Before the Dodgers became a supernova of baseball talent and wins–so many wins–Los Angeles’ premier team was considered an overpaid collection of would-be stars, prospects blooming but not there yet, and the unimpeachable Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers were also home to Yasiel Puig, baseball’s supposed “problem child,” one who was sent to AAA just last season ostensibly to rework his swing, but really to rework his attitude. That attitude has always haunted Puig, and threatened to become the main defining thing about the man; a truly insane collection of talent and production, the 26-year-old Cuban got on the wrong side of the baseball world because…he flipped his bat too often? He celebrated singles? He had the audacity to be happy playing a game?
As we’ve discussed around these parts, baseball has a problem with anyone who is deigned to play baseball in anything but exactly the “right way.” Puig is very much that; he does not adhere to the traditional sense of “respect your opponents, respect the game,” but rather, he subscribes to the idea that baseball is something that should be enjoyed, and why not? MLB players get millions of dollars to hit a ball around, and to entertain fans with otherwordly displays of athleticism like, say, every time Puig throws someone out from right field with that bazooka of a right arm.
That’s supposedly not acceptable when a player isn’t backing it up on the field, something that admittedly was very true last season. Puig put up his worst campaign in the majors last year (.263/.323/.416), culminating with that aforementioned demotion to the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City. Not unrelated, the level of articles bemoaning Puig’s attitude were at their obnoxious peak in the dog days of summer, when writers jump on the smallest bit of controversy. Part of that was a weird pseudo-feud with the Dodgers management, who might have wanted to trade him at the deadline last summer, but ultimate did not. The other part was that, simply, people love to shit on Puig, going so far as to pressure him into ceasing to flip his bat after home runs, which is the most emblematic argument for the “right way” that writers can think of (see also: the hubbub around THAT Jose Bautista flip).
It got so bad that in a recent ESPN feature, Puig spoke out about having to tone down his game to match some nebulous standard of behavior in MLB: “You just have to do your job and let people have fun, which is what I was doing in 2013. They’ve wanted to change so many things about me that I feel so off. I don’t feel like the player I was in 2013.” You’ll notice that Puig is not the only Latino in that feature bemoaning the rigid traditions of MLB; you need only look at the reaction from the US team towards Puerto Rico’s Team Rubio at the World Baseball Classic to know that this isn’t a one-off thing with Puig, but a systemic charge against anything that can be considered flashy in a sport that’s dying a slow death for its inability to adapt to a younger audience.
Fast forward to the dog days of this summer, though, and it’s all roses at the Chavez Ravine. By all accounts, Puig is still the same entertaining-as-hell right fielder he’s always been–watch the Mets get pissed because he flipped his bat after a home run back in June–but because the Dodgers are within arm’s reach of the all-time wins record, it’s all good for those who follow LA’s blue team. Following Puig’s walk-off on Wednesday–one that he celebrated in a very Puig way, by holding his bat in the air after hitting the ball into the gap–the dialog around the player and the team has exactly 0 to do with how his antics might distract from the quest for history. Instead, we motor on to the beat of the Dodger drum, 85 wins down and 31 from immortality.
After his game-winning double on Wednesday, Puig was interviewed by Spectrum SportsNet LA, and his message to Dodgers fans was simple: “We’ll see you in the World Series.” Given how LA’s season has gone, that’s almost as a safe bet as its NBA equivalent (“the Warriors will make the NBA Finals”), but the old Puig, the one who wasn’t winning games in dramatic fashion and getting mobbed by teammates before he could even make it off the field, that Puig would have gotten demolished by the media for asserting something with such confidence. After all, the “right way” to accept a win is to talk about how big of a win that is while shifting focus to the next game.
Puig is different than that; he’ll look past all that to guarantee World Series trips as easily as he flips his bat after hitting a trademark bomb to left field. He’ll get soaked with a Gatorade shower by his teammates, pay back for all the times he’s done it to anyone who hit the Dodgers to a dramatic win (notice how the same teammates that he supposedy alienated last year aren’t only friendly with him now; they’re following his lead). He’ll drop to his knees in celebration, because for someone with one of the hardest “road to MLB” stories out there, every win counts for more than the standings. Every win validates the joie de vivre that baseball’s most gregarious superstar plays with every day. Sports writers, fans, and even the dreaded “anonymous locker room source” need to take note; for every column trashing Puig’s attitude, there is a highlight that shows just how fun baseball can be when you let it.