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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Indians' Perez sets up closer vs. Cleveland fans after criticism

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Chris Perez lashes out at fans for their support of the first-place Indians. (Getty Images)  
Chris Perez lashes out at fans for their support of the first-place Indians. (Getty Images)  

Closer Chris Perez's words have been rattling around Cleveland for three days like a double into the corner.

And as the first showdown series of the season between the first-place Indians and AL Central-favorite Tigers screeches into town this week, the matchup is as juicy as there is in the game.

The emotional, passionate, highly charged Indians closer vs. ... the emotional, passionate, highly charged Indians fans.

You were thinking, perhaps, Perez vs. Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera?

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Oh, the Indians and Tigers eventually will get to that.

But first, as Cleveland looks to maintain its grip on first place, into what kind of atmosphere will Perez step when the week's first save situation arises?

Something between a verbal mix of tar and feathers?

Or will Cleveland fans look inward, take note of the error of their ways and show the big lug some love?

As if closing isn't enough of a high-wire act, Perez just made his degree of difficulty even tougher.

It's not often that an athlete decides that the local paying customers aren't always right. Which is what makes Perez's dustup with the fans nationally notable.

In this digital day and age of Twitter rage and economic malaise, what is the responsibility of the fan? What is the responsibility of the player?

If a fan shells out his $40 or $50 for a ticket, are the players open game for taunts?

If a fan decides to stay home and listen to the game on the radio because maybe he was laid off last year, or went without a raise at work again this year, or his son is due for braces next week ... is he open game for taunting by a player?

Wait, I can answer that last one: No.

No, no, no, a thousand times, no.

Perez said he is sick and tired of the fans booing each time he doesn't produce a perfect, 1-2-3 save. The outburst came Saturday, after he blew away the Marlins while still stinging from boos Thursday against the Mariners, when he allowed two baserunners before receiving a sarcastic ovation after he closed them out.

The guy does have a point. Since opening day 2011, Perez has converted more than 90 percent of his save opportunities.

But he didn't stop there. He continued his rant with a dissection of Cleveland's last-in-the-majors attendance. Among his assessments: That's why free agents such as Carlos Beltran, who signed with the Cardinals last winter, won't sign with Cleveland.

Whoa.

The Cardinals offered Beltran $26 million over two years and were coming off a World Series championship. The Indians offered $24 million over two years. You know what most players can see even more than empty seats? Dollar bills. You can bet the money, more than the attendance, influenced Beltran (and others).

What makes for an all-the-more-fascinating case study is the fact that Perez on Sunday met with Indians president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti to discuss his comments, and then went back to talk further with reporters. There were no apologies. Just more passionate and, yes, well-intentioned explanations.

"It's just a slap in the face when you're in first place and last in attendance," Perez told Cleveland reporters. "Last. It's not like we're 25th, 26th -- we're last. Oakland is outdrawing us. That's embarrassing.

"In 2010, I wouldn't have made those comments [the Indians were 69-93 in '10]. We deserved to get booed. We deserved to have nobody here. But we've been building up for this season. We're good. We have a good team."

All true.

But it long ago became a corporate game. And where human hearts once beat and players stuck around long enough to make emotional connections with fans, now there are only bean counters and ledger sheets. And far too often -- and often by necessity -- a club makes a pre-emptive trade to protect itself from losing a talented player for nothing to free agency.

Chris Perez wants to know why he's pitching in front of all of those empty seats?

Partly because CC Sabathia is pitching for the Yankees, via Milwaukee.

Partly because Cliff Lee is pitching in Philadelphia.

The Indians are the only team ever to trade away back-to-back Cy Young Award winners (plus others, like Victor Martinez). Fans feel burned. Ownership has appeared cheap.

More than ever today, in Cleveland and elsewhere, they come for the money and they go for the money. And when they do go, what are fans supposed to do with all of those Manny Ramirez jerseys? With their Jim Thome T-shirts?

What good is an Adrian Gonzalez jersey anymore in San Diego? A Prince Fielder T-shirt in Milwaukee?

You still see them at the ballpark. And instantly, they look more ridiculous and out-of-style than a Bee Gees-era leisure suit.

It's the game today. It's the way it is. It does no good to complain because we're not going back. You can never be 12 and that naïve again. The good times are fleeting.

You either accept it ... or you stop spending your money at the ballpark.

While with the Blue Jays a couple of weeks back, I was talking with ageless wonder Omar Vizquel. Toronto had opened the season in Cleveland, and Vizquel was still marveling about the way Indians fans shower him with love each time he's back in town.

The Indians hang onto first place, school ends, summer starts, you watch. Perez and his teammates will see those seats begin to fill like swing sets in a park. Cleveland is a great sports town. It has also been hit hard with both baseball disappointments and the recession.

Last thing the fans need is a brushback pitch from their own closer.

And last thing their own closer needs is the acceptance of nothing less than perfection.

Because in these times, in Cleveland and elsewhere, that's a tough thing to ask.

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