Philadelphia, PA – Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan once said, "One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something."
That quote could be used perfectly to describe the situation that Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez found himself in on Tuesday night, just days after he verbally attacked the franchise's fanbase for, in his opinion, its lack of support for the ball club.
But it was those in attendance that night at Progressive Field who instead came out with something to prove. And did they ever.
When Perez trotted out of the bullpen in an attempt to hold a 5-3 lead over the AL Central rival Detroit Tigers, many following the story probably expected the right-hander to be showered with a venom-laced chorus of boos. Few would have blamed the ticket-purchasing mass, a group undoubtedly left stinging from Perez's words.
But a funny thing happened. Not only was Perez not booed, but he was actually met by an echoing of cheers that grew louder and louder as he approached home plate, with many of the 15,000-plus in attendance getting to their feet to support a man who days earlier had questioned their loyalty.
Tribe fans had answered the call by taking the high road, putting forth a peace offering that would have even touched Randy Quaid's fictional fair- weather fan character from "Major League II."
After all, this is a group rooting for a team that has made the playoffs only once in the previous 10 seasons and has seen stars CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez all traded away since the 2008 season.
"I was truly humbled," Perez said after closing out the win. "I didn't know what to expect, but that's the loudest I've ever been cheered here. It didn't go unnoticed, trust me. I'm humbled. That was really nice."
Rewind to Saturday, when Perez closed out a win over the Miami Marlins before taking some shots at the fans for booing him a few days earlier on Thursday night. Saturday was his first chance to speak since the crowd got on him for putting two runners on in the 10th inning with one out, though he escaped the jam unharmed.
Given a chance to back down Sunday, Perez instead let off the rest of his steam.
"I don't understand the negativity," he said. "Enjoy what we have. You have a first-place team. How many teams in the country would want that right now?"
"We're in first place. Enjoy it. We could be in last place. We could be the Royals or the Pirates and haven't won anything in 20 years. We're not. Enjoy it."
Perez added that he was embarrassed that the club ranks last in average attendance, citing the fact the Indians get outdrawn by clubs like Oakland.
Though poorly worded, the 26-year-old did have a bit of a point. Not only do the Indians average just 15,838 fans at home through Tuesday's games, that is just over 3,000 fans less than the 29th-place A's (18,861). Cleveland is one of only three clubs -- Seattle being the other -- that averages under 20,000 fans per home game.
"Baseball's still supposed to be fun. At the end of the day, this is a game. It's a child's game, I understand that. But if you have a choice to go to some place like Philadelphia, where every day it's fun just to go there. That helps you get through some seasons some times, some games," Perez said.
He also didn't seem too worried on Sunday about the backlash that had already come his way and was sure to come in the future.
"I expected it, but I really don't care anymore," he said. "I'm here to do my job and play for this team. If the fans come, they come, and if they don't, it will be just like it was in April, so who cares."
Back to Tuesday night, when the fans greeted Perez with positive vibes. He recorded one quick out before issuing a walk to Ramon Santiago and then saw runners on the corner following a single by Andy Dirks to set up the meat of Detroit's lineup.
Triumph was slowly morphing to tragedy, but Perez instead electrified the ballpark by striking out the dangerous Miguel Cabrera looking on three straight fastballs. That brought up Prince Fielder and Perez capped his 20- pitch roller coaster by getting the bulky first baseman to hit into a force out.
"I'm glad. It could have gone the other way, but it didn't and I came through and got the save. A big one for us," Perez said.
The victory left the Indians 3 1/2 games above the Chicago White Sox for first place in the division heading into Wednesday's action, and four above the favored Tigers. And it isn't a fluke, either, as Perez pointed out on Sunday - Cleveland has been at least tied for the top spot every day since April 24.
Perez continued to stress over the weekend that his decision to reveal his disappointment came with no ulterior motives, he was just voicing displeasure that had been growing since Thursday. Still, for one night (Cleveland was off on Monday), the fans made it a point to get involved.
"The only thing I would try to take back is try to keep it away from the team," Perez added on Tuesday on what he may have done differently. "The last thing you want to do is bring undue attention to the team, especially in this kind of a light. But at the same time, I think it kind of picked us up, too. The guys kind of said, 'Yeah, we've been feeling like that, too. I'm glad you said something and I'm glad you didn't back down.'
"At the same time, I think it might push up through a little bit. If tonight's any indication, we had some energy back in here and it was fun."
Kudos to the Indians fans for showing class with how they handled the criticism, which would have certainly gone the other way in many other cities and maybe even led to the dissolving of the club and Perez, who has saved 73 of his 82 chances since 2010, including 14 of 15 this year.
Who knows how long the good feelings will last -- perhaps just until Perez's next blown save -- but there is another phrase, made popular by the late Al Davis, that the Indians can follow in their attempt to increase attendance.
"Just win, baby."