TUESDAY MARCH 28, 2017
 
Blog EGOS & ICONS
PRECOCIOUS YASIEL PUIG
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He’s a rookie sensation on the hottest team in baseball, a sculpted slugger who’s worn out opposing pitching in a Major League career that still isn’t two months old.

But there’s something else that sets Yasiel Puig apart, and it’s the way he’s already started wearing out his welcome, too.

An escapee from the Cuban leagues who signed a seven-year, $42 million dollar deal with the Dodgers last summer, Puig showed off every aspect, both good and bad, of his all-encompassing range of talents during LA’s three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays this week.

In the opener, he left mouths agape with a full speed, crash-into-the-fence catch on a line drive to deep centre field, then dropped jaws even further by throwing the ball well beyond his target at first base and almost into the stands as he tried to double up a runner. The following evening he reached base four times and scored in back-to-back innings as the Dodgers mounted a massive comeback to win Game 2.

The finale had it all. Early on he paused at the plate to admire what he thought was a homer but ended up as a double off the left field fence. In the ninth, he tossed his bat about 40 feet away and danced halfway up the base line on a ball three pitch, only to be beckoned back when the ump called a strike. He reached base one pitch later, then sped all the way around to score the tying run on a mangled play by Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus.

“This was a little bit more of what we've been seeing, from hitting a ball and thinking it’s out and not running to throwing his bat on what looked like a strike right down the middle,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said afterward in a blunt assessment of Puig’s latest performance. “That's what you get, that's what it's been. It's been just craziness.”

Crazy doesn’t begin to cut it. There’s been no end of insanity when it comes to Puig, who was named National League Player of the Week in his first week in the majors and went on to win player of the month honours, too. He homered twice in just his big league second game and inspired epic praise from legendary broadcaster Vin Scully with an opposite field grand slam in his fourth, by which time his jersey had already broken a Dodgers record for merchandising sales.

But among his peers, notably those who wear that very same jersey, there is also a noticeable unrest and unease towards Puig, an open acknowledgement that he’d better not act too big, because he’s bound to be humbled eventually.

To be fair, the Hollywood hype machine has only accelerated Puig’s overexposure all the more, while the debate over his All-Star candidacy hardly helped (although for my money, he should have been there).  

But the truth is that the precocious 22-year-old has done plenty to build his reputation as a preening object of disdain. With his bat flips, stare-downs and a host of other affectations, Puig’s game is all about "an unbridled swagger...the kind that enrages fans and distracts opponents," as Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke put it.

Mattingly and the Dodgers defended their teammate after a pair of spats with division rival Arizona led to Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy saying Puig “plays with a lot of arrogance” and catcher Miguel Montero labeling his style as “stupid.”

“If he's my teammate, I'm probably trying to help him not be hated,” Montero said. “That's where he's going right now, creating a bad reputation throughout the league. It's like you just hate the guy and you really want to crush him.”

Listen to the Dodgers talk about their talented young teammate, and you get the sense that’s starting to happen, that an effort is underway to deflate his swelled head. In comparing Puig to his former Montreal Expos teammate Vladimir Guerrerro, for instance, current Dodgers pitcher Ted Lilly noted this week that both men “can both reach just about any pitch” but also pointed out one difference, saying “the thing with Vladdy was he played hard every day.”

Puig may never tone down his act entirely, but he’ll eventually learn to understand the grind that’s required, the constant struggle to maintain an output that justifies some swagger. But he would be wise to heed the advice of his teammates, and embrace the bigger picture painted some calmer words from his rival Montero about baseball, humility and respect.

“I mean, the game doesn’t need you, man,” Montero said with a smile. “We need the game.”

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