By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
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It’s hard to believe the Earth isn’t spinning off its axis and that Mad Men hasn’t turned sane now that Chris Perez has stopped talking to the media.
When pro athletes decided to boycott the press in the past, at least around Northeast Ohio, fans mostly yawned and kept cheering.
Few Indians partisans complained that Albert Belle held his silence for the last few years he was in Cleveland. Why the uproar among the masses about Perez’s decision to shut up? What’s the difference between Belle going mute and Perez refusing to talk?
Performance is the answer. The customers didn’t seem to care that Belle struck a fan with a baseball or heaved a ball at a photographer in the dugout or nudged a trick-or-treater with his SUV or whacked a drunk in a bar with a cue stick or smashed a thermostat in the clubhouse or ... the list went on and on.
Belle might have been an unrepentant troublemaker, but he was our unrepentant troublemaker. More important, through all of Belle’s bad behavior, he kept hitting home runs and amassing great numbers of RBI.
Once he left to play for the Chicago White Sox (Indians General Manager John Hart nudged him out the door with a lowball free-agent offer), Belle was reviled by the same fans who cheered him.
Perez hasn’t gotten off so easily for a couple of reasons.
He probably talked too much last year, when he expressed opinions about the dearth of fans at Progressive Field, the spending habits of the Dolan family and Browns fans who year after year blindly support one of the worst teams in the NFL.
At first, Indians partisans enjoyed Perez’s candor. The first time he blasted Northeast Ohio baseball fans for their apathy, he received a loud ovation. He also saved the game, and for the most part, he kept saving games.
The public began to turn against Perez, not when he refused to answer questions from the media, but when he came undone during a game May 26 in Boston, giving up four runs in two-thirds of an inning to turn a 5-2 win into a 6-5 loss to the Red Sox.
It turned out that Perez was pitching with an achy shoulder, but that did not pacify the fans. He took so much heat from the public, he felt compelled to shut down his Twitter account.
So the seeds of dissatisfaction among the sporting public were sewn in May or maybe even last year, and the chasm between Perez and the fans grew wider when he was busted on a misdemeanor charge of obtaining marijuana in the mail. He will get his day in court next month.
It is the marijuana issue that seems to have triggered Perez’s decision to boycott the local media. But why didn’t he declare questions about his legal problems off limits and continue to field queries about baseball? We don’t know, because he isn’t talking.
Or is he? Last weekend in Miami, Perez gave an extensive interview to a reporter from InsideTheU, which gathers news of interest to those affiliated with the University of Miami, which is where Perez attended college.
In explaining his refusal to speak to the local press, Perez said: “This year since I’ve came back [from the disabled list], I haven’t talked to the media. You’re the first guy. It is what it is. I have different priorities now.”
Perez takes partial credit for the mini-spending spree in the offseason.
“I’d like to think that maybe [management] listened,” he said. “Maybe they said, ‘Wow one of our best players is saying maybe we should try to do something,’ and they did. They stepped up this year we’ve put together a great team so far.”
On his problem with the law, Perez said: “It’s not like I’m thinking about it when I’m on in the ninth. It would be more of a distraction off the field with people asking questions or fans or whatever, but when I’m in there pitching, that’s the last thing I’m thinking about, ‘Oh God, I have to go to court in September.’
“After the game, yeah maybe or whenever my lawyer calls, but when I’m here on the field it’s business. I have to do my job. The only way I can win back support and good will is by doing my job.”
On his love-hate relationship with the fans, Perez said: “I don’t like it when the world is against me, but when I feel my back is against the wall, that’s usually when I pitch my best. Going back to last year after I called out everybody, I pitched good. This year coming back from an injury and an off-the-field issue, I’ve pitched good. I don’t know why.”
Like most people who take inflexible positions, Perez has backed himself into a corner. He thinks he is being consistent if he refuses to make himself available not only after he blows a save but also after he saves a game.
The problem with that stance was made clear Monday night, when he gave up four runs in the ninth to blow a 2-0 lead to the Detroit Tigers in the most critical series of the season to date.
Perez disappeared. Some say he was gone before the game ended. He left his teammates to explain his failure, and several of them were upset about being put in that position.
Many in the local media are furious with Perez. They want club officials to order him to speak, but it doesn’t work that way. Baseball players have a right to talk, to not talk, make fools of themselves or turn themselves into media darlings. Perez has chosen a difficult path, and he will have to live with it.
The men and women who carry notebooks and microphones for a living also will get along without Perez’s oratory. And if he changes his mind, I’m sure all will be forgiven by most of those who sit in the press box.
Perez has specified that his silence will last the entire season. What about next year? If Cleveland reporters want to talk to him in 2014, I suspect they will have to buy a plane ticket.
There are a number of reasons why Perez probably will be jettisoned by the Indians: too much talking in 2012, too little in 2013, and most of all, his salary is likely to reach nearly $10 million, and I doubt that General Manager Chris Antonetti will pay any reliever that much.
In the meantime, the quieter Perez becomes, the more people will talk about him and the less he will be able to control the conversation.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.