Yasiel Puig just never lets up
Young star's exuberant style fuels Dodgers and sometimes pushes boundaries
He comes out of nowhere.
One moment, Yasiel Puig hits a soft ground ball up the middle that looks for all the world like a scratch single, the next he's careening headfirst into second base.
The TV camera from behind home plate misses the instant, as he's rounding first base, when he notices Mets shortstop Omar Quintanilla has deflected the ball just enough to slow it down, and he decides to go for two. Instead, we see a very surprised Juan Lagares, the Mets' center fielder, scrambling to make a play on the ball and a triumphant Puig standing on second base and pointing his index fingers to the sky.
The Dodgers and Mets are tied 4-4 in the 12th inning and Puig suddenly represents the winning run.
"When he does something like that," Dodgers first-base coach Davey Lopes said, "that's outstanding. That's something you can't teach. He did that all on his own. Nine out of 10 guys wouldn't try that."
The Dodgers have one rule for Puig on the basepaths: The light is always green unless they tell him otherwise. Puig didn't run through a stop sign against the Mets. There wasn't time enough for Lopes to put one up.
"And the 'Wild Horse' is in position to win it," Dodgers announcer Vin Scully exclaimed. A couple of pitches later, Adrian Gonzalez drove him home.
"I really believe," Lopes said. "He thinks he can do anything."
The Dodgers are 67-33 since Puig's call-up on June 3. His energy, swagger and star power have been exactly what the Dodgers needed, and what baseball was hungry for.
But, of course, he can't do everything, and along with the thrilling hustle doubles and laser throws from deep right field to third base have come some overzealous baserunning gaffes and reckless overthrows, including the misplay of two more balls on Wednesday night in Arizona.
The motor inside the kid never turns off. For good and bad.
He is 22 years old with 63 career minor league games and 95 major league games under his belt. Two years ago, he was in Cuba and out of baseball completely after being suspended for trying to defect. One year ago, he was in Class A Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.), learning that you don't go up into the stands and say hello to a friend during the middle of the game. To say he's still learning is an understatement.
The Dodgers have hired private security for him, assigned him personal translators and asked former Latin American players like Manny Mota and Eddie Oropesa to mentor him.
He's not an orchid, though. He's a rock star, oozing with charisma on and off the field. These days, part-owner Magic Johnson isn't the face of the new-look Dodgers -- Puig is. And baseball should be thanking the heavens for Puig -- an exuberant five-tool player with a flair for the dramatic, a guy capable of winning back so many of the fans who've tuned the game out in the aftermath of the steroids era. Instead, it's having trouble embracing him. There are grumblings about his lack of fundamentals, bristling at his style and swagger.
"Yeah, Puig might come off as cocky to some people," Dodgers teammate Matt Kemp said. "But why not think you're one of the best players in the league? Every great player has a swag to their game. That's what makes them great. If he's one of your teammates, you like the way he plays."
It's not so much that he doesn't know all the unwritten rules that govern the game. It's that he succeeds in spite of them.
The purist is left with two questions: Does he want to learn them? Does he need to?
The Dodgers have but one question: Can they trust him come playoff time?
"You don't want to break his spirit," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I love the way he plays. But you don't want it to end up costing us later."
Three years ago, Kemp heard a lot of the same criticisms that Puig hears now. He made too many little mistakes, his effort seemed inconsistent, his mood affected his play, his social life put him in the eye of the tabloids. Mostly, though, his sin was not living up to his enormous potential.
"When I first got to the big leagues, I made a lot of the same mistakes he's making," Kemp said. "But you learn from them. As long as he learns from them and doesn't keep repeating them over and over, he's going to be one of the best players in the game for a long time."
Kemp has been injured for so much of this season, you almost forget he's there sometimes. That, too, is the power of Puig. His energy and production have made up for what Kemp is capable of giving the team when he's healthy. Kemp holds no grudges, though. Watching Puig on a daily basis is one of the things that keeps him going through all the injuries and frustration.
"I love the way he plays the game," Kemp said. "That's the only way to play the game. It's a kid's game. You should be having fun."
I try to ask a question, but Kemp's fired up. He wants this to be heard, in this clubhouse and around baseball. If he wasn't hurt, he'd be sticking up for Puig every day.
"He might come off as whatever people say he is, like he doesn't play the game the right way. But he goes out there and plays hard every day," Kemp said.
"You can't hate on these young kids. There's always going to be those guys who've been in the game a long time and when they see these young kids coming up, they kind of get a little jealous. But I love it. I love watching guys like Mike [Trout] and Bryce [Harper] and Puig."
