Commentary

Yasiel Puig feels free on diamond

Cuban defector thinks baseball should be entertaining for athletes and fans

Updated: June 3, 2014, 2:39 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Dodgers sensation Yasiel Puig splashed down in the big leagues on June 3 one year ago. And for most of that time -- starting with the debate about whether he should've been invited to the All-Star Game just a few weeks into his thunderclap debut -- Puig has easily been the most polarizing and talked-about figure in the game. But now he's really gone and done it.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsPuig doesn't hold back and often dives to make a great snag.

Anyone still inclined to charitably write off the 23-year-old Cuban defector's flamboyant play to just youthful exuberance, or the idea "he must think that he's still playing somewhere else" -- the backhanded slap veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran leveled at Puig during last season's National League Championship Series -- now has Puig's own words to contend with.

Or, more precisely, Puig's own admission that most of what he does on the field isn't colored by naïveté or chance.

"It's my style. It's the way I've played baseball for a long time. I don't really worry about the other team or what other players think about me, other than our team," Puig told MLB.com the other day, when asked how he would answer his critics. "As far as what other people think, I try to play the game hard and I try to play the game happy. I want to have a good time when I'm playing.

"This is a game of entertainment. I don't play it to offend people. But I do have a good time playing the game of baseball."

Entertainment ... style ... have a good time?

It's a good thing that Puig is up to confronting the debate he has triggered. Because the questions he makes major league baseball confront about itself are fascinating.

What if more baseball players didn't scorn the 'E' word -- entertainment -- and treated the game as a vehicle for personal expression, same as Puig, same as NBA and NFL players do in their sports? How different would baseball look or feel? How much more fun or lively would it be? And why would there be anything "wrong" or heretical about that?

What if it made baseball better? Freer? More f-f-f-f ... fun?

There. Someone said it.

It's worth thinking about when it's a philosophy coming from Puig, one of the more arresting all-around players the game has seen in years. Puig is so powerfully built and astonishingly talented, he makes you think this must have been what watching Mickey Mantle was like during his ascent. The blistering speed. The tape-measure home runs. The defensive gems and cannon arm. The hit-for-average stroke and crazy OPS. (One difference? At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Puig has four inches and 40 pounds on Mantle, who was listed at 5-11, 195 pounds.)

Puig also has this going for him: He's figured out how to counter his opponents' strategy by learning to lay off bad pitches.

"They pitched him like he's going to chase and he's quit chasing," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said about halfway into Puig's streak of reaching base by either a walk, hit, or hit by pitch, which stood at an MLB-best 33 games entering Monday.

"He's made the adjustment. You see it with guys with that kind of talent. It's just a matter of putting the mind to it. Yasiel's smart. He just has to stay under control."

Puig is less than two years removed from Cuba, one of the last closed-border countries on Earth.

Even Puig will admit the brain cramps he occasionally has on the basepaths or out in the field make him fair game for criticism. He has quarreled at times with coaches, other players and the media. He's been benched for things like a lack of hustle, or for tardiness.

[+] EnlargePuig
Brendon Thorne/Getty ImagesPuig celebrates reaching second base. He's been known to take a victory twirl around a base after arriving safe.

But Puig just keeps on flipping his bat and raising his arms to celebrate a hit. He keeps diving for balls and running into walls -- then saying his flair is something he refuses to apologize for.

It's about time baseball had someone like this. Someone you can't take your eyes off because -- good or bad -- you never know what he'll do next.

So pay no attention to that high-pitched sound in the background. Puig doesn't. It's just the traditionalists grinding their teeth.

Baseball is in the midst of a generational and values shift, whether it likes it or not. Veterans such as White Sox slugger Adam Dunn, Brewers first baseman Mark Reynolds and Orioles manager Buck Showalter all acknowledged as much in Tim Kurkjian's piece last week about the waxing and waning of some of the unwritten rules of the game, including forgoing showmanship. Puig is just the most flagrant practitioner.

As Reynolds said: "It's the culture now. It's a young man's game. These kids grow up seeing this stuff on TV, and they want to emulate it. Baseball is a slow game; people want more action. The fans like it; the players don't like it. But more of it is going on now than ever."

And Puig -- more than most guys who get tweaked -- has a chance to be a transformative figure.

He's the sort of wondrous athlete that baseball often complains it doesn't attract anymore, at least not in America. Watching him streak across the outfield and lay out for a fly ball like he did here on May 22 to rob the Mets' Wilmer Flores of an extra-base hit was jaw-dropping. Even his mistakes are awe-inducing: Seeing him flip his bat and admire a fly ball he mistakenly thought was out of the park -- then, with a look of slight panic, take off on a full sprint, and still leg out a stand-up triple in last year's NLCS against St. Louis -- was downright shocking. How'd he do that?

But here's the other thing: When you quit refracting how Puig plays through the way baseball has traditionally seen itself here in America, and instead filter it through the prism of Puig's life in Cuba, you have a better chance of truly understanding him. His adamancy about celebrating how he's made it or defending how he plays becomes eminently more reasonable.

He tried to defect from Castro's Cuba so many times before he finally succeeded, he has said he actually lost count after six or seven attempts. On one try, he was caught in Rotterdam, where the Cuban national team was playing. On another try, he and several others on a raft were intercepted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Haiti and taken back home. Yet Puig was driven to keep trying, though every attempt invited risk, jail time -- even death. After Cuban officials banned him from playing in 2011-12, he tried to escape the island four times in 2012 alone, once after asking a Santeria priest to forecast what might be a fortuitous time.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuPuig has a knack for making difficult plays look easy.

It's also been well-documented that when he finally did get out, it was with the help of a Mexican drug cartel that tried to auction him off to other handlers, demanded huge chunks of his salary and allegedly threatened him.

And yet the harrowing details didn't surface until after he'd already signed his six-year, $42 million contract with L.A. and been in the big leagues for months, with him excelling on the field and sometimes seeming moody off it.

So think about it. If you're a 23-year-old who's been through all of that, perhaps it's no wonder you'd push back against folks who say tone it down, treat playing baseball like a high-stakes job -- not a sanctuary or an act of unfettered happiness or freedom.

Puig has noted that in Cuba, many players show emotion and stadiums rock with the sounds of fans playing drums and dancing by their seats.

"The way I play is not meant to annoy the opposing pitcher or the opposing players; it's just my style of play, and I'm going to keep playing that way. I hope they don't get bothered by that," Puig told The New York Times during a recent visit to play the Mets. "Ever since I was a little boy I enjoyed playing that way. That's how I get motivated. When I'm energized, good things happen for me. I hate being passive because it doesn't help me at all."

Mattingly says Puig has cut a lot of his questionable antics while improving his game on numerous levels. And the Dodgers were transformed since his June call-up last year.

The Dodgers are 100-66 since his arrival -- the second-best record in baseball during that span.

Mattingly already calls Puig the best right fielder in the game. Some people think he's the best player in baseball, period. Not Mike Trout or Jose Bautista or Miguel Cabrera.

Puig's stats for May were incredible: He led the National League in batting average (.398), on-base percentage (.492), slugging percentage (.731), OPS (1.223), home runs (eight, tied with Giancarlo Stanton) and runs batted in (25). He's off to the sort of start that could leave him in position to win baseball's Triple Crown.

So fans can boo him. Traditionalists can cluck about his ambition to remain entertaining. But Mattingly is right. Puig is smart.

If you're Yasiel Puig, why would you change much of anything?

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.