Yasiel Puig: The Gifted

(Sports Illustrated)

Dodgers fans are getting their kicks riding the hot bat of No. 66.

The career of the Los Angeles Dodgers Yasiel Puig is off to a grand start. The rookie rightfielder has been a bright spot for the Dodgers in a season full of expectations, slowed by injuries.

It’s no surprise the Cuban sensation is tearing it up in Dodger Blue. A franchise which has opened its door to players who were not in the original blueprint of the great American pastime.

Yasiel Puig stepped into the month of June unknown and walked out an immortal. In 26 games, Puig batted .436, the second highest average for any player in a single month (Jimmie Foxx .462 in May of 1929) age 22 or younger in the live ball era.

Puig’s debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 3rd was strong, batting  2 for 4 — including a strong throw from rightfield  — doubling off a runner to end the game.

The following night against the San Diego Padres, Puig crushed a three-run home run to left centerfield to tie the contest at five. In his next at-bat, he took a 1-0 fastball over the rightfield wall for two more RBIs. He became the first Dodger ever to have a multi-homer game in one of his first two appearances. The first home run was off Padres pitcher Clayton Richard. In his fourth game, on June 6, 2013, he hit a grand slam off of Cory Gearrin of the Atlanta Braves. The following day, Puig yet hit another homer to become only the 2nd player in the modern era (Mike Jacobs in 2005) to hit four home runs in his first five games and his 10 RBI tied the Major League record for most RBI in the first five games of a career (with Danny Espinosa, (2010) and Jack Merson, (1951)). Puig was named the National League Player of the Week for the week of June 3-9.

And that was just the half of his warpath.

For the remainder of June, Puig possessed the hottest name and game in baseball. Dodger Stadium became his personal batting cage. Batting .436 with 5 doubles, 7 home runs and 16 RBI. Through 15 games, his 27 hits were second only to Irv Waldron and Bo Hart who each had 28, respectively. He is the only player in Major League history to record 34 hits and 7 home runs in his first 20 games. His 44 hits in the month of June were second only to Joe DiMaggio’s 48. Puig finished the month as National League Rookie of the Month as well as National League Player of the Month, marking the first time a player has won both awards their first month in the majors.

The Dodgers had great expectations heading into the season, but injuries and shoddy play dropped their record to 23-30 by the end of May. Since Puig’s debut, the team has rebounded with a 21-15 record, including a season-best 15-13 in June.

Stories of how Puig arrived in the Major Leagues are as fascinating as what we’ve witnessed on the field. Puig and others remain tight-lipped on the circumstances behind his arrival, and who was ultimately responsible. What we do know is baseball saved Puig’s life.

Attempt after attempt to defect from Cuba left Puig off the Cuban National Team. A welcome alternative, considering the fate of other defectors of less notoriety is still unknown.

His most deliberate attempt came in April of 2012, when a speedboat carrying him and several friends headed towards the U.S. was intercepted by Coast Guard cutters. Despite being impressed with Puig’s 6’3″ 245 lb. frame, he was returned to Cuba. A few months later, he finally made it to Mexico and in no time he signed a seven-year $42 million deal with the Dodgers  — which is looking like a worthy investment right now — arbitration with Puig is not until 2016.

On August 13, 2012, the Dodgers promoted Puig to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He played in 14 games with the Quakes and hit .327. After the Quakes season, he was scheduled to join the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, but a staph infection in his right elbow required surgery and sidelined him for several months. He opted to play winter ball in Puerto Rico after returning to keep his development on schedule.

Puig had a strong spring with the Dodgers in 2013, hitting .526 in Cactus League games and having some in the press speculate that he might break camp with the Dodgers. However, he was optioned to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class AA Southern League just prior to the end of spring training. He hit .313 with 8 homers and 37 RBI for the Lookouts in 40 games.

His opening month in the Majors garnered him an astounding 842,915 All-Star votes, not enough to be named among the starters and he was not selected among the reserves by San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy. However, he can still make the team if he wins the voting among five other National League players for the one remaining spot. Among the players in the voting are Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals, Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves, Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants and Puig’s teammate Adrian Gonzalez.

With sudden success comes detractors. Despite Puig’s assault on the league over 34 games, there has been debate as to whether he should be allowed to play in the All-Star Game at all. One player who thinks not is Philadelphia Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon — who points to players — who have played from the beginning of the season. Papelbon went on to say Puig making the roster would be a “joke” and an “injustice” to veteran players.

Papelbon continued: “The guy’s got a month, I don’t even think he’s got a month in the big leagues, and just comparing him to this and that, and saying he’s going to make the all-star team, that’s a joke to me. It’s just really what happens in baseball when… to me it really does an injustice to the veteran players that have been in the game for eight, nine, ten plus years, and it kind of does them an injustice because they’ve worked so hard to stay there.”

Puig is being criticized for not acknowledging former Arizona Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez during a recent batting practice. Gonzalez allegedly greeted Puig and talked of his family roots in Cuba. The one-sided conversation took place in spanish.

Puig, according to sources never lifted his head. Prompting Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire to verbally scold Puig.

I’m sure Gonzalez isn’t the first person to be ignored by someone of the opposition, player or coach. Maybe, just maybe Puig getting drilled in the face by Arizona’s Ian Kennedy last month still stings just a little. Does Mark McGwire realize these two teams were in a brawl last month (McGwire was active in the fracas)?

Way to stick up for your player McGwire. Worry less about kissing someone’s butt and be thankful you’re back in the game you nearly ruined.

The news isn’t all bad for the young man — whose swing bears a very strong resemblance to one Manny Ramirez. Puig is reportedly being courted by Jay-Z to join Roc Nation Sports.

Add Puig to the likes or Jackie Robinson, Roy Campenella, Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park. Players with little to no major league experience, who were game-changers for a franchise constantly willing to change the face of the game.

Puig’s journey to the big leagues may or may not hit the big screen, but one thing is certain, we are getting a first-run exclusive of Tinsletown’s newest and brightest star.


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