The Dodgers entered the season as prohibitive favorites to win the National League West, what with their quarter-of-a-billion dollars payroll, ginormous TV deal, the best pitcher on God’s Green Earth and all that high-priced talent that may or may not be overrated. (Jury’s still out.)
But on Friday, before the Dodgers home opener against the hated San Francisco Giants, Puig showed up a half-hour late for batting practice, drawing the ire of everyone within a 100-mile radius that has anything to do with the Dodgers, seemingly. Fans complained on Twitter both about him being late and getting benched. Sportswriters got up collectively on their gigantic high-horse, going with the usual talk about how Puig needs to be taught a lesson and that he “learns” from it.
It says a lot about the society of baseball that Puig is the center of attention like he is. A highly talented and exciting player, Puig has been apart of our society for a little more than a year now, and with his incredible talents come incredibly short-sighted takes on what makes him exciting. People are quicker to jump on his faults than his victories. Of course, he’s not the first player to get this treatment. Far from it. But how his mistakes get blown up makes this an interesting situation.
See, what got swept under the rug in Friday morning’s supposed craziness was that Matt Kemp was not happy about being out of the starting lineup on Friday. Now, granted, the media that did decide to cover it blew it up to a normal degree for something like that, but we can’t ignore the elephant in the room. There are four starting-caliber outfielders on this team. Of the four, Andre Ethier is probably the least, but put him on, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he’d be loving life while Pirates fans cheered and writers penned soliloquies in his name.
Kemp’s semi-tantrum got little to no press compared to Puig. Of course, Kemp got happy once Puig didn’t show up on time and he got to start in his place. And with that came yet another wave of scrutiny towards Puig. When Puig did start the next day, he injured his thumb sliding, opening the door for Kemp once more on Sunday, where he joined Hanley Ramirez in hitting two home runs to avoid a sweep of the Giants.
In a sense, this becomes the “narrative” for the team. “Wild and reckless” Puig, with his propensity for playing “too hard” and his “off the field” issues becoming the “wild card” of this team’s success. But gosh darn it, at the end of the day, this team “needs him.”
Enter Dan LeBatard. The man who gave away his Hall of Fame vote because he hated what the process had become came out Sunday with a fantastic piece on the Puig situation, calling to mind the numerous foreign players who had trouble adjusting to life not just as a Major League Baseball player, but as a human being coming to another society. Imagine that?
Of course, our guys at Awful Announcing tackle all the hot issues when it comes to media coverage, but from a pure baseball perspective, there shouldn’t be a thing that keeps Puig off a baseball field at this point. Last year, in only 432 plate appearances, the guy hit .319/.391/.534 with 19 homers and 11 steals while playing good defense. He had a total of 63 games in the minor leagues. That’s an incredible feat.
He’s not doing these things because he’s trying to show somebody up or rebel against management. This is the person he is. He’s as gifted a baseball player as there is in the world today and like any other baseball player, he comes with his own set of quirks. And guess what? He STILL put up the numbers he did BECAUSE of those quirks. That’s how Puig plays the game. And when he does play, he’s as good as they come.
When a writer pens some antiquated soapbox argument about playing the game “the right way”, he’s as daft as the straw man the argument is named after. When Don Mattingly benches him or sits him down because he feels like he need to be “taught a lesson,” he’s not looking at it from the player’s perspective at all. Hell, Puig himself said he was as apologetic as he could be when he arrived and was told he would be benched.
It’s very tough to play in the Major Leagues, let alone get there, and Puig’s journey is as incredible as anyone’s. But there’s a lot of short-sightededness here. Puig’s incredible skills should not be cast aside just because he doesn’t act the way we all want him to act. We shouldn’t look to homogenize a player because it’s easier to lump him in with his teammates or baseball as a whole. We should be happy that we got someone with personality like Puig does. Or Jose Fernandez and Bryce Harper for that matter.
When Mattingly benched Puig, he sent the wrong message, and because of that, started an avalanche of rhetoric that buried Puig before he knew what hit him. There’s been a lot of questions about how the Dodgers would manage the situation in their clubhouse, where the overcrowded outfield, high expectations and Puig’s “different” personality are combustible elements with all eyes on Chavez Ravine.
But at the end of the day? Know that you have 25 guys with 25 different personalities. Puig’s might stand out because of the circumstances, but ostracizing him because you want him to be something he’s not is not beneficial to him or the team. It’s only a week in, but Don Mattingly might be making himself a regular member of this series should he keep it up.