- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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THE WORLD UNFOLDS from a few simple words. They're written in the form of inscriptions on two pieces of memorabilia in the trophy room of Yasiel Puig's Miami home. They are, appropriately if not intentionally, displayed on opposite sides of the room. Chasms open between syllables. Sides are taken, armies gather.
One of them chooses the most soaring, majestic word in our vocabulary. It is direct, forceful and uncomplicated, unsullied by outside influence. Scrawled on the leather of an NBA basketball, it celebrates the propulsive nature of Puig's talent, raw and wild, a gale force that seems to possess a humanity all its own.
-- Kobe Bryant
The other takes a different approach. Its words are written on the back of America's most recognizable and stately uniform -- the game's holy robe -- the ink traveling across pinstripes to form seven words that seem to descend from above. Clouds roll in, dark and heavy. Across the shoulders of a No. 6 Yankees jersey, it reads:
Be a credit to our great game
-- Joe Torre
It is inspiration as admonition, arriving from baseball's avuncular beat cop as a rhetorical arm-crossing, a reminder that actions will be governed and judged by an omniscient and exacting standard. Within those words, shadow overlaps shadow, stretching back more than a century, each one watching like a ghost in the night. Each ballplayer, no matter where he comes from or what he can do, is part of a continuum, nothing more than a small thread within the game's elaborate fabric.
The two inscriptions are born of the same thought: There is something different, something special, at work here. This 23-year-old Dodgers outfielder operates at a frequency everyone can hear. Anticipation builds, apathy dies. The eye is drawn. Embedded within the two messages is the acknowledgment of these qualities, of Puig's potentially transformative role in the game, his outsize talent coupled with the naked and fierce joy with which he displays it.
Yes, they come from the same place.
And yet an entire world resides in the space between them.
HE EMERGED WHOLE from the sea. That's another part of this: mystery. There are no photos of him as a child on display in his home. There is no real backstory, just a handful of vague, disconnected -- and sometimes uncorroborated -- anecdotes that combine to create the effect of 50 pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle.
What do we know? Everyone has a creation story, a concise tale oft-told that provides a synopsis for everything we see on a court or a field. Adversity is overcome, slights magically transform into eternal motivation, tragedies provide inspiration. In Puig's case -- and in the case of most Cuban players -- we know only what he and those around him are willing to divulge. Circumspection is a necessary cultural trait.
What we know: Puig grew up in an educated but poor household in Cienfuegos, about 150 miles southeast of Havana, with his parents and a younger sister. His father, Omar, was an engineer in a sugarcane factory. When Yasiel began playing organized baseball at 9, Omar gathered wood to give to a friend, who made Yasiel's first bats.
After sarcastically saying he first knew he was going to make a living playing baseball "when I was born," Puig tells a story. He was playing for a local team of 15- and 16-year-olds -- he would go on to earn the league's Triple Crown -- when he fell off his bicycle on the morning of a game. He points to a spot just above his elbow, to a dollar-bill-size scar, and says, "There was a lot of blood. Everybody told me not to play, but I didn't listen and went 2-for-3. That's when I knew I could make it."
He earned a spot on the Cuban national B-team as an 18-year-old before being suspended in July 2011 when he and another player attempted to defect while in Rotterdam for an international tournament. Puig's teammate, pitcher Gerardo Concepcion, escaped and later signed a $6 million contract with the Cubs. Puig was caught and then banned from playing for the Cuban national team or the Cienfuegos Camaroneros, his team in the Cuban Serie Nacional.
In Cuba, ballparks are more like revival tents -- drums beating throughout the game, fans singing, players doing whatever possible to put their signature on the contest. Reporters don't talk to players. There are no clubhouses -- players dress in buses or a hallway at the park -- so there is nothing resembling American clubhouse culture. "People spend all day worrying about how they're going to get enough food to feed their families," says Jaime Torres, Puig's agent. "When they get to the ballpark, they want the players to entertain them."
Puig was raised in a baseball culture in which Victor Mesa, the tempestuous manager of the Cuban national team, is upheld as a national treasure. This paragon of Cuban baseball, this man responsible for molding the best players in a baseball-obsessed land, once homered in a Serie Nacional game and finished his trot by running backward from third to home.
"Baseball in Cuba is more aggressive," says Ramon Delgado, a cousin of Puig's who came to the U.S. three years ago. "If you're on first and the batter bunts, you have to get to third. You just keep going."
