francona that anything he said was from his heart, and that he was frustrated about losing. He cares, a lot, and Francona appreciated the message.
He also refused to judge Perez.
“I wasn’t here,” Francona said. “So the last thing I’m do is hold something against somebody if they did something when I wasn’t here. … If I was here I don’t know how I’d have handled it because I didn’t know Chris. Once I know somebody I’ll have a better feel for how to handle it because you know people and you know what’s important to them.”
Francona found out that winning is important to Perez — and that’s a key trait he wants in players.
“We’re not putting together a Cub Scout troop,” Francona said, speaking generically and not specifically about Perez. “You get guys who care about winning it doesn’t mean they have to be perfect people. If they care about winning then we’re going in the right direction.”
Perez is vital to the Indians’ winning.
He’s saved 39, 36 and 23 games the past three seasons. The total of 98 ranks fifth in baseball. Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith combine to form one of the most effective end-of-game groups in the league.
Perez understands his role, and understands his words. It’s not fair to say he’s recalcitrant, because he meant what he said. What he is is more aware of the impact of his words, and determined to have a different approach. For starters, he points out the team did what players who have been with the Indians wanted, and that was to improve the team.
“It taught me how to be a professional,” Perez said of the last couple years. “It’s easy to come to the ballpark every day and do your work when you’re winning and the other guys are counting on you to do your work. It’s totally opposite when you’re coming to the ballpark every day losing to be able to put in the same amount of work.
“It’s professionalism. You have a job to do. Try to make the best out of the situation. That’s the most I learned.”