Year of the Puig: Dodgers exuberant outfielder finds happiness among his young fans

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Year of the Puig: Dodgers exuberant outfielder finds happiness among his young fans
Year of the Puig: Dodgers exuberant outfielder finds happiness among his young fans

LOS ANGELES – Because he makes so much of them, and occasionally a bit of a scene in them, each moment of Yasiel Puig's professional life is run through the public wringer. And yet, in the top of every inning at Dodger Stadium, from his place not far from the right-field foul pole, he hears the children call his name. As much as any, those are his moments.

Amid the noise. More, through the noise. Their innocence – maybe it's his innocence, too – draws him. To the sandlot fields in East L.A. The children's hospital off Sunset Boulevard. A park that happens to be on his way. To the railings in the ballpark, where they look at him the way he once did Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols on a television from very far away.

He arrived a year ago today. To show for it, across 156 games, he is a .329 hitter with 30 home runs, a .407 on-base percentage and a .970 OPS. Don Mattingly recently called him the best right-fielder in the game and almost no one argued, a rarity in matters of Puig. He is showy, bat-flippy, sometimes reckless, often loud, usually on time and more often than not the best player – at least the most captivating player – on the field, all of which together has made for an interesting year of the Puig. Once, they wondered what havoc he might bring to the Dodgers. Now, they try not to think about where they'd be without him.

And Puig, well, he keeps showing up, playing his game, the sole constant in a five-man outfield that hasn't yet found its bearings and for a team that has played beneath its expectations. His game is tighter. For one, he's swinging at about half the pitches out of the strike zone that he did as a rookie. The enthusiasm remains, and sometimes that finds him hopelessly trapped between bases, or clearing 300 feet worth of cut-off men, or heroic in the conclusion, but the drama seems to suit him, and L.A. has fallen for him, and the tiny voices make him happy to be among them.

Yasiel Puig is hitting .340 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI. (Getty Images)
Yasiel Puig is hitting .340 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI. (Getty Images)

"I always have a good time playing with them, playing baseball," he said. "When I was a kid I didn't get the opportunity to play with big leaguers. I'd just see them on TV. I want to give kids the opportunity to get to know a big leaguer, to get to know me. So if they hear my name or see me on TV they can feel proud to say, 'I know him. I know a big leaguer.' Something I never experienced."

Just Sunday afternoon he posed for some 350 photos with fans, many of them children, at Dodger Stadium. In return, he asked for a donation. Whatever the people felt it was worth to them – a dollar, a pocketful of change, sometimes just pennies – filled a jug, was matched and sent to a recreation center in East L.A. so it could buy baseball uniforms and gear for the children of the neighborhood. Puig held babies, wrapped entire families in his arms, and laughed with the shy little boys and girls.

This helps define his year in L.A., too. The underhanded pitches to young boys on the Dodger Stadium infield in December. The amateur photos of him on a rutty field in some little park hardly anyone's heard of. The game of catch with Hanley Ramirez's 6-year-old son before Monday's batting practice. The three visits to a children's hospital that doesn't have a baseball field and never will, but is home to too many young fans.

It's as if they understand him better than anyone, and he them, and the game is their language, and the way he plays it – with life, and determination, and even desperation – is how they would if they could. Someday, maybe. Someday.

"I can hear them," he said. "It all makes me happy. I wish I could say hello back, acknowledge them when I'm out there in right field. But if I do acknowledge them it could affect my work. It could possibly cause me to make an error and cost us the game, but I like it."

He laughed at that.

"I know they can watch me on TV," he said, "but I like to see kids who I know can't come to games, because they love baseball just as much even though they can't be here. That's why I like to go see the kids who are in the hospitals. To show them I'll go to them because they can't come here and they like baseball too. I like to help kids who don't have resources to play because when I was a little kid I didn't have the stuff I needed to play baseball."

During the debates on the player he should be, Puig was likely to be home, playing video game soccer against his cousin Ramon. Puig is always Real Madrid. Ramon is almost always Manchester City. Or, he could be on the phone with his sister, who last week graduated high school in Miami. His mother sent pictures.

Puig was recently called the game's best right fielder by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. (Getty Images)
Puig was recently called the game's best right fielder by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. (Getty Images)

"It looked very nice," he said. "I hope she continues to study, to do well in school, so she can reach the goals she has for herself."

Maybe, during a year of so many picking over his game, Puig could have been found at the locker of Hyun-jin Ryu, his good friend, "that crazy Korean," he said, or in a protracted conversation with Adrian Gonzalez.

"Everything Adrian has told me has helped me in my first year in the big leagues," Puig said. "He was always offering advice. But, you know, I didn't pay much attention to him at first. Not until about the end of last season did I start listening. And thanks to him, thanks to what he's taught me has served me this year and up to today. I'm very grateful and I always want to play by his side, on the same team. And if one day he retires and I'm still playing, I hope he still gives me advice."

So, I asked, a year in, does he like his life here? Is it what he wants? The team, the game it plays, the city it represents, the people it draws, those little voices in right field, do they suit him?

He shook his head no, then laughed.

"Yes," he said. "Yes. I like playing with the Dodgers and hope, if God permits it, that I can stay here my entire career. We'll see if that happens. I'm just going to keep doing my best on the field, off the field, bettering my discipline, doing things right. So I can keep playing here."

His can be the loudest voice in the clubhouse. From the corner nearest the door, it carries to the corner farthest from the door.

"Oye," he calls. "Oye!"

Listen up. Listen up! The children are speaking. His moments.

"It all makes me happy," he said.

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