Is that what we should see when we watch Puig? That being thrown out is preferable to failing to try? And can we extend that credo to his very presence in the United States? Without baseball for more than a year after his 2011 suspension, he focused his determination on getting off the island. "I was very desperate," Puig says. "When all you want to do is play baseball and they take that away from you, it becomes very desperate." He made numerous -- the consensus lands at eight -- failed attempts before he was successful. A relative says Puig tried to leave from the same port so many times, a man working there told him, "Go try somewhere else. You're going to get me in trouble."
Myth? Apocrypha? In April 2012, in a story first reported by Yahoo Sports, Puig was picked from a speedboat by the U.S. Coast Guard between Cuba and Haiti and spent two weeks on the deck of the cutter Vigilant with about a dozen other would-be defectors, surviving on a small amount of food with nothing but a tarp overhead as a shield from the sun. He made friends with the Coast Guard crew members on the boat, signing autographs for them as they sent him back to Cuba.
When it is inarticulately suggested that this is a cool story, Puig says tersely, "Not cool. Not fun at all."
It is the only spoken comment he will offer on the topic of defection. His expressions, however, talk for him. He widens his eyes and raises his eyebrows to indicate assent. He shoots daggers of mock outrage as a form of disagreement. He uses his body too, throwing back his head and tossing up his arms -- here we go again -- at the mention of each failed defection.
He will not discuss, in any form, the trip that ended with him successfully walking onto Mexican soil in June 2012. The defection process is a sordid, Byzantine business, and the price of freedom is often exorbitant. A suit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami in July 2013 charges that Puig and his mother, Maritza Valdes Gonzalez, conspired with the Cuban government to imprison suspected human traffickers in Cuba in exchange for Puig's reinstatement to the national team and Serie Nacional. Puig was never reinstated and soon after fled the country. Speaking for Puig, his Miami attorney, Sean Santini, says, "The allegations [in the suit] are without merit, both factually and legally." Puig's accuser is Corbacho Daudinot, a Cuban citizen who claims he was falsely imprisoned and tortured in Cuba based on information provided by Puig and his mother and is seeking $12 million. The suit was dismissed upon its initial filing before being amended and resubmitted in January. A similar suit was brought against Aroldis Chapman two years ago by the same law firm.
After landing in Mexico, Puig became a Dodger in circuitous fashion. The team had shown interest in a Cuban outfielder named Jorge Soler, who signed with the Cubs, prompting Torres to call Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and say, "I have someone who might be better." A couple of batting practice sessions later -- Puig did not run, throw or field for the three Dodgers scouts in attendance -- Los Angeles signed an unpolished, out-of-shape 21-year-old who hadn't played for almost a year to a seven-year, $42 million contract.
Baseball's cognoscenti scoffed. An international scouting director told Baseball America at the time, "I don't know what's going on in Dodger Land."
THIS PAST OCTOBER, roughly 36 hours after the Dodgers had lost a disappointing playoff series to the Cardinals, Colletti made plans to sit down with Puig for what amounted to a season-ending exit interview. There was plenty to discuss. Puig ended the season with a .319 batting average, 19 homers and a .925 OPS. He later finished second to fellow Cuban Jose Fernandez in the voting for National League rookie of the year. He burst onto the scene -- "I'm going to be careful how I use that phrase from now on," Colletti says -- with 44 hits in his first month, a debut second only to Joe DiMaggio's. The Dodgers were nine games under .500 before he arrived, 31 over afterward. But Puig's influence exceeded mere statistical excellence. He energized and polarized the game.
Traditionalists fear he represents a rupture of the game's pastoral ligature. His immaturity and perceived selfishness chafed teammates, prompting Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe to counsel Puig on the intricacies of clubhouse culture. He routinely overthrew cutoff men, ran the bases like a brakeless big rig, never heeded the warning call of the warning track. He shook the game's soul, celebrating every big moment, exasperating manager Don Mattingly. He clashed with the media and says now: "They publish what they want. Sometimes I see them describe me as immature, but when I see little kids looking up to me, it makes it all better because that's what I care about." His desire to practically inhale every aspect of his new life included late nights and a taste for the social scene. He hung out at the Playboy Mansion with Snoop Dogg, and before he played in his new hometown for the first time on Aug. 19, he partied in South Beach with LeBron James. At times he showed an adolescent's relationship to appointments and time of day. One day after being spotted with LeBron on South Beach, Puig arrived at the ballpark 35 minutes late and was benched. After he entered as a late-inning replacement, the Dodgers experienced a moment that typifies the exasperation/exhilaration of Yasiel Puig: He homered in the eighth to give the Dodgers a 5-4 lead in a 6-4 win.
"I knew about patience before this," Colletti says, "but I know a lot more about it now."