Lopes is one of the people who helped Kemp realize his potential in 2011, when he finished second in the National League MVP voting. Like Puig, Kemp had unquestioned talent. It just had to be unlocked, and nurtured in the right way.
"We're not trying to tame [Puig], we've got to refine him," Lopes said. "There's nothing wrong with the way he plays. He has to recognize that these guys are as good as he is. You can get away with stuff in A-ball that you can't get away with here.
"But some guys play with a flair. You don't change that. We in baseball sometimes do that. We try to make everyone fundamentally correct. But some guys can do things uncharacteristically and get the job done. I got no problem with that."
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Like most Cuban defectors, Puig is reluctant to talk about how he left home. Bits and pieces have come out. Rumors have swirled, but details are not well known. There could be consequences for Puig, his friends and family members who still live in Cuba (his brother is still in college there), or for his parents and sister, whom Puig helped to emigrate to the United States about six months ago.
Even if he wanted to tell his story, someone -- likely his agent, Jaime Torres -- would stop him.
"If you want to ask me about how he got here," Torres said, "it will be a very short conversation."
I tell Torres I'm more interested in what would have happened if Puig hadn't come here.
"Well he'd been suspended -- whether it be for trying to defect or thinking about trying to defect, I'm not sure -- and once you're suspended, you have no other choice but to try and find a way off the island," Torres said.
If Puig hadn't left, Torres explained, he never would have been able to play baseball on anything more than a sandlot again. Forget playing for the Cuban national team. Forget even playing for $17 a month for his hometown team, the Elephantes of Cienfuegos.
"I would have been fixing computers," Puig said.
It hurts Torres to even think of such a reality.
"I can't tell you how many Puigs we have lost," Torres said. "And when I say we, I mean baseball fans. I'm an attorney and I represent players, but first of all I'm a baseball fan. And the list of players that we never had the opportunity see play at the big league level is sad. I'm talking about players that would have been stars, Hall of Famers, and we never got to see them. Omar Linares, Antonio Pacheco, Luis Casanova, I could go on and on."
As we spoke during a Dodgers game in Miami against the Marlins, a group of Cuban baseball legends stood nearby. They had been granted permission to visit the U.S. in order to take part in an exhibition game commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the Cuban league's most storied franchises -- Industriales. Rey Anglada was a second baseman for Industriales for 10 years. In his prime, he was one of the best players in Cuba. Torres said it's not out of the question to compare him to Yankees superstar second baseman Robinson Cano. But at the age of 29, Anglada was wrongfully accused in a gambling scandal and kicked out of baseball. Twenty years later he was cleared of all wrongdoing and later became the manager of Industriales.
"It was tough, but life goes on," Anglada said.
Anglada said he had an opportunity to leave Cuba once, too. The St. Louis Cardinals would have offered him a contract. But he says he never seriously considered it. Cuba is his home. His family is too important to him.
Those who do leave do so with a hole in their hearts. Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman said he's been able to bring his parents over to America, but his 4-year-old daughter remains in Cuba. Puig left without ever knowing if he'd see his parents or siblings again.
There's a difference between those who stay and those who go. I'm not sure anyone can explain it, though. It's too big of a decision to judge. You either decide to leave everything and everyone behind and see where your talent takes you, or you don't. Once you leave, though, you have to trust in that talent. The decision cannot be reversed. Failure is not an option. Out of necessity, that talent becomes everything to you. Your future, your identity, your life. It is all you have left.
And then one day, if you're Yasiel Puig, after that talent has earned you a $42 million contract and unparalleled success in the major leagues, people start telling you to ignore what that talent makes you think you can do and ask you to trust them and their approach to the game?
Mattingly gets it.
"I don't think any of us can really walk in his shoes," Mattingly said. "He came from a communist country. I don't think any of us really knows what that's like and what goes on there. How he grew up or what happened to him."
Mattingly gets it, and yet he's still got a baseball team to manage. A team that has just won the NL West and is aiming for the franchise's first World Series title since 1988.
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What if, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Puig ignores the cutoff man, tries to throw out a guy he has very little chance of getting at third base, and the ball skips away and into the stands, allowing the runner to score? What if that's the difference in the game, the series?
"I honestly think he thinks he can do anything," Mattingly said. "That's good. You don't want guys to sell their dreams short. I want them to over-dream. I'd rather see a guy try and hit .350 and end up at .320 than a guy who only tries to hit .300 when he should be hitting .340."
