2/9/2013 12:00 P.M. ET
Mercurial Perez not afraid to speak his mind
By Zack Meisel / MLB.com
TAMPA -- Chris Perez is not afraid to challenge anyone or anything. He'll smile while offering a biting scouting report on his former college roommate. He'll spell out exactly what he thinks his organization must do to win. He doesn't believe in sugarcoating anything.
Perez doesn't shelve that persona in the clubhouse at Progressive Field during the harsh Cleveland winter. It follows him 1,100 miles south, to Saddlebrook Resort, where his voice drowns out the few sounds emanating from the 480-acre paradise.
A group of about 20 baseball players, mostly Major League prospects, endures an hour-long Pilates session, their collective exhale interrupted by the smack of a cardinal, feathers red as the ripest tomato, into a window.
The athletes lie on mats in three rows in a weight room constructed like a greenhouse. Transparent glass comprises each wall of the spacious room, a visual fallacy to the poor, determined bird, which, for an hour, keeps plunging face-first into the building.
"Stupid cardinal," Perez says.
The rest of the players, all younger, less experienced and established than Perez, key in on the bird and his bruised beak and ego.
When Perez speaks out, others pay attention.
That trend hit the mainstream with his menacing tweet -- "You hit us, we hit you. Period." -- last year toward the Royals, which earned him a $750 fine.
Or his rant in late May about poor attendance at his home ballpark, Progressive Field, and the hostility displayed by the fans who did show up at the games.
Or his diatribe the ensuing morning, when a meeting with media intended for clarification incited more public frustration with the fans.
Or the John Cena-inspired gesture that he flashed after he struck out Kansas City outfielder Jarrod Dyson, in which he wagged his hand in front of his face.
Or his obscenity-laced exchange with an A's fan that was caught on video prior to a June game in Oakland.
Or his much-publicized criticism in late August of ownership's willingness to spend money, relative to the free-flowing pockets of Detroit owner Mike Ilitch.
When Perez activates his vocal cords, reporters reach for their recorders, cameramen take position, teammates look up from their cell phones, fans grab their virtual pitchforks and front office executives cringe.
That's just the way it is. He isn't shy about revealing every thought that creeps into his unfiltered mind. That is Chris Perez on the field, at the team hotel, in the quiet pastures at Saddlebrook, or digging through the giant toy chest at his Tampa home with his 2-year-old son, Max, baby daughter, Madelyn, and wife, Melanie.
"That's what people are concerned about nowadays, is their image," Perez said. "How is this going to look if I say this? How is my family going to react?' I don't care."
"I was at a point of no return."
Perez is at home, watching the train show, "Chuggington," with his son and enjoying, for now, being invisible.
"There's nothing here to make me mad," he says.
What would? He owns a collection of 60,000 baseball cards, and in what Max dubbed "Daddy's Room," which features a movie theater-like setup, encased jerseys of Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Johan Santana, Frank Thomas and Trevor Hoffman line the walls. Perez, after all, is a fan. His eyes widen when he encounters one of his distinguished neighbors at his development's golf course, be it Lou Piniella, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden or Fred McGriff.
He enjoys a thick Cuban sandwich, overloaded with pork, ham, salami and turkey, with a side of potato salad, from his favorite deli in his hometown of Tampa. There, he goes unrecognized, despite his signature long hair, scraggly, unkempt beard and 6-foot-4 frame. He's nothing more than a sandwich enthusiast, a casual customer, the antithesis of the role he often played last year, when he couldn't stay out of the spotlight.
Last May, Perez took issue with jeers from the Progressive Field crowd, which had become restless because the closer permitted a pair of baserunners before dodging harm. Two nights later, he vented to the media, expressing frustration about the club's attendance and conjecturing that marquee free agents typically sidestep Cleveland because of the lack of fan support.
"At first, I was surprised," Melanie said. "I was like, 'My God, did he just say that?' It represents me as well. I get that he was speaking his mind, and he always does that, but I was really taken aback by it."
The following morning, Perez didn't apologize. He sat before a horde of reporters and expounded on his comments.
"I was at the point where I didn't care what happened. If they revolted and ran me out of town, I would've been happy with that," Perez said.
"I was at a point of no return. I didn't care if the team suspended me. I didn't care. I didn't talk about it with my agent or wife. It just all came out."
And it earned him a standing ovation from 15,049 in his next appearance.
As if on cue, Perez again spotted the opposition two baserunners, this time with Tigers sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder waiting to hit.
"'Put up or shut up time,'" Perez said. "I pitch the best that way."