Vin Scully nicknamed Puig Wild Horse for his style of play, and it proved versatile for all uses. Puig provided a concise summary of his defensive lapses with two errors and a bevy of mistakes in Game 6 of the NLCS: His off-balance, looping throw toward the plate in the third, for instance, allowed Carlos Beltran to reach second on a single that scored Matt Carpenter easily; later in the same four-run inning, he overthrew the plate on a two-run hit by Shane Robinson. Everywhere you looked, at any point in the season, there was Puig, flouting every written and many unwritten rules in the game's fungible code. He celebrated homers -- and, famously, a triple off Adam Wainwright in Game 3 of the NLCS -- with bat flips and Mardi Gras home run trots. Expressiveness and naïveté or cockiness and incorrigibility? "I don't think he always knows what to make of it," Colletti says. "There are times when he's probably a little mixed on what he's asking forgiveness for."
There are also those who believe Puig's ebullience should be embraced by a sport that is both nearly 30 percent Latin and struggling to connect with a younger, more diverse generation, one more interested in spontaneity than antiquated self-policing.
By the time the season ended, Colletti and the Dodgers had seen and heard just about everything. Puig's first "assimilation coach" with the Dodgers was Tim Bravo, a high school teacher and coach from Las Cruces, N.M. Bravo met Puig his first day in the States and lived with him during much of Puig's 63-game stretch in the minors and first two months with the Dodgers. "He's just a kid who does everything hard," Bravo says. "He runs hard, he eats hard and -- god forbid -- he drives hard. People ask me, 'What do you mean he eats hard?' I say, 'You have to see it.' If I had put my hand in there, it would have been bitten off."
In the minors, Puig ate the same pregame meal nearly every day: Denny's steak and eggs, usually accompanied by two orders of hash browns and two milk shakes. Whenever Bravo tried to get Puig to cut back -- one order of hash browns, maybe? -- Puig would say, "Teacher, you don't understand: We don't get this."
In August 2012, during Puig's first month in the minors, Bravo's 6-year-old son, Zechariah, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of cancer commonly found in children. Puig offered to relocate Bravo and his family to Miami and pay for their living expenses and treatment for Zechariah, now cancer-free.
"I have enough food to feed his whole family and enough room for them," Puig says. "I told him I would buy him a house. That man took care of me when his son was very sick, and I would do anything to repay him."
Colletti knew all of this -- the good, the bad and the countless gradations that lie between -- as he thought about his postseason speech to Puig.
Colletti had watched Puig play and live for four months as if still hearing the beating of the drums. He knew he was dealing with an intelligent young man -- Bravo called him "my GPS" when the two were navigating LA -- whose innocence faded as his star rose. In that postseason interview, he also understood perhaps the most important point: He was about to say goodbye -- temporarily, of course -- to someone who had replaced the kind of oppression few in this country can imagine with the kind of freedom fewer could ever achieve.
"We expect him to smooth his game out," Colletti says. "But to muffle his soul? I want no part of that. People want to see him happy."
Colletti had his speech prepared. When they sat down, he told Puig, "I want you to have the best of lives. You can provide joy for so many people. Be wise and careful in your decision-making and get counsel not only for today but tomorrow."
Puig nodded his head the way he knew he should. But a thick moment passed before he told Colletti, "Where I come from, there is no tomorrow. We embrace today."
THE HOUSE IS classic Florida. Big, pillars and palms and lots of white stucco. There are two English bulldogs out back near the huge fake-rock waterfall slide, a $300,000 white Rolls in the garage and a sleek white Mercedes under the portico in the circular drive out front.
Puig is inside, slouched in a fancy white upholstered chair in the middle of an enormous front room, wearing a white T-shirt with Dodgers shorts and Dodgers shower shoes and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes at half past noon on an 80-degree November Sunday. His biceps flare with each eye rub, and several times he pats his not-inconsequential stomach and vows to start working out tomorrow. He is quick and bright, but he's answering questions with so little enthusiasm that his sister, Yaima, chastises him for "using the same adjective over and over." Yasiel is speaking Spanish through an interpreter, but his English is evolving quickly. He doesn't need the questions translated before he answers, and he will occasionally answer in English if there is no fear of being misconstrued. He approaches the interview process, like anything that forces him to be both stationary and at the mercy of others, as one step from outright torture.
The issue of on-field behavior strikes a nerve. "I will make changes to cater to the critics," he says, "but I have to keep my style and flair. And if they still get offended" -- with this he rolls his eyes and shakes his head in mock surrender -- "then I can only say, 'Hallelujah!'"
