CHICAGO: I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed Chris Perez’s rant about the fans.
I don’t care whether his critique was on target. He expressed the kind of honest emotion seldom seen among Indians players. And he isn’t the only member of the team who thinks the fans are derelict in their reluctance to visit Progressive Field. Two players spoke to me privately about the situation, and that was before Perez went public.
So was he right? Shouldn’t more fans show up at the ballpark when the team is winning? The Tribe has been in first place for weeks. The club was in first place for more than three months last year before the Detroit Tigers finally flexed their muscles and jetted past.
How long do the Indians have to lead the Central Division before the customers shell out money to watch them? Didn’t the team do well enough (until injuries wiped out the entire outfield) last season to pique the fans’ interest? Nobody is suggesting that the Tribe should be No. 1 in attendance, but is this a club that deserves its rank at the very bottom among the 30 major-league franchises?
I know the season-ticket base is adversely affected by the five-year build and tear-down policies perpetrated by owners Larry and Paul Dolan, who believe that’s the only way they can compete with teams from larger markets. Now that the customers have figured out the blueprint, fewer of them are willing to commit thousands of dollars a year, which accounts for the sub-10,000 crowds in April.
But that should not prevent fans from buying tickets on an individual-game basis, especially when the club is winning. And not even Perez thinks the customers should hand over part of their paychecks when the team is failing.
“In 2010, I wouldn’t have said those comments,” he said. “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. We haven’t even played our best ball and we’re in first.”
Go argue. Never mind, the fans can do what they want. Neither Perez nor anyone else can force the public to support the team at the box office. But why wouldn’t they?
I don’t necessarily agree with everything Perez said, and he hasn’t lived in Northeast Ohio long enough to understand how a history of near misses has created a fatalistic attitude that infects the fan base with a sense of futility. And not just as it applies to the Indians. The Fumble, the Drive, the Shot — everyone knows the sad stories of the Browns’ and Cavaliers’ desolation. Personally, I don’t buy into the “Cleveland is jinxed forever” mentality, but lots of people do.
From a player’s perspective, it’s a simple equation: “We’re playing well, we’re winning, why aren’t you here?” Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? The team performs well, the fans come out. The team goes in the tank, the fans stay home.
“The fans are going to come, I know that,” Perez said. “It’s just a slap in the face when you’re in first place and last in attendance. Last. It’s not like we’re 25th, 26th — we’re last. Oakland is outdrawing us. That’s embarrassing.”
I was not surprised by the lack of a backlash when Perez trotted out of the bullpen Tuesday night to save a 5-3 win over the Tigers. The fans who gave him a standing ovation (almost the entire crowd) actually came to the game; they paid their money and took a chance. That is, maybe the Indians would win, maybe they wouldn’t. So they weren’t the fans Perez was talking about.
Maybe more important, Perez raised the excitement level surrounding the team. The overwhelming majority of players (on any club) go about their business with a serious intent; they do their work to get better; they do not think of themselves as men playing a kids’ game. That’s the way it used to be 30 years ago, but times (and salaries) have changed and the carefree attitude among players has diminished.
The clubhouse is a place of quiet camaraderie and decorum. A visitor doesn’t see much passion or electricity. The atmosphere wasn’t always so passive, but players of this generation have been molded into somber, earnest and staid worker bees.
But not everyone. Perez is the exception. He crackles with emotion. He wears his feelings on his sleeve. You see it when he gets the final out to earn a save, and you feel it in the clubhouse when he’s around. He generates the kind of energy that reaches the fans who are sitting in box seats or watching on television or listening as he gives a postgame radio interview.
So Perez’s words about the fan base resonate. Even if you disagree with his opinion and resent being scolded as nonsupportive, you probably feel that this is a guy who cares deeply about his team and the kind of job he does. He was not delivering a carefully prepared speech by the public relations department. He does not have an ulterior motive. He comes across as honest, and you appreciate his sincerity, even if you are his target.
Consequently, I thought Mark Shapiro’s efforts at damage control were both superfluous and unnecessary. He didn’t need to announce that the Indians don’t like offending their fan base. And that he values all fans, even the ones who never find their way to Progressive Field, and that Perez is entitled to his opinion, but he and the organization don’t endorse the pitcher’s viewpoint.
I know some decisions have not been his call, but does Shapiro and the Tribe management team realize how much more the fans were offended by the trades of Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome than they are by Chris Perez exposing his raw feelings in public?
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.