It’s important to baseball that Yasiel Puig, so young and so exhilarating, not go Bieber or Lohan on us. That is Hollywood-speak for losing oneself in the cesspool between sudden fame and uncontrollable immaturity, and at the moment, our favorite Cuban defector is a candidate to either: (1) become a regular mock-me target on TMZ; (2) go psycho on an umpire and land a long suspension; (3) engage in a dugout fight with a teammate disgusted with his fundamental blunders and jerky attitude; (4) be accused of something by a woman he met in an L.A. club; or (5) grow tired of it all and return to his home island, where he’ll work as a farm laborer for $19 a month unless Castro hangs him by his testicles first.
In a way, you want to have some mercy on the kid, knowing he has been in the big leagues all of 11 weeks, knowing barely a year has passed since he escaped to freedom while hiding under a tarp in a speedboat. Imagine, in a span of days, dashing away from a tyrant who knew that Puig had tried to flee once before, doing nothing more for three Dodgers scouts in a 15-minute Mexican tryout than hit in a batting cage, doing enough in those 15 minutes to merit an immediate $42 million contract, then showing up the next year to become a prime conversation piece not only in the world’s entertainment epicenter — there he is at the Playboy Mansion with Chris Brown and Snoop — but throughout sports and America.
Could you handle that swirl at 22? One minute, you’re facing jail for a failed defection attempt; the next, Samuel L. Jackson is fawning all over you in the posh clubhouse of a $228-million championship contender. Sure, the head swells.
Puig is the kind of phenom who could settle snugly in our consciousness for two decades. He is that gifted and electric, an artist who should be given his own TV highlight channel so we don’t have to watch the rest of the ballgame. But to achieve everything he can in the sport, Puig must heed the dark lessons of those who’ve flamed out. When Alex Rodriguez was young, he was projected as an all-time great and baseball ambassador. Look at him now, a sad and sorry case, at war with the world.
I’m not saying Puig can’t enjoy himself as a celebrity. What he cannot do is disrespect the game and the team that gave him his wonderful opportunity and ample wealth. What he cannot do is use performance-enhancing drugs. We want to believe in him, embrace him, fall in love with his career.
But he’s scaring us.
And as the days pass and his baseball legend grow, the prospect of Puig growing up anytime soon looks bleak.
Consider a road trip to Miami as a slice of what’s right and wrong with Puig. The positive development: He came off the bench on a Tuesday night in Marlins Park and hit a tiebreaking home run, pushing the Dodgers to their latest victory in one of baseball’s hottest two-month stretches ever. All the rest were negatives. He arrived Sunday night and headed not to bed but to LIV Nightclub on South Beach, where Puig and teammates Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford joined LeBron James for a 1 a.m. booze session that — according to TMZ — involved a lot of Cirot, Moet, Patron, Belvedere and champagne. When he arrived later that day at the ballpark, Puig wasn’t thrilled to hear of a press conference scheduled for him by the Dodgers.
“(Bleep) the media!” he shouted, an unmistakable sentiment despite the team’s efforts to downplay it.
When asked by the Miami Herald in a Spanish-speaking interview if that was the first time he’d met James, Puig shot back, “Did you watch the ESPYs? Don’t you have a TV in your house?” If it’s not quite Reese Witherspoon asking a police officer, “Do you know my name?” — then saying, “You’re about to find out who I am … you’re about to be on national news” — it was Puig’s way of unnecessarily chiding a reporter.
That night, against young Marlins star (and fellow Cuban defector) Jose Fernandez, Puig went 0 for 5 and senselessly unloaded on home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck after a three-pitch strikeout. Manager Don Mattingly was forced to apologize for Puig as his teammates retrained him. This as teammates complain about Puig’s self-serving habits on the field: reckless baserunning that has led to 12 outs, missing cutoff men with his rocket arm while senselessly trying to pad an outfield assists total, and showing too much emotion — from anger to laughter — while his teammates are trying to remain focused during games. For all his astonishing numbers so early in his career — .352 batting average, 12 homers, 28 RBIs, seven stolen bases, six assists — the blunders are piling up and reminding us that he’s still a raw bundle of dynamite.
“There are mistakes you don’t want to see, but you take the good with the bad and there’s a lot of good,” Mattingly told reporters. “He’s a ball of energy. And he’s a good kid, too. He goes 0 for 4 and we win — he’s as happy as anybody out there. You see him high-fiving and cheering. Those are all good traits. There are things he has to improve. But the guy loves to win. He loves playing and it’s great to see that. We’re going to keep teaching. We knew what we were getting into when we called him up.”
When pressed further after Puig showed up late to the ballpark and was fined — “More than a dollar and less than $10,000,” the manager said — Mattingly insisted his rookie gives him no headaches. “He’s not a problem,” he told the media. “Just a lot of stuff happens. He’s not a guy I think about that much and worry about.”
Donnie Baseball, you’re lying. With Puig fighting his first prolonged slump of late, Mattingly and the Dodgers’ front office are concerned about his hostility. In one sense, they realize outbursts are part of his vigorous, high-energy style. “He’s always antsy. He’s always all over the place,” Mattingly said. “That motor doesn’t ever turn off, I don’t think, until he sleeps … If he sleeps.” In a bigger sense, his angst could sabotage the Dodgers in bigger ways. They don’t mind so much if he upsets an opponent, recalling how Puig enraged the Arizona Diamondbacks with various stunts — including a reported snubbing of ex-Diamondback Luis Gonzalez, the one-time World Series hero — during a July trip to Phoenix. Responding to their claims that he was acting “arrogant” and “stupid,” Puig told the media, “That’s my game. I’m going to play my baseball the way I play … I learned to play that way as a kid. I always like to play aggressive and always try to put on a show for the fans. They [the fans] come to spend their time and lose sleep watching us play. It is one, to me, of the more emotional things in baseball.”
Aside from Puig, the most important member of the Dodgers’ monstrous, star-oozing payroll is Tim Bravo. At 51, he’s the schoolteacher paid by the team to live with Puig in downtown L.A. and keep him out of trouble. But if Puig chooses to party and wears down, Bravo won’t be able to help.
You can make the case that Yasiel Puig is the National League MVP given his undeniable impact on the previously underwhelming Dodgers. I’d vote for him. Yet there’s also a feeling the franchise is tolerating more than it should from him because he has been a season-turning, future-changing revelation.
He needs help, guidance, a tutorial in professionalism. But when will he start listening? And when he does, will too much damage already have been done?