If you weren’t paying attention, baseball season started last week and last season’s biggest breakout story has already seen significant time in the limelight, though not in the most positive context.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig made his rookie debut midseason last year and immediately set the league on fire. In his second game, Puig hit two home runs and had five runs batted in. Through his first fifteen games, Puig had 25 hits and in his first month he had 44 hits, the second most ever for a rookie in a single month only to Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio in 1936. Outside of the batter’s box, Puig became known for dazzling outfield catches, laser throws to the infield and running the bases with reckless abandon: a human SportsCenter Top Ten reel. The then 22-year-old finished the season with a .319 batting average and 19 home runs, helping the Dodgers reach the National League Championship Series.
Even more remarkable is Puig’s background. Born in poverty-stricken Cuba with incredible baseball talent, Puig repeatedly tried to flee the country – in boats unfit to cross the Caribbean Sea and his belongings in a garbage bag – to the United States to play baseball so many times he lost count. Each time he failed or was caught by the Coast Guard. Finally, he was smuggled into Mexico by drug runners and effectively defected in 2012, soon thereafter signing a $42 million dollar contract with the Dodgers.
In his words: “Todo mi vida es una película.”
Nevertheless, Puig has hit some rocks along his road to stardom. He’s been benched for disciplinary reasons multiple times, drawing the ire of the notoriously conceited community of baseball writers. He showed up to spring training 26 pounds heavier than he was at the end of the 2013 season. He was arrested in Florida for driving 110 mph in December, the second time he has been charged with reckless driving. He has been accused by writers of “undoing” the Dodgers before the season really even began for being missing team stretching and perceived “selfishness.”
Puig continues to persevere through his hardships, though the media criticism is relentless. That is, except for a small collection of writers, including ESPN’s Dan Le Batard (also a Cuban-American), who this weekend pleaded for some perspective.
The experience of most Hispanic baseball players is often an immediate transition from extreme poverty to extreme wealth, accompanied with language and culture adjustments. I won’t waste too many words on Le Batard’s piece, which I highly recommend (seriously though, I’m linking it a third time), but he gives numerous examples of other MLB players having much more drastic difficulties handling their newfound American fame and wealth. If nothing else, the 23-year old Puig’s minor blunders are understandable:
“…around freedom, he is not even yet a 2-year-old. Bryce Harper grew up around this country’s rules without culture shock, and he came through a pipeline filled with baseball codes, and he didn’t come from crushing poverty, and he, too, has many Puig traits. We love rags-to-riches stories. Love them. But rarely, in any walk of life, does it happen as fast and as extremely as it does to the Hispanic ballplayer — to go from soap stealing to multimillionaire in a flash.”
Though very near geographically, in politics and economics, the United States could not be farther from Cuba. Puig is still in the midst of realizing an unheralded jump in freedom and affluence. If I became a millionaire tomorrow, I’m sure I too would be late for a few classes and make some poor decisions, but unlike Puig I didn’t spend the last few years trying to traverse 90 miles of ocean to get here.
As the title of Le Batard’s piece goes, “Lets cut Yasiel Puig some slack.”