- Yasiel Puig's unpredictable and rocky journey with the Dodgers has reached the World Series. Puig has matured along the way, and the team learned to love its demonstrative, preternaturally talented outfielder.
It’s cute now, but Turner Ward hated it at first. He had started it, sort of—pretending he had something to tell Yasiel Puig, then pecking him on the cheek, to lighten the hitter’s sometimes stormy moods—but that was just a private joke. When Puig met his preseason goal of hitting 20 home runs, in August, he returned to the dugout, grabbed his hitting coach’s face and kissed him. The cameras caught the moment, and the ones that followed after each subsequent home run—28 in the regular season and another in October. “Turner Ward is very attractive,” he told reporters after the first one, through peals of laughter. Oh God, thought Ward the first few times it happened. Don’t do that!
“Baseball’s never had that,” Ward explains. “But then it’s like, I’m just gonna embrace it, ‘cause he’s showing his excitement. It’s a little bit embarrassing, but it’s good.” He laughs and adds, “He’s not punching me when things go bad!”
Embracing Puig has been an adventure for the Dodgers. His popular antics this postseason—tripling and then wagging his tongue at the dugout during the NLDS, puckering up for Ward, flipping his bat to celebrate even the weakest of singles, licking the pine tar off the lumber—have been funny because Puig, 26, is playing well and the Dodgers are winning. Heading into the World Series, his .514 on-base percentage was 17th all time in a single postseason for players with at least 30 plate appearances. He had reached base at least twice in every game. Los Angeles had played eight games and won seven; it had outscored opponents 48–19. The Dodgers jokingly stick their tongues out at each other in photos and after big hits. As the World Series begins, Puig is among the darlings of the postseason.
Fifteen months ago L.A. couldn’t be rid of him fast enough.
They spent $42 million over seven years to bring him to Los Angeles from Cienfuegos, Cuba by way of Mexico City, but the Dodgers did not really want to bring Puig up within a year of signing him. He forced their hand by hitting .517 in his first spring training, in 2013, and slugging .599 at Double A Chattanooga. Within his first 10 major league contests, Puig had ended a game by doubling off a runner with his astonishing arm in rightfield, hit a grand slam and taken a pitch to the face—and remained in the lineup. Legendary Los Angeles broadcaster Vin Scully nicknamed him the Wild Horse. At 22, he was suddenly a millionaire and a superstar, and very far from home.
Puig does not like to comment on the circumstances of his defection from Cuba in 2012, but he had reportedly tried at least four times before he finally made it to Mexico at 21 in the hands of a drug cartel. The smugglers allegedly held him captive for weeks before eventually working out a deal that allowed him to leave and play baseball.
“We sometimes make the mistake of thinking someone’s life started the day we met them,” says former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who signed Puig. “Imagine if he had grown up wealthy in Southern California and gone to a great high school, then played baseball at a Division I school in Los Angeles and been drafted in the first round, then a year later he’s with that Dodgers. That person would have a tough time adjusting. Imagine what it was like for him.”
Colletti’s office overlooked Dodger Stadium. He would occasionally look out his window in the offseason and see Puig out there with a group of local kids he had picked up somewhere, tossing a ball around. It was hard to tell who was having more fun.
But Puig did not always fit in with his teammates. His mistakes were myriad and usually benign, and often he did not see the problem with them. He was late to the ballpark. He overthrew the cutoff man and let a run score. He forgot how many outs there were. He tried to take second on a clear single and stifled a rally. He delayed the team bus. He underslept and overate. He was clocked driving 97 mph in a 50-mph zone and then, eight months later, 110 in a 70. (After the second incident he said he had hired a cousin to ferry him around.) At first his eccentricities were just marks of an exciting young player trying to find his way. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2013 and was an All-Star in ’14.
A portion of the population was upset by his flamboyant style. He pimped home runs (and, occasionally, flyouts he thought were home runs). He celebrated like a child on the field. “I like when Latin people play baseball,” he says now. “If you hit a home run, it’s time to do a little bit of a bat flip, because there’s so much emotion in the game. You don’t hit a home run every night. The pitcher can get you out five times in a game. So if you get a hit with a teammate on base and you’re winning, that’s something exciting that’s in your heart in the moment. It’s not to be disrespectful.”
But then he had an OPS of .758—barely above average—in 2015, and .740—below—in ’16. He announced he would cut down on the bat flips. Always a free swinger, he began making weak contact with pitches outside the zone and skying them. He had succeeded so long on sheer talent that he was unprepared for a league that had adjusted to him. He was the same Puig in the ways that frustrated coaches and teammates, but not in the ways that had made it worth it. Rumors swirled that he had fought with teammates and that they had requested he be traded. He missed a week with a hamstring injury last July, a frustrating time for the young man who just wanted to play. The Dodgers openly shopped him at the ’16 deadline, and when they received no reasonable offers, they demoted him to Triple A Oklahoma City.
He hated it at first. He spoke daily with Manny Mota, a Dodgers coach who is known jokingly as the Puig Whisperer. Mota reminded him to stay focused and make the changes the team wanted so he could come back.
