This past weekend, I went to three different baseball games in three different cities featuring six different teams. There’s a story with all of them, and since my trip took me around the perimeter of Lake Erie, I’m making this a series of posts called the Lake Erie Baseball Odyssey.
Last Thursday afternoon, I went to my first Indians game at Progressive Field in more than a year and a half. I had vowed that 2003 would be the last time I missed a game. But as they often do, things happened, and last year, I never got to see the Indians at Progressive Field last year (although I did see them in Minneapolis). So I was happy to see the Indians at home, and I was even happier that they managed to come back from a 4-0 deficit and walk off with a win.
But last Thursday was also the start of a controversy. Chris Perez, the Indians closer, entered the game in the top of the 10th with one out and immediately allowed a single and a walk. The fans that remained of the 12,894 tickets sold booed him, before Perez found the strike zone and got the last two outs of the inning. On Saturday, after a much less eventful appearance which resulted in a save, Perez ripped the fans that booed him, saying:
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 base runner without people booing me. It’s even worse when there’s only 5,000 in the stands, because then you can hear it. It p****s me off.
And you know what? I agree with him.
Rewind back to Thursday for a second. When the Indians summoned Perez, I raised my eyebrows a bit. He hasn’t had the best success in non-save situations. And sure enough, coming into a non-save situation, he gave up the base hit and the walk. I sort of felt the game slipping away, and asked my dad, “I wonder when they’ll just stop bringing him in unless it’s a save situation.” There was some booing, not too loud but definitely noticeable, as the rest of the crowd was collectively gulping nervously. But Perez got out of it, and as it happened, Joe Smith nearly blew it next inning by giving up the go ahead run before the Indians stormed back.
I don’t think Chris Perez prepares differently when there’s a non-save situation; it’s just not a situation he’s thrived in. It’s a bit like Shelley Duncan, who pinch hit for Johnny Damon in the 10th inning. Manny Acta sent Duncan out to hit against the left-hander Furbush, a matchup that favors Duncan (a right-handed batter), but Eric Wedge, before a pitch could be thrown, brought in right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen to pitch to Duncan. Duncan was overmatched, and struck out, looking pretty silly doing so. It’s not that Duncan was under-prepared, or didn’t try hard; he just doesn’t hit right-handers well. The same goes for Chris Perez: all he can do is what the manager asks him to do. This isn’t a situation where your pitcher is eating fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse or playing golf on off days; it’s a situation where your pitcher simply “doesn’t have it.” And all of that is beside the point: whether it was pretty or not, Perez got through the inning unscathed.
Indians fans seem to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder for Perez this year, ever since he blew a save on Opening Day. But quietly, Perez has put up 13 straight saves without a blown save since then, and has only allowed 3 ER in 15 2/3 innings since then. His one loss came from a non-save situation. He leads the league in saves.
But even in the rare instances where Perez seems to be at fault, the blame doesn’t rest solely on him. On Opening Day, for instance, Perez gave up 3 runs before being removed. The Indians and Blue Jays then played 7 more innings before Juan Encarnacion homered off of Jairo Asencio in the 16th. In other words, the Indians had 15 more outs where all they needed was one run. It’s not like the Blue Jays were holding them hitless (remember the at bat where Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into a bases-loaded double play with one out after swinging at the first pitch following a four pitch walk); if they had gotten that run, the blown save might have been forgotten and everyone would have been happier. Instead, everyone looks at Perez who surrendered a three-run lead, when there were plenty of other opportunities for the Indians to score. Baseball is a team sport; there’s very rarely only one person at fault, even if it doesn’t appear to be that way at first.
The Indians just had their best weekend so far attendance-wise, averaging a little under 25,000 fans per day. But it’s true that the Indians are last in attendance, despite the weather being unseasonably warm. That has to be frustrating to the players. Terry Pluto made an excellent point in a column published on Saturday:
I even received two emails wishing Randy Lerner owned the Tribe, because he has money. Yes, Lerner spends, but he has yet to come close to finding a way for the Browns to even be competitive most seasons. In the last four years, they haven’t won more than five games in a season.
That would be like the Tribe losing 100 games each year.
If you’re looking for the team that doesn’t deserve your attention, look no further than the Cleveland Browns, who as an organization have failed, repeatedly, on so many levels. The Cavs are still in the grace period following The Decision, and the Indians, while they haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, have had to put up with arguably the toughest path to the playoffs: a grueling 162 game schedule, no salary cap, strong division rivals…and the least forgiving fanbase in Cleveland.
So Chris Perez could have chosen a better time to make his comments. But you know what, I’m actually glad he said what he said when he said it. It’s really easy to blame the fans when you’re losing, and he lashed out when he had won, when he had no excuses. And as an Indians fan, I’d rather him get this out now than have it sit on his chest for 3 months and affect his performance, which would just worsen the cycle.
The Indians organization, I thought, handled the situation fairly well. They didn’t trash Chris, or even punish him in any way; they just clarified that the Indians organization loves and depends on both Chris and the fans, and chalked up the outburst to Perez being a pitcher who thrives on emotion (rage). If you’re Chris Perez, you have to be pleased with that: the organization certainly can’t come out and agree with him, but they didn’t throw him under the bus either. And why should they? They have to know he’s right.
Indians fans: your team isn’t the Yankees, your team isn’t the Red Sox. You don’t have a $100 million payroll. In essence:
There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.
Enjoy what you have, because in case you haven’t noticed, despite being outspent by every team in the division except the Royals, your Cleveland Indians are in first place. And when Chris Perez takes the mound this week against the Tigers, I’ll be giving him a standing ovation from my TV.
Kenny Lofton disagrees with my view. And while I respect Kenny Lofton as a person and a player, he played for a different Cleveland Indians club than Chris Perez ever did, and that’s all I’ll say about that.