Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Can Kershaw and Puig thrive together long term?
By Mark Saxon
The last time Clayton Kershaw made news, he was being presented with the Branch Rickey Award, given to baseball's most caring humanitarian, in the same week he was accepting his second Cy Young. The award recognized Kershaw's work with Zambian orphans, many of whom are dealing with HIV and AIDS, as well as with underprivileged children in Los Angeles and Dallas.
The last time Yasiel Puig made news, it was after he was led off in handcuffs following his second arrest in eight months for reckless driving. He was driving his expensive sedan 110 mph, according to Florida police.
Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw are quite different in the way each approaches the game.
In no way is this juxtaposition to suggest that Kershaw is a superior human being to his teammate.
Very few of us know how Puig interacts with people away from the public eye. We don't even know how Kershaw interacts with people away from the public eye. We don't know how their teammates feel about them privately. We can observe only how quietly and intensely Kershaw seems to prepare during the season and how loudly and frenetically Puig seems to live.
Again, these are only glimpses, not character studies. The laziest, most offensive assumption is to prescribe their personalities to cultural differences, as if no Texan has ever chosen a fast, loud lifestyle or no Cuban has ever been quietly focused after arriving in the United States.
Kershaw and Puig seem to have personalities that would fall at opposite ends of some mythical psychological spectrum. There is always some degree of tension within major league clubhouses based on personality differences, a tacit struggle to set the team culture. Some players prefer a serious atmosphere, others prefer joviality. Some like to play cards, others like to read the Bible. Sometimes, the popular players are the former rather than the latter. Rarely is language the only barrier.
These kinds of differences have been crackling through baseball teams for as long as the game has been played and, occasionally, they even make up a team's identity. We all love a good band of misfits that somehow prevails despite -- or, maybe even, fueled by -- in-house tension.
What I find myself wondering these days is whether the injection of Puig's massive personality into the Dodgers' clubhouse last season, which certainly altered the chemistry in the room, might in some way influence whether Kershaw wants to commit to spending his working hours in that environment as long as his career lasts. Puig's contract runs through 2018. Will it have, maybe even subtly, an impact on whether Kershaw signs a contract extension or explores free agency next November?
The only detailed comments I've seen from Kershaw about Puig come from ESPNLA colleague Ramona Shelburne's in-depth profile of Puig late last season. Here is an excerpt:
"However he goes about his business off the field, or before the game, doesn't really matter as long as you perform. For me, I can't not do stuff and perform well. He can show up and play the game. That's him."
Kershaw's words hang in the air.
This isn't about playing baseball according to rules and expectations anymore. It isn't about ruffling feathers or paying respect.
This is about talent. About honoring it by doing everything in your power to set it free.
Puig did that by leaving Cuba. But that was not the end of his journey. There is more road for him to travel.
"His talent is one of a kind, as far as I've seen," Kershaw said. "I hope it lasts."
That last line concludes the story and, even now, seems to hang in the air. If you combine it with the most recent comments from Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, you start to wonder if there isn't some internal conflict preventing Kershaw from committing to the Dodgers. He has admitted he's intrigued by the possibility of reaching free agency. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, Kershaw turned down what amounted to a lifetime contract in the neighborhood of $300 million last season. What more, you could argue, could he want, aside perhaps from a more comfortable environment based on his own set of values?
"Hopefully, he likes L.A. enough and the Dodgers enough and his situation here enough to want to be a part of it," Colletti said.