What Mattingly has to figure out is whether Puig simply doesn't know the nuances of the big league game -- if it's an experience issue -- or whether he has been taught something, but chooses to ignore it because he thinks he can do it better his way.
If the Dodgers were in last place, Puig could make mistakes and learn where his limits are on his own time and it wouldn't cost the team anything. But the Dodgers don't have that luxury this season. Puig just has to trust what they're telling him. And on some occasions -- usually because he just keeps pushing, and always because he loves to play with style and do the dramatic thing -- he hasn't listened.
"It ticks a lot of guys off," said one Dodgers insider.
Mattingly played in an organization where nothing was private. George Steinbrenner's Yankees fed headlines like no others. The Boss could be as fickle as he was fiery. He thrived on controversy and conflict. It was enough to make Mattingly want to manage in exactly the opposite way. He asks his players only to prepare themselves every day and play hard. Conflict and controversy should never leave the clubhouse doors.
"I talk to him like I would talk to my kids," Mattingly said of his message to Puig during a recent 30-minute closed-door meeting between the two.
Puig had gone into second base standing up instead of sliding to break up a double play in the second inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs, made a couple of one-handed casual "snatch" catches, and finally walked, instead of running, to his position in right field. Mattingly, ostensibly frustrated with Puig's approach, replaced him with reserve outfielder Skip Schumaker in the fifth inning.
"The meeting was good," Puig said afterward. "He explained what every ballplayer has to do on the field, not only me but every ballplayer."
Puig was calm as he spoke to the media afterward. Contrite, even. It was important for him to hear he was being treated the same as any other player. It was more important that Mattingly had treated him with respect even as he was punishing him.
It likely wouldn't have been that way in Cuba. There would have been no explanation given.
"I try to be honest with him and what I think. But I have to represent the whole ballclub with some decisions that I make," Mattingly said.
His voice never cracked, but the emotion was evident. It hurt him to yank Puig from the game, but he had to send a message, and not only to Puig. The rest of the team needed to see that he would discipline the young star.
He earned respect by doing it, both in the clubhouse and around baseball, but Mattingly took no bows. This wasn't a victory for the game and its traditions. In his mind, it was a failure to connect.
"I go back to the John Wooden stuff that I've read," Mattingly said, on a quieter day back in Miami. "'You haven't taught until they've learned. So if we haven't gotten through yet, we have to continue to find a different way to get through. You can't turn your back on him. You just have to continue to try."
JOY AND DESIRE
Puig is learning. In spring training, he famously hit .526 but didn't walk once in 58 plate appearances. In his first 20 games in the big leagues, he struck out 17 times and walked just three times. In July, he walked eight times. In August, he walked 14 times.
"I've seen the progression," Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire said. "And it's a credit to him being smart and wanting to get better. We're still going to see mistakes. But they're aggressive mistakes. I'd rather see that than passive mistakes."
McGwire lights up when you ask about Puig. Don't ask him how, since McGwire's Spanish isn't great and Puig's English is a work in progress, but from the minute they started working together in spring training, they had a connection.
"He could be my son," McGwire said. "It's a joy to work with somebody that wants to get better."
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW CAN HURT YOU
The Miami Marlins' new ballpark sits at the corner of Bobby Maduro Drive and Felo Ramirez Drive in Little Havana. In the year and a half since it opened, the stadium has become both an ode and an insult to the baseball fans in South Florida who agreed to publicly finance it. An insult, because the Marlins' notoriously penurious owner, Jeffrey Loria, gutted his high-priced payroll halfway through last season. An ode, because touches like naming the streets outside the ballpark after legendary Cuban baseball men is a show of respect to the large Cuban American community in Miami, for whom baseball is a passion.
Maduro was the owner of the Havana Sugar Kings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds from 1954 to 1960. Ramirez, who was born in Bayamo, Cuba, is the Marlins' 90-year-old Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster who has been calling baseball games broadcast in South Florida and all over the Caribbean and Latin America since 1949.
Any Cuban American living in Miami would instantly recognize either of their names, the same way a Dodgers fan would know who Vin Scully is.
Yasiel Puig had never heard of them.
"When [Ramirez] first started calling games, my father wasn't even thinking about making me," Puig said.
As for Marlins special assistant coach Tony Perez, the former Cincinnati Reds star who was born in Cuba and began his career with the Sugar Kings in 1960 before leaving for good in 1961, just as Fidel Castro was closing off Cuba to the rest of the world?
Puig didn't know him either.
