LOS ANGELES – A man who knows Yasiel Puig pretty well told me today, "He would never say anything he didn't want to say," which says plenty about Yasiel Puig.
He didn't come here to tell people what they want to hear. He didn't come to give himself away. He didn't come to be anyone but himself.
Call it admirable. Call it stubborn.
On a day most would find humiliating, a day in which he was benched mid-game for a guy half his size and talent, Puig said he understood. It's a big-boy game. A big-boy world. So when Puig had set down his glove Wednesday, gone to the clubhouse and changed into more comfortable shoes, then watched the rest of an afternoon ballgame from the shade, I thought we were about to learn something about this prodigy, this young man we can't quite get our arms around.
He'd arrived a splash of tools and attitude. If he cared what we thought of either, he didn't show it. Opponents found it grating. He didn't care. Reporters found it fascinating. He dismissed them. The people in the Dodger Stadium bleachers fawned over him, and he smiled, and waved, and tossed to them third outs.
One afternoon last week Puig was skirting the batting cage when a woman wearing a visitor's pass stopped him. She held up a camera and gestured to what appeared to be her son, a boy of maybe 8. The boy's eyes were ringed in darkness, as if he hadn't slept in weeks. He had no hair. Puig nodded and put his hand on the boy's shoulder and leaned close for a picture. The boy grinned and she said, "Thank you so much," and Puig patted the boy's shoulder and left.
Hang around a ballpark enough and you see it a hundred times a month. There are plenty of ill boys and girls to go around, and plenty of ballplayers who'll stray from their routines to offer a smile and a go-get-em-pal.
Puig trotted to the dugout, loped down the stairs, pulled a bat from the rack and reappeared on the top step. Holding the bat by its barrel, just above the pine tar, he scanned foul ground. He rose up on his toes and looked some more, then weaved through the crowd until he found the boy. Puig tapped him on the shoulder. The boy turned and met Puig's eyes. Puig held out the bat. The boy hesitated. His eyes widened. "For me?" Puig nodded. The boy wrapped both hands around the bat's neck. Puig nodded again and ran off, and the boy smiled at his mom, and his mom smiled back, and wow had this been a wonderful day.
I'm not sure this has anything to do with the ballplayer Yasiel Puig is becoming, and whether Puig ultimately will tend to the details of being a grown-up, professional contributor. After all, one man's "ready position" may be another's exercise in folly. I do know that Don Mattingly doesn't manage to embarrass his players, and is quite familiar with the demands of a noon start that follows a night game, and yet still was capable of going an entire career without missing a pitch. He expects the same. It's a hard game, but no harder than it was yesterday or the day before. And no harder for Puig than, say, Andre Ethier or Juan Uribe or, for that matter, Skip Schumaker.
I also loved what Yasiel Puig did for that little boy, when almost nobody was looking. It wasn't the bat, either. It was the gesture. He didn't – couldn't – turn away and forget. I've asked for patience for Puig, because we tend to demand too much, and decide too quickly, and think we know enough about a man. And then I watched him sit in the shade Wednesday afternoon, benched for the very part of the game that demands zero tools – game investment – and wondered what we were about to learn about Yasiel Puig.
Would he fight? Would he sulk? Would he get it?
"He explained," Puig said of Mattingly, "what every ballplayer has to do on the field, not only me but every ballplayer. We have to give 100 percent on the field, even if we're tired or if we're playing in games like today. We've got to give 100 percent to help the team. If I'm in the lineup Friday I'll give my best effort and if not I'll wait until I can help."
And: "I always give my best but, honestly, today there was some fatigue and I wasn't prepared."
Remember, he wouldn't say anything he didn't want to say. And if we're going to detail every moment of Puig's time here, then the admirable ones count, too.