Sunday, June 9, 2013
Yasiel Puig: This young, this raw, this good
By Arash Markazi
LOS ANGELES – As Clayton Kershaw was walking around the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse Sunday morning, he picked up a copy of the daily clippings -- a packet of the day’s stories about the team.
As he flipped the pages, he laughed and said, “These things get thicker and thicker. How many Puig stories can they write?”
The language barrier has been about the only obstacle Yasiel Puig has faced during his first week in the major leagues.
It would be easy to stop writing about Yasiel Puig … if he stopped re-writing the Dodgers’ record book every time he stepped onto the field.
Even during the Dodgers’ lackluster 8-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, he found a way to offer a silver lining, going 3-for-5 and making another pinpoint, rocket throw from the outfield in the third inning that even had the Dodgers’ longtime scorekeeper smiling and shaking his head.
Puig became the first Dodger to have five multihit games in his first seven games and finished his first week in the majors with a .464 batting average (13-for-28), four home runs and 10 RBIs.
It’s a storybook start to the career of the 22-year-old Cuban, who defected from his home country less than a year ago and signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers.
Puig’s story, however, is still hard to tell for anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish. Puig doesn’t speak English and the Dodgers, a team with a $220 million payroll, have yet to assign a full-time, professional translator with Puig.
The duties have recently fallen to Alex Torres, the Dodgers assistant clubhouse manager, who is doing an admirable job in between collecting uniforms and organizing equipment. But there’s a lot being lost in translation.
Puig plays and looks every bit like a superstar but is still somewhat hesitant to sound like one. He doesn’t look reporters asking him questions in the eye, instead choosing to stare, smile, frown and shake his head at Torres, who is being put in the thankless role of being the intermediary between Puig and the media horde trying to tell his story.
The language barrier has seemingly been the only obstacle Puig has encountered in his first week with the Dodgers. “Puigmania” is already at a fever pitch at games; fans stand every time he comes to bat, and his No. 66 jersey is quickly becoming the hottest-selling item at the team store.
“It’s gone well,” Puig said through Torres. “I never thought this would happen.”
Watching Puig play now and seeing where the Dodgers are in the standings (27-35 and 7 1/2 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the NL West), it’s natural to wonder why it took so long for him to get called up.
It’s an easy question to ask in hindsight, but there were serious maturity issues with Puig in the minors, and there still might be once he gets his first taste of adversity in the bigs.
The Dodgers were also paying their outfielders Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier a combined $45 million this season. It was going to be a lot easier for the Dodgers to bring Puig up without controversy and pressure if one of those players got hurt. As it was in this injury-riddled season for the Dodgers, two of those players (Kemp and Crawford) are now sidelined.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly seems pleased with the timing of the call-up.
“You’ve seen a lot of young guys come up and struggle, and it ends up kicking them back a year and a half,” Mattingly said. “It hurts their development. I think that’s the main thing. Certain guys handle it and certain guys don’t. There’s a lot more that don’t than do.
“Some of things we saw in spring training were more he needs playing time-type mistakes, and you really don’t want him to make them here.”
As good as Puig has been, Mattingly believes he needed to be brought along slowly and likely wouldn’t be on the tear he’s on if he began the season with the team two months ago.
“You don’t give babies steak,” Mattingly said. “When they’re babies, you’re not feeding them steak; they’re drinking formula. The mistakes that they make you want them to make them in an area that’s not filled with 60,000 people and on ‘SportsCenter’ every night.”
Puig’s locker is positioned in the corner of the Dodgers clubhouse between Luis Cruz and Adrian Gonzalez, who have helped his transition into the majors as well as moderate the language barrier with his non-Spanish speaking teammates. They saw the talent he had in spring training, but even his teammates are amazed at what he’s been able to accomplish in his first week.
“He’s unbelievable,” Cruz said. “He’s got a lot of talent and a lot of tools. He’s got the attitude that he’s hungry to be someone. He plays hard, and he’s a good guy.”
Mattingly was at a loss when trying to find a comparison to Puig, not just as a player but also in the impact he has made since being called up from the minors. He thought back to Manny Ramirez’s trade to the Dodgers and David Cone’s trade to the New York Yankees, but he couldn’t come up with a player this young and this raw playing this well so soon.
“You don’t see this very often. Not like this,” Mattingly said. “He brings energy, and you can feel it. It’s hard to deny that. He definitely brings an energy. I don’t think we can put everything on him, but it’s been pretty exciting to watch.”
Mattingly knows the Dodgers will need more than just Puig playing well if this season is going to be anything more than just an injury-riddled disappointment by the time October rolls around. That’s why the normally affable Dodgers manager looked somewhat exasperated after hearing his umpteenth Puig question of the week.
“We could talk about Puig everyday if we want,” Mattingly said. “We could cut him up and talk about everything he does wrong and everything he does right, but I’m getting tired of it already.”