“I like Los Angeles,” Puig says. “When people say, ‘You’re going to a different team,’ I have a lot on my mind. But then I go to Oklahoma City and I realize I come to the United States to play baseball and I focus. I don’t have any pressure on my mind. I just do the best I can.”
He hit .348 and was recalled when rosters expanded in September, but the team made an effort to keep his role small until he regained his footing. He hit eighth early this season, where he could enjoy reduced expectations.
Mota has encouraged him to work with the coaches. Puig had clashed at times with former manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire, but 2016 offered him a fresh start with manager Dave Roberts and his staff. Puig worked hard on his English, which is now good, so he could communicate with coaches and teammates more easily. Trust has always been deeply important to him. His most successful relationships with coaches have come when they make it clear to him that they are allies, not instructors. It took Puig years to feel fully comfortable with strength coach Brandon McDaniel; now they spend months together working out in the offseason. Mota says that Roberts won Puig’s heart when the manager made it clear that he wanted the player to be himself. The first time they met, Ward announced that he and Puig both needed to feel safe saying whatever needed to be said. Sometimes their discussions get heated, but very often they end with a kiss.
“He’s made me a better coach,” says Ward, who thinks of Puig as a family member. “You’ve gotta be patient with your kids. I pray for patience, but patience isn’t something you just get. The Lord doesn’t give you patience; he gives you opportunities to show it.”
They have focused on mechanics and consistency more than changing Puig’s approach—Ward says he does not want to take away what makes the Wild Horse run—but Puig has become much more selective at the plate. His 11.2% walk rate was a career high (league average this year was 8.5%), his 17.5% strikeout rate a career low (average was 21.6%). In the first two rounds of the playoffs, as the spotlight brightened and each pitch meant more, those rates improved to an incredible 17.1% and 8.6%, respectively. The Dodgers attribute much of the change to preparation. Once a player who, Ward jokes, did not always know who was pitching that night, Puig now requests extra information on opponents. “He puts in the work,” says McDaniel.
When Puig walked three times in NLCS Game 2, Ward celebrated like his pupil had hit a home run. (What were the chances of Puig’s doing that just a few years ago? “Basically zero,” says Colletti.) “I try to take my time at the plate,” Puig says. “I try to take good pitches.” It turns out Puig needed to learn patience too.
Puig goes by instinct. Not until after he has acted does he run a cost-benefit analysis—and when he realizes he has messed up, he is quick to apologize passionately. Of course, that doesn’t do him much good when he is watching a police officer write him a traffic ticket or Javy Báez swipe him with a tag at second base. But no one who paused to think about it could unleash the throws he does from rightfield, erasing unsuspecting baserunners, or turn a stand-up double into a dirt-stained triple. Puig is 100% Puig, all the time. The Dodgers will take the bad with the good, especially when the good is this good.
His teammates speak with excitement of the combination of focus and energy they have seen from him this season. Infielder Charlie Culberson wore a T-shirt bearing Puig’s likeness—tongue out, of course—during a workout the day before Game 1. Third baseman Justin Turner borrows clothes from his locker. And Puig is comfortable wandering throughout the clubhouse, striking up conversations in English and Spanish. He shows off new clothes. He watches Bad News Bears on TV and heckles the characters.
In early September, as the Dodgers went from contending for the best record in history to losing 16 of 17, Ward added an element to the daily pregame hitters' meeting: Everyone had to share the greatest moment of his baseball career to that point. It took them several days to get through the roster. Centerfielder Chris Taylor reminisced about misplaying a ball that cost his team a run in the College World Series only to hit a walk-off home run an inning later. Infielder Charlie Culberson described how it felt to make the team for good after shuttling back and forth from Triple A three times over the past two seasons. Puig refused to cite one. "Mine is coming," he said.
He is still the same old Puig sometimes. In the midst of a scorching start to the season—he had an OPS of 1.044 through the first two weeks—he went 0–4 against the Rockies. After one of those failures, he returned to the tunnel underneath the stadium and heaved his bat angrily at the wall, not an uncommon act for a frustrated player. But in Puig’s case he clipped a sprinkler, which flooded the area and triggered sirens. The Los Angeles Fire Department was dispatched to Dodger Stadium. As teammates alternately laughed and grumbled, Puig returned to the field for his next at bat.
He flipped off a group of hecklers in June, earning himself a one-game suspension. In late September, he ran into a game-ending out on the bases, claiming a hurt ankle had caused him to pull up. When he failed to get treatment for the injury, Roberts benched him for a day. The next afternoon Puig was late to the park. Instead of giving a series of non-answers to the media, Roberts told the truth.
“To be frank, there was a situation where he had to be on the field, and he was late,” Roberts said. “Where we’re at right now, it has to be very clear to everyone in the clubhouse that the only purpose is to prepare for the postseason, to finish this season strong, and to be about goals. No one player can be bigger than the team.”
These are mistakes the old Puig would have made. The difference this season is that he was contrite after swamping the stadium; he went 2–4 while he was feuding with the fans; and he hit .417 after the benching.
And that’s why the wagging tongue has caught on. It’s not because the moment was so GIF-able, or even because of Puig’s comments afterward. (“I see my teammates so excited on the bench, and I don't know,” he said. “I don't know why—I feel maybe ice cream in front of me or something like that.”) It’s because he was on third base.