Indians' Chris Perez closes with hair and flair

Relief pitchers jog in from the bullpen, but closers like the Indians' Chris Perez should ride in on a Harley.

Successful closing is 75 percent killer pitch, 25 percent attitude and image. Requires a wild hair and wild hair.

Perez takes the mound with both -- a 95-mph fastball launched from a 6-4, 230-pound body with a thick dark beard and shoulder-length mane up top.

When the Indians acquired him and minor-league pitcher Jess Todd mid-season two years ago from St. Louis for Mark DeRosa, fans groaned because DeRosa was one of the team's few live bats. One columnist scoffed that the deal marked the club's annual summer garage sale.

But after a shaky start, Perez has emerged as one of the game's dominant closers.

The two runs he allowed last Thursday, blowing a save in the cold rain of Kansas City, were the first he had given up since Aug. 6.

Before the misfire, he hadn't given up a run in 261/3 innings dating back to last season, and had converted his last 15 saves. So far this season, Perez is six for seven when brought in to seal a win.

"I just have to go out and start a new streak like I did last year," he told reporters after the loss.

If he does, the 25-year-old right-hander could become a local cult hero. He's on the verge of it already.

One fan created a tribute Twitter account with the snappy handle, "Pure Rage Perez" -- a nickname hatched from a comment former Indians catcher Chris Gimenez made to reporters after a game last season, that Perez "showed pure rage out there."

"I guess it's kind of my de facto name in Cleveland," Perez said. "It's fine. It kind of adds to the mystique when I come out there."

Off the field, friends say he's more "Pure Chill," but Perez feeds into the cocky closer's persona. The bio on his actual Twitter account ( reads: "Relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians . . . Former UM Hurricane . . . Just a normal guy with an arm like a f******* cannon."

He has surpassed 8,100 Twitter followers and is gaining about 500 a week. Fans are caught up in his success on the mound and the fact that he Tweets back to them and expresses what's on his mind, including a song of the day.

"Rough one tonight," he posted after his blown save in Kansas City. "Tomlin pitched excellent. Feel bad giving away his w. As Jay-Z says: 'On to the Next One.' "

"He's loved how the fans have rallied behind him. He loves that they call him the real Rick Vaughn [the wild child Charlie Sheen character in the film 'Major League']," said Andrew Lane, a former University of Miami teammate and his best man.

"I think he's a great fit for Cleveland," he said, "and Cleveland's a great fit for him."

It wasn't at first. His Tribe debut in 2009 was a disaster: four runs, two hits, hit two batters, threw a wild pitch, forgot to cover first on a potential double play in two-thirds of an inning.

"Not the impression I wanted to make," Perez said at the time.

His next two impressions weren't much better, but he stood in the clubhouse and faced reporters. He didn't hide, and, for better or worse, didn't filter his answers, once suggesting the catcher should have blocked a pitch in the dirt that set up the winning run.

"Well, that's from me," said his father, Tim Perez, a former junior college catcher who coached his son from age 4 through his junior year of high school. "I've always told him, 'If you believe in something, then stand behind it.' "

He started out a White Sox fan
Chris Perez grew up in Bradenton, Fla., a fan of the Chicago White Sox and their powerful first baseman Frank Thomas because they held spring training in nearby Sarasota. He put posters of "The Big Hurt" on his bedroom wall and still has his White Sox key chain.

Back then, Perez was also big and hurt the ball with his bat like his baseball idol. As a high school catcher, he once rocketed a home run off a light standard. That shot came against a team featuring Indians first baseman Matt LaPorta.

But he could throw a ball 90 mph as a freshman, and, by his senior year, was made a pitcher almost exclusively.

"He fought us for a while," his dad said, "because he wanted to hit."

At the University of Miami, Perez was in the starting rotation, but position and personality kind of clashed. He would last five innings and start to fade.

"I don't like holding anything back," he said. "I don't like having to pace yourself as a starter and having to set up guys because you might have to face them later. I like facing them with my best stuff right away."

When Miami's closer got hurt, Perez asked the coach for a shot at the position. His dad wondered whether it was a smart move, given that major-league scouts look for starting pitching, and asked if he was sure about the switch.

"He said, 'Dad, my dream is to be the last guy on the mound striking the last guy out,' " his father said.

With the Indians, Perez was Kerry Wood's set-up man initially. When Wood got hurt, then was dealt to the Yankees, Perez was given the chance to be that guy.

After the first few stumbles, Perez found a rhythm. Late in 2009, he made 20 straight appearances without allowing a run, and his 1.71 ERA was second among American League relievers and among the best in baseball last season.

In January, the Indians rewarded him with a one-year contract worth $2.23 million -- a $1.8 million raise from a salary just above the league minimum.

"When he's comfortable and feels good about what he's doing, that's what you're seeing now," said his father.

Gunslinger image left on the mound
You're also seeing a player Hollywood would have plucked in a casting call for closers.

Clean-shaven Mariano Rivera of the Yankees aside, the game's great stoppers would look right at home in the bleachers of an Oakland Raiders game.

Rollie Fingers and his handlebar mustache. The ratty look of sweaty, long-haired Dennis Eckersley. Thick-bearded Bruce Sutter, Jeff Reardon and now San Francisco's Brian Wilson, whose long jet-black beard looks like a cheap disguise.

They're burly, they're scary, they're usually a little off -- even if it's an act, like Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky, with his Fu Manchu and untamed hair, who angrily stomped to the back of the mound to psyche himself up.

Perez said he would sport the beard and long hair if he was a middle reliever, because he looks like a teenager without it.

And friends say he leaves the gunslinger image on the mound.

On road games in college, Perez and Lane would play TV "Jeopardy!" or explore the town like tourists. If Perez had any meal money left over, he would buy baseball cards.

He's into video games and old cars. At home, he prefers to barbecue, sit back and relax.

"The person he is now is the person he's always been," said Jared Powell, a friend since they were teens.

When time allows, Perez is learning to play the black Fender acoustic guitar with Hawaiian trees along the neck he had shipped to the clubhouse. He's an avid collector of baseball cards, autographs and jerseys -- many of which adorn the man cave of the Tampa, Fla., home where he, wife, Melanie, and their 6-month-old son, Maxwell, live.

The room has the required big-screen TV, a pool table and a scuffed wood floor and ceiling from a Tennessee auditorium where Elvis Presley once performed. (It was there when they bought the house. He rocks to Led Zeppelin.)

"Yeah, I think you have to be kind of a free spirit," said Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage, who saved 310 games in 22 seasons, mostly with the White Sox, Yankees and San Diego.

To be dominant over the long haul, he said, you must have one overpowering pitch, handle the pressure of being either the hero or goat night in, night out and be able to file and forget a horrible outing.

"Willie Nelson has a song, 'Yesterday is dead and gone,' " Gossage said. "You've got to learn from the bad, build on the good and absolutely let it go."

Like a 95-mph fastball with the game on the line.

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