He struck out the eventual American League Most Valuable Player before inducing a groundout from Fielder to seal the victory and temporarily alleviate any discord with the Cleveland fan base. Winning cures everything, and Perez considers his commentaries acceptable as long as he does his job.
Perez blew a save on Opening Day, but didn't waste another until July 8, the final game before the All-Star break. His 24 saves in 26 chances earned him a trip to Kansas City, his second consecutive ticket to the Midsummer Classic. The Indians were hanging around in the AL Central race, though their formula of narrow wins and lopsided losses foreshadowed a second-half collapse.
The defeats piled up in August, when the team amassed a dismal 5-24 mark, the worst month in franchise history. The team plummeted in the standings, and Perez was spiraling with it. He engaged in a vulgar back-and-forth with an Oakland fan during batting practice, the entire confrontation captured on video and transmitted to the cyber world. He and manager Manny Acta had a falling out. He said he contemplated asking for a trade, but the thought never materialized into a conversation with his agent or the team.
In early September, four days after the birth of his daughter, he criticized Indians ownership in an interview with FOX Sports, during which he lauded Ilitch for the rival team owner's willingness to spend money when necessary.
Perez admits now that depression set in. He said he felt that he could no longer act like himself. He earned the ire of fans after blowing consecutive save opportunities in early August, which ran the Tribe's losing streak to 11 games. The team later endured separate skids of seven, six and five defeats before the schedule ceased.
"There was a point in the season," Perez said, "where I came home to Melanie and I was like, 'I'm just tired. I'm done with it. This season has been bad. Every time I open my mouth, it becomes a story. Even if I'm just trying to answer a question, it becomes something else. I can't even put a tweet out there without someone reading into it.'
"It wasn't baseball anymore."
Perez sits on a bar stool at his kitchen counter and asks Max about his swimming lessons earlier that day, but Max is too locked in on the macaroni and cheese his mother is about to set down on his high chair to answer. Besides, one of the other children in the pool spent the entire session crying, ruining Max's morning. Life is much simpler here, in the winter, far away from the noise.
"I got in a lot of trouble."
Chris Perez's parents, Tim and Julie, divorced when he was 5. Chris and his sister, Courtney, lived with their mother until Chris, 10 years old at the time, pushed a kid to the ground during daycare and the administrators told Julie that Courtney was more than welcome to return the next day, but Chris was not.
"I was bigger than everyone and I looked older than I was, so teachers would expect me to act more mature than I really was," Perez said. "I got in a lot of trouble."
With Chris blacklisted from daycare, he had no supervision after school while Julie worked, so he moved in with his father in Bradenton, Fla., about an hour south of where he now lives in Tampa. It turned out to be one of the biggest breaks of his life.
"That's when baseball became No. 1," Perez said.
Perez participated in summer programs at the nearby IMG Baseball Academy and attended games at the Pirates' Spring Training complex, two blocks from Perez Tile & Construction, the business Tim still runs. Ken Bolek, who coached Perez at the academy, said four things have remained constant with the fiery pitcher: his athleticism ("He's not going to be in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, but he is very athletic"), his unwavering confidence, his aggression and his identity as a realist.
"He wears things on his sleeve," Bolek said. "If there's something on his mind, it's not too difficult to get him to comment. … People aren't used to those types of conversations all of the time, but it's very effective communicating with someone like that because he doesn't hold anything back."
Perez picked up that quality -- along with doggedness and an aversion to losing -- from his father, for whom he worked during the summer. Tim preached to his son to stand behind whatever he believed in, regardless of what others think.
"I'll tell him, 'I see you're ruffling feathers again, Chris,'" Tim said. "'Well, if it's what you believe, then say it.'"
"Outside people don't understand"
When the season ends, with his arm resembling a limp noodle, Perez takes two months off.
"That's when he's really a bum," his wife said.
Once the holidays pass, Perez kicks up his training regimen. Six days a week, he hops in his 2006 Chevy Silverado and makes the 20-minute commute to Saddlebrook in the town of Wesley Chapel.
"You treat that truck like a race car," says the valet at the resort after Perez whips around a corner and parks.
Perez wears a black Nike shirt, black 2011 All-Star Game shorts, black and red Nike shoes and a 2012 All-Star Game hat as he strolls to the breakfast buffet, acknowledging every employee who greets him. He enters a room where 12 big league prospects sit, eating breakfast and discussing where they'll spend Spring Training and who will win that night's college basketball games.
Perez sets down a glass of orange juice and two plates: one with eggs, the other with raspberries and pineapple. Perez is the lone veteran here. He and the youngsters, a crew that includes recent first-round Draft picks Courtney Hawkins and Stephen Piscotty, withstand two days of rigorous workouts, then a recovery day of yoga or Pilates. The cycle repeats twice a week until the players leave for Spring Training.
