THE CURIOUS CASE OF YASIEL PUIG
If he’d never stepped foot on a major league baseball field, the story alone of Yasiel Puig’s journey to the USA would be Netflix worthy.
Puig was a Cuban national team star that had MLB scouts salivating at the prospect of landing a gifted, athletic player who filled a uniform like a Rottweiler in human form.
The road to the dream was paved with hurdles, setbacks and opportunists. Puig had several O-fer attempts at defecting, but, he never gave up on making his dream become a reality.
Puig must now draw on that same determination to keep his head above water. On the trade block, the Dodgers failed to make a deal for the right fielder before the clock struck midnight. Now Puig, battling injuries and a .260 average at the plate this season, is heading to the minor leagues.
The league is filled with guys who possess a lot less god-given talent, but their position on MLB rosters are secure. They’re team guys, clubhouse glue. Puig remains a curious case. He’s a rock star without hardware, living off that debut hit of a season when he batted .319, chased fly balls like fences were invisible and ran the bases like Secretariat with blinders on. He followed that rookie year with continued promise, .296 average, 37 doubles, an All-Star selection. That was 2014. Two seasons later, he’s trade bait.
Perhaps it was too much too soon for Puig. The 7yr/$42 million contract he signed in 2012, which included a $12 million signing bonus, put a target on his back. Instant fame. That he’d showcase his talent in Hollywood only stoked the flames of what could be.
Managers who inherit a phenom like to know he’s coachable. Don Mattingly was once in Puig’s shoes, wearing the famed Yankees pinstripe, playing under the bright lights in a city that can swallow careers like a black hole. He went on to have a stellar career, keeping it all in stride. There was no flash, just production.
So as skipper of the Dodgers, he recognized Puig’s talent, but couldn’t reign in what seemed like a me first personality. After five years at the helm, Mattingly was let go.
A veteran squad embraces professionalism. Some things are expected without the need for verbal cues. A few of the Dodgers have admitted they could have done a better job of reaching out and communicating with Puig in the early stages. In return, they expected him to meet them halfway by maturing and accepting criticism better.
The relationship has had its fair share of tests. Former teammate Matt Kemp and Puig once exchanged heated words in the dugout. Infielder Justin Turner and Puig had a spring training altercation. Standout ace Zack Greinke was reportedly not on the Puig bandwagon, going so far as to throw a piece of Puig’s luggage off the team bus onto Michigan Avenue during a Chicago road trip in 2014. The two had to be separated. Greinke left for greener pastures in Arizona and perhaps a piece of mind.
There was optimism that new manager Dave Roberts, a player’s coach and popular in the dugout during his own playing days, could help Puig become the player the organization desperately wanted him to be. The problem now is the Dodgers have other young, impressionable potential stars in Joc Pederson and Corey Seager to groom. Two guys who look like they’ll be carded at bars for years to come. There can be no illusion of favoritism any longer. You either bleed Dodger Blue collectively, or get out of town.
There had to be reason for concern when the Bleacher Report ran comments from a former teammate that said of Puig: “He is the worst person I’ve ever seen in this game. Ever.”
Puig’s demotion could be a strong message to get his act together, but one thing is clear. The Dodgers brass has come to grips with the notion that addition by subtraction is a viable action in moving forward.