How could he? Major league baseball games haven't been broadcast into Cuba since the 1960s. There are illegal ways to keep up with what's going on in America, and even listen to a game. But a baseball player of Puig's talent and exposure couldn't risk them.
"I remember listening to Felo Ramirez growing up in Puerto Rico," said Torres, Puig's Miami-based agent. "But for a player like him, a member of the Cuban national team, if he's caught listening to a major league baseball game, right off the bat he will be suspected of wanting to defect. In Cuba, it's actually a crime to think that you're going to defect. Players have been reprimanded and suspended without any actual act of defecting, just because they had a conversation with a player who defected."
Chapman, the All-Star closer for the Cincinnati Reds, explains it in even starker terms.
"I looked up to [former Yankees and White Sox pitcher] Jose Contreras as a kid," Chapman said. "That was the player I loved, until the point that he left. And then I didn't know anything about him until I got here, to the United States."
Contreras defected in 2002. Chapman defected in 2009. For seven years, Chapman had no idea what became of his favorite player and didn't know that he had gone on to win the World Series with the White Sox in 2005.
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Earlier this season, Puig was criticized for failing to acknowledge Luis Gonzalez, a Cuban American who led the Arizona Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series title. Gonzalez reportedly approached Puig behind the batting cage to introduce himself, but came away feeling snubbed when Puig didn't light up and respond to him. The next day, Gonzalez went on a Phoenix-area radio station and expressed frustration with the young star, beginning a broad discussion about Puig's supposed lack of respect for the game and its history that carried over into columns and questions around baseball.
But again, Puig had no idea who Gonzalez was until McGwire told him. He was 10 years old and living in the coastal town of Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 2001 when Gonzalez was driving in the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series.
When the flak came, he was surprised and confused. It was a painful lesson, and perhaps an unfair one. But he's adjusting.
The day I asked him about Tony Perez and Felo Ramirez, he said that he'd actually met Perez a couple of days earlier, on the first night of the four-game series, but had gone over again to take a picture with him when Ramirez came down onto the field.
"The press didn't know I had already said 'Hi' to him and talked for a good amount of time," Puig explained. "So I went to salute him and say 'Hi' to him again, just so the press wouldn't go ahead and post that I didn't do that, like they did with Luis Gonzalez."
EYES WIDE OPEN
Beyond how he plays or to whom he pays tribute is the most important question of all, for both Puig and the Dodgers: Will he fulfill his promise?
What if he falls short, what if he's not able to harness his gifts and refine his game, what if some of the questionable habits catch up with him, what if the pressure gets to him and he flames out?
It happens more than people like to admit. Baseball history is filled with stories of audacious talents who never put it all together.
Puig already seems to understand the stakes.
I ask if all the attention and pressure wears on him sometimes. He nods his head.
"I'm really tired," he says. "I haven't slept."
The late-night postings on his Twitter and Instagram accounts confirm that. But that's not what Puig means.
"At night when I'm sleeping in my house, it's God on my right eye," he says, pulling his right eye open. "And the devil on my left eye.
"My eyes are wide open. I never close them. 'Cause I don't want anyone to come take me. If I close both eyes, the devil might come looking for me with a hatchet. And I don't want that happening. No, no, no."
He's afraid of missing out. Of resting. Of what might happen to him if he closes his eyes and stops, even for a minute.
He's been this way all his life, he says. The engine inside him has always roared.
"I was playing baseball in my mother's womb," he says. "Always playing baseball. For 18 years I was catcher, but I have far too much energy to be sitting back there so I asked to change to the outfield."
I ask if he might change again someday. He nods.
"I strived for this, I hoped for it," he says. "I have to adapt to this now."
TRUE BLUE DRIVE
The Dodgers have another player blessed with the kind of talent Puig has. As talented as Kemp and Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez are, he might have only one true peer.
If Puig was made to be a hitter, Clayton Kershaw was born to be a pitcher.
As men they could not be more different. Kershaw is obsessed with routine. Puig has none. Kershaw has little use for the spotlight, Puig thrives off it.
They are the two poles of the Dodgers' clubhouse. And yet they are not at odds with each other. Game always respects game.
Kershaw was younger than Puig is now when he made his major league debut. He has done so much, and been here so long, you forget he's still just 25.
What drives him?
"I talk to some of the older guys who are on their last few years," Kershaw says. "And you never want to look back and say, 'What if?'"
"His talent is unmatched," Kershaw says. "He's one of a kind. I think it's a combination of a lot of things, why he is the way he is, and I feel like they're working for him to a certain extent.
"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 says.
"I hope it lasts."
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