With five seasons in the big leagues, Perez is a bit of an oddity in this room, but that's nothing new.
As 2012 wore on, Perez often found himself alone in the Indians' clubhouse, his locker nestled behind a wall. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and reliever Vinnie Pestano would chat in one far corner of the room, and pitchers Justin Masterson, Joe Smith and Josh Tomlin would hold court in another corner.
"Honestly, I've drifted apart, just because I have different priorities," said Perez, whose wife and children stay with him in a Cleveland suburb during the season. "I'm at a different part of my life. The rest of the guys are still young and single and still playing video games and going out and all of that."
His independence doesn't mean his strong voice irks his teammates. Perez claims that many of his cohorts share his divisive opinions about attendance and payroll, but they aren't the ones being hounded by reporters before and after each game.
"That's what the fans and outside people don't understand," Perez said. "They just see me as some blowhard whose teammates must hate him. I think it's the complete opposite when you walk into that locker room."
The Tribe bullpen is a tight group. For two years, the relief corps has been called the "Bullpen Mafia," and Perez has been the de facto Don. Since then, veterans Chad Durbin, Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez have departed, replaced by inexperienced newcomers including Cody Allen, Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes. The youngsters contend that they have no reason to approach the clubhouse wary of Perez's doings. Quite the contrary, in fact.
"He's going to stand up for his teammates," Allen said. "You have to love that about the guy."
"You're either a fan of me or you are not."
Perez can envision himself as a Major League scout one day. He keeps tabs on the entire league, scours the Internet for the latest news and insight and isn't shy about asking teammates or reporters for their opinions on various baseball matters.
This knowledge -- and his lack of naiveté -- led him to believe the Tribe would trade him this offseason, but he ended up signing a one-year deal worth $7.3 million to avoid arbitration.
"For the Indians to move forward, the best way, I thought, would be to trade me, get some prospects, save some money and let Vinnie close," Perez said, adding that he didn't want to be dealt.
Then, the team hired a new manager, Terry Francona, a move Perez said indicated an "organizational mind shift." Cleveland wasn't going to hand the reins to an established manager and initiate a rebuild.
On his international travels to meet the majority of the players on the roster, Francona coordinated a sit-down with Perez and bullpen coach Kevin Cash in Tampa. The trio gorged on steak and seafood, a feast that demonstrated to Perez that he wasn't going anywhere.
"Why would he be doing this if I wasn't going to be part of his next team?" Perez said.
Francona juggled an array of personalities -- from Manny Ramirez to Pedro Martinez to Kevin Millar to Derek Lowe -- in his eight years in Boston, where he won a pair of World Series titles. Inheriting Perez's mercurial temperament doesn't seem to pose a challenge to the seasoned skipper.
"As a manager, if you tend to wander toward the guys with easy personalities, then you're not going to have a really good team," Francona said. "There's a cast of characters -- I don't care so much about that. They all just need to want to win. If they do that, we're fine."
That's a value Perez and Francona share. To Perez, the extracurricular stuff -- the penchant to fire back at his Twitter critics, the inclination to question why certain Clevelanders support the ever-miserable Browns but not the Indians, the barbaric scream he lets out upon securing each save -- none of that will matter on the day of his son's first T-ball game or the night of his daughter's prom. When Perez and his wife are chasing Max around the house before putting the carefree kid to bed, Perez isn't thinking about his reputation.
"You're either a fan of me or you are not," he said. "It's not my job to try to win you over."
There's little argument that the way Perez operates is unconventional. He summons motivation from the most reliable person he knows: himself. Even when he critiques his superiors or gets himself in a pickle with an eventual Triple Crown winner on deck, he tends to get the job done. He has racked up 98 saves over the last three seasons.
"He's always been competitive, whether it's checkers or chess or any card game," his father said. "He has to win and has to be the best. Sometimes having that goal can get you in trouble."
So Chris Perez sits in his truck, stuck in noon traffic on the Dale Mabry Highway and needing to call his agent. There's a more pressing task to complete first, though: choosing his "Song of the Day" to post to Twitter.
He feels like choosing a Reggae tune today, but when he turns to a station called "The Joint" on his satellite radio, he's left unmoved by Bob Marley. He scrolls through his mental rolodex for a Phil Collins track, entertaining the idea of "Sussudio." He flirts with the melodies of Madonna's "Like A Prayer," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Ini Kamoze's "Here Comes The Hotstepper," as he scans the radio, but shuts off the system upon the first note of ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
Even with something as simple as a song choice, that competitive fire shines through. There is no settling. There never will be.
"That's just me," Perez says. "I always want to do better."