CLEVELAND -- Bored by 40-year-old artifacts that seem ancient to them, a group of junior high students were on a long, strange trip through a Grateful Dead exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when they saw something they could relate to amid Jerry Garcia's guitar collection.
Sunglasses sweeping back long hair, the bearded guy in jeans, retro sneakers and jeweled wristwatch had a rock star's look and swagger.
The kids rushed Chris Perez.
"What's your favorite thing so far?" asked Cleveland's colorful closer.
"You," yelled one of the youngsters.
Not everyone has been as excited to see Perez lately.
In case you haven't been following his exploits, Perez, the Holmes Beach native who starred at Manatee High and the Pendleton School, has been something of a renegade during this season's first two months. He's the first player to be fined under Major League's Baseball's social media policy. He's fired
fastballs past opponents and offended others with primal screams and gestures on the mound. He's even antagonized Cleveland fans by shaming them for not backing an Indians team fighting for first place.
Riding an escalator to the top of the hall of fame's pyramid-shaped glass atrium, Perez was struck by the similarities between athletes and musicians.
"You can't be afraid to speak your mind or worry about what people think about you," he said before pausing.
"As long as you can back it up."
A large photo of Doors frontman Jim Morrison -- leering -- hung nearby. It seemed to fit.
In an age of political correctness, this CP doesn't worry about being PC. He's bold and brash, a baseball outlaw enjoying the ride of his life and getting paid big money to play a kid's game. He's making friends and enemies, and rattling everyone's cage along the way.
He's living in the moment.
That's rock and roll.
That's Perez's nickname, though it also would work nicely as the tag for a heavy metal band or punk group. It's also the attitude Perez carries with him to the mound. Now in his second season as Cleveland's closer, the hard-throwing 26-year-old, acquired in a trade from St. Louis in 2009, has become one of the game's top relievers.
After blowing his first chance of the year at home on opening day he was perfect ever since heading into the weekend, and has been a major reason the Indians, picked to finish way behind Detroit and Chicago in the American League Central, are hanging around the top of the division.
Perez's record is near pristine. His performances have been far from perfect.
Watching him try to get the last three outs is not for the faint of heart. Perez is part knife thrower, part high-wire walker, a daring act loaded with surprise and suspense. He rarely retires the side easily, often putting a runner -- or two -- on base before working his way out of a self-inflicted mess.
It's the way he's always done it, going back to his days at the University of Miami and low minor leagues.
"I was rough," Perez said. "I would walk three in a row and strike out three in a row. That still is me sometimes. But I'm more refined now."
Last year, Perez made his first All-Star team and finished with 36 saves despite a tendon injury in his elbow he didn't reveal until spring training this year. Without his best stuff, Perez was forced to adapt. He learned how to pitch instead of just raring back and throwing heat.
If he gives up a hit, Perez shrugs it off.
Waking the echoes
The anger had been bubbling in Perez for weeks.
Rows of empty green seats, dwarfing filled ones by a 3-to-1 margin inside Progressive Field, irked him. The Indians were in first place and Cleveland didn't seem to care. The Indians, who once sold out 455 consecutive home games, are last in the majors in attendance, averaging roughly 2,500 fewer fans than the next-lowest team.
So, two days after being booed during a save at home, Perez unloaded on fans for their lack of support. Perez called it "embarrassing" and decried an overall negative vibe in a city without a major pro sports championship since 1964.
He needed to vent, and vent he did.
"I got mad and I just went off. I tried to do it the best way possible. It was in the heat of the moment, but it was all from the heart."
It was a public relations nightmare for the Indians, still trying to reconnect with a chunk of their fan base bitter about the team trading Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, and a perception that owner Larry Dolan isn't spending as much money as he's pulling in.
But Perez stuck to his comments and found a lot of support after the initial firestorm.
"I've seen some stuff on Twitter. But it's a lot easier to type something than say it to someone's face," said Perez, as easy going off the field as he is intense between the foul lines. "Larry Dolan came down after we swept Detroit and shook my hand. I don't know if he shook my hand because he agreed with me or because I just said it.
"Maybe I woke up the echoes, and that's cool. That wasn't my intent, but it seemed to work."
Sure enough, the next time Perez pitched he was greeted by a standing ovation, a moment he called "humbling." He wasn't sure what to expect but was glad Cleveland, a place he seems to embody, had his back.
Bring in Zeppelin
When he was 10, Perez's parents divorced and he moved in with his father.
"Bachelors eating dinner in our underwear watching baseball," he said.
Tim Perez took his son to Tampa Bay Rays games and drove him to various spring training camps. Along with teaching his boy the game, the elder Perez made sure his son learned never to back down -- from anyone. His father also broadened Perez's musical tastes, which includes an affinity for '70s classic rock.
"I was born 30 years too late," joked Perez, who posts a song of the day on his Twitter page.
Music helps define him. His mother, Julie, turned him on to the Beatles and his late grandmother, Pat Fleming, cleaned her house listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."
Since college, Perez has made his way in from the bullpen with Prodigy's "Firestarter" blaring through the stadium speakers, the song's wailing guitar intro followed by a frenetic drumbeat that perfectly suits his potent personality as well as his powerful pitching style.
It motivates Perez to finish a game started by others.
He plays the final notes.
As for rock's best closer, Perez said there's only one band he would hand the ball. His favorite.
"It's Led Zeppelin, because they rocked hard," he said. "They brought it every day and never took a performance off. It's Jimmy Page doing some kind of solo with John Bonham because you've got to have the drums. You don't know how long it's going to last, but you know it's going to be good."