His mother and father, who defected with Yaima early in 2013, are here, as are Delgado and Ariel Nunez, a good friend from Los Angeles who helped Puig and Delgado drive from coast to coast because Jacob and Princess -- the bulldogs -- are banned from most air travel because of their breed's respiratory issues. (The crew made one stop: at Bravo's New Mexico home, where they were fed steak and eggs and watched one of Puig's favorite shows, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)
It's hard to imagine how different this life is from the one he left behind. As Omar walks into the room, I ask, "How big was your house in Cuba?"
Yasiel's eyes widen, and he throws his arms over his head like a kid describing the biggest thing in the world. "Mas grande," he says, deadpan. "Mucho mas." Omar is a short, friendly man with a big belly and a look of perpetual disbelief. He looks around the room as if seeing it for the first time. "The house in Cuba could fit in this room," he says. "Two bedrooms. One bathroom."
"And only one PlayStation," Yasiel says.
Omar sighs -- it's an exaggerated father's sigh -- and points to his FIFA-loving son with rolled eyes. "In Cuba," he says, "12 people have to share one PlayStation."
A China box is out back, on the pool deck, slowly cooking an entire pig for a party that night. A cable guy is working on the enormous television on the far wall, scuttling about trying to connect the enormous television to the enormous speakers in a way that will turn the enormous room into a miniature Coachella. After more than an hour, he hits a button and salsa music -- throbbing and insistent -- practically humps the room.
As Puig sits there, the music a physical presence, the totality of the experience Dopplers into focus: How many layers of society did this young man leap to arrive here, in this room with the 25-foot ceilings and the ornate furniture and the double doors leading to the pool?
When he came to the United States in July 2012 after signing his seven-year, $42 million contract, his exposure to major league baseball could be counted in innings. (He says he wouldn't have watched games if he could have -- "It's boring," he says.) His home didn't have Internet access. He had never seen a debit card or ordered a pizza or stepped foot in a car dealership. As he stood in a spring training clubhouse for the first time last February, he looked at the drink cooler and marveled at the colorful selection. He told Bravo, "Teacher, mucho colores aqui the Gatorade."
"It wasn't always easy," Bravo says. "Sometimes I was saying no, no, no while he was saying yes, yes, yes. But ask yourself what you would do if you came from where he came from and got handed a $42 million gold card."
In the week after Christmas, Puig was arrested for reckless driving -- a second such arrest in eight months -- after being pulled over going 110 on I-75 North on his way to see his newborn son in Orlando. (The charges were dropped in late January.) Dashcam video shows him sitting handcuffed in a police cruiser while his mother, Maritza, wails from the backseat of the Mercedes after the officer tells her Yasiel is going to jail. Who knows what images those words summon in the mind of a woman who has spent all but one year of her life in Cuba.
In the cruiser, Yasiel can be heard talking to himself:
Why do you have to drive so fast?
Will you ever learn?
It is a sad, poignant, slightly desperate scene. He tells the officer he will never drive again if he lets him go. He asks him, "as a citizen," to take pity on him.
A few days later, I receive a call from Nunez, Puig's friend and now full-time driver. He says Yasiel wants to apologize to everybody -- the Dodgers, baseball fans, kids like Zechariah. In the background, I can hear Puig, in Spanish, quietly telling Nunez what to say.
"He's really embarrassed," Nunez says. "He's not taking this lightly at all. He knows he screwed up and wants everyone to know this is a wake-up call for him. This made him realize he's not invincible."
QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED: Can someone be both epic and a credit to our great game? And how do you narrow the space in between?
On July 4, at Coors Field in Denver, Puig told Bravo to meet him in the dugout after the game. Players on both teams were hustling out to beat the post-fireworks traffic, but Puig wanted Bravo to sit with him and watch the show.
He'd been in the big leagues a little more than a month and in the country a little more than a year, and fame had already poured forth like an open hydrant. He told Bravo, "I've never seen this before," so they sat quietly and watched the sky light up, the rockets rising invisibly to flash brilliantly and disappear.
Puig stood and asked Bravo to take a photograph of him with the fireworks exploding in the background. "I want it to tell everybody I'm here," Puig said. "I'm really here."
The sky lit up, the people cheered and a young man watched with a mixture of wonder and awe. He stood there for a while, himself a rocket of sorts, framed by the grandest celebration his new country had to offer.
In ESPN The Magazine's Cuba Issue, Tim Keown writes that Yasiel Puig has been called exceptional, subversive, enchanting and petulant. But on the eve of his second season, the Dodgers phenom is aiming for something more: transcendent.