The notion that every ballpark is a refuge, a place of escapism and cocooned chill, is officially a tall tale now. Every Major League Baseball stadium will have metal detectors at the gates by next season, ensuring at least some comfort that human traffickers who’ve threatened Yasiel Puig’s life won’t attempt murder when he’s standing in right field or in a batter’s box.
But then, when these dirtballs claim they’re owed sizable amounts for helping Puig defect from Cuba two years ago, isn’t anything possible at Dodger Stadium or a friendly venue near you?
We have been captivated, mystified, angered, exasperated and mostly fascinated by this molten-lava specimen, who has become the talk of baseball because of his physical gifts and unique ability to dominate headlines with problematic behavior. Today, we’re only nervous for him, very nervous. Turns out Puig’s journey to stardom in Los Angeles wasn’t remotely as smooth as tip-toeing away from Fidel Castro, ducking inside some speedboat and arriving safely in Cancun, where Dodgers scouting boss Logan White saw him swing a bat for 15 minutes, called the home office and had Guggenheim Baseball approve a $42 million deal on the spot. Rather, Puig was taken to Mexico by a human trafficking ring, operated by an escaped felony suspect, that held him captive on an island off the Mexican coast. That was until a Miami air-conditioning repairman, aided by a small-time crook and a Mexican drug cartel, swept in and whisked Puig to Mexico’s eastern coast — while demanding 20 percent of his $12-million signing bonus from the Dodgers, along with earnings from all future contracts. Through it all, Puig risked a frightening odyssey in which he survived sharks and crocodiles in treacherous waters and swamps and weeks inside a ramshackle motel.
Seems his smugglers grew antsy when Puig didn’t come up with some of his Dodgers money immediately. That is when they threatened his life, according to reports this week by Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN.com. Since then, Puig is said to have paid the 20 percent for his signing bonus. But more paydays are coming. And Puig’s whereabouts are very public, almost every day or night of every week from now into October. Consider how these people have threatened him in the past.
“The man pushed me up against my car and pressed a pistol to my liver and told me to tell Puig if he didn’t pay them, that they would kill him,” Yunior Despaigne, a Cuban boxer who fled on the same journey with Puig, said in court documents.
Before now, we thought of Puig’s escape from Cuba as a sort of action-figure romp. Even he has said it should be a movie someday. But while Hollywood must be doubly interested after the latest news, with many a producer cheering him in the stands at Chavez Ravine, let’s hope the script doesn’t turn dark. During his time in the majors, which started only last June, the Dodgers have shadowed him 24/7 with a 51-year-old schoolteacher named Tim Bravo, who lives with Puig downtown, cooks for Puig in his condo and tries to keep the partying Puig on the straight-and-narrow in L.A. But Bravo isn’t going to be enough now, obviously, and while the Dodgers and MLB officials aren’t commenting, let’s assume Puig’s constant companions now include fully armed security people. The chief of the L.A. police department, Charlie Beck, has confirmed that he and his department are aware and watchful.
Under an enormous strain, Puig has been remarkable in his offensive production. Just the same, he has been unpredictably moody, and his body language at home plate and in the field often sinks into a profound depression, causing manager Don Mattingly to pull him from the lineup. As If this franchise doesn’t have enough to think about — a record $235 million payroll, an incensed fan base that largely can’t watch games on TV after Guggenheim gave exclusive rights to Time Warner Cable for $8 billion, an injury to star pitcher Clayton Kershaw that may be more serious than they’re letting on, continuing tensions in the ballpark after recent violent episodes — now you have the smugglers who might want Yasiel Puig’s head. Thursday, In a Spanish-language interview with the Associated Press, Puig said he is focused.
“I’m only thinking about working on the things that are going to make me a better ballplayer,” Puig said.
In a statement released by his agent, Adam Katz, Puig said: “I’m represented on this matter, and I’m only focused on being a productive teammate and helping the Dodgers win games.’’
But if he continues to be hounded by sleazy people who think he owes them debts, it’s a folly to think he can be single-minded. “If you care about Yasiel, you worry about it,” Mattingly said Thursday. “There’s some serious stuff that he has to deal with. I think you have to worry about it if you care about him as a person. You worry about what he’s going through.
“If it was news to anyone above me, I don’t know that, but it was definitely news to me. I think it was news to anybody in our clubhouse. … If it’s true, it’s a wild story.’’
About to become wilder, I’m afraid.