The Yasiel Puig circus comes to town

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2014 - 11:53 AM

Not two years removed from departing Cuba, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig is both a star and an enigma.

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At only 23 years old and with not even a full year of big-league experience, Yasiel Puig has become one of baseball’s biggest curiosities.

Photo: Jae C. Hong • Associated Press,

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Maybe the least surprising detail about Yasiel Puig’s incredible life and precocious baseball career is that a Hollywood biopic already is in the works, with studios interested and a director on board. The question is, will moviegoers believe all the outlandish plot twists?

Puig arrives at Target Field with the Dodgers on Tuesday, not yet two years removed from his defection from Cuba and explosion onto the major league consciousness. His persona on the diamond already has made him perhaps the game’s most polarizing star since Barry Bonds: To Dodger Stadium crowds — jazzed by his frenetic play, raw talent and emotional style — he is probably the team’s most popular player, but to opponents he is one of baseball’s biggest villains, portrayed as imperious and insolent.

“He plays, ” Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times last summer, “with a lot of arrogance.”

And that’s not even the riveting part of Puig’s story.

Over the past two weeks, investigative articles in Los Angeles magazine and ESPN the Magazine revealed the frightening back story of Puig’s escape from his homeland, a spy novel of a tale that includes Mexican drug cartels; human trafficking; death threats and ransom demands; possible extortion and torture; and even, rumor has it, the murder of a smuggler.

So yeah, there’s plenty for a screenwriter to work with.

“When you give a kid $40 million, ” said Tony Oliva, the forerunner of today’s Cuban superstars, “some dangerous people come around.”

An incredible escape

According to Jesse Katz’s Los Angeles magazine story, Puig was considered dangerous himself in Cuba, where he had a reputation for informing government officials about people who approached him to propose helping him defect. According to a lawsuit filed in Florida by one such potential intermediary, Puig’s testimony against him resulted in a seven-year sentence in Cuban jails, where he was tortured by guards.

But Puig tried several times himself to escape, Katz wrote, and finally enlisted the help of a Miami crime figure, Raul Pacheco, who hired smugglers affiliated with Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. The Mexicans rendezvoused with Puig and three other defectors on an isolated Cuban beach in late spring of 2012 and sped them across 100 miles of open water to the Yucatán Peninsula. They finally arrived at a rundown hotel on a small island just outside Cancun, where they waited for Pacheco to pay them $250,000.

That stalemate lasted for weeks, Katz’s story quoted Yunior Despaigne, a Cuban boxer who accompanied Puig, as saying — with the smugglers gradually increasing their demands and threatening to cut off Puig’s arms and fingers unless they were paid. Pacheco finally responded by enlisting a team of strongmen who stormed the motel and freed Puig. Soon after, the outfielder worked out for major league scouts, and quickly signed a $42 million contract with the Dodgers — 20 percent of which had been promised to Pacheco, according to the magazine.

Puig has commented on none of this, refusing to speak about anything but baseball with reporters. But his troubles didn’t end with his new contract, L.A. magazine reported. The smugglers who transported him and held him captive still are seeking money, reportedly cornering Despaigne at one point and threatening to kill Puig if they’re not paid. The boxer said Puig complained to one of Pacheco’s financial backers, and a month later, the captain of the smugglers was found dead, 13 bullet holes in his body, on the side of a road just outside Cancun.

‘He’s been through a lot’

Got all that? It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s exaggerated, though Katz’s story is based upon federal affidavits and personal interviews, albeit not with Puig. But this much is certain: Compared to what he has already been through in his 23 years, Puig’s baseball exploits, his problems with discipline, his attitude and his mistakes on the field seem almost frivolous.

Yes, he snarls at pitchers, admires home runs and likes to draw attention to himself, traits that have made him enemies among baseball’s unwritten-law culture. But the moonshot power swing, freakish speed for his chiseled 6-3 frame and confidence in his ability make him a baseball thrill ride, too.

“He’s been through a lot in his life, and a lot of people don’t understand that, ” said Twins righthander Ricky Nolasco, who was Puig’s teammate with the Dodgers for three months last season. “Say what you want about him, but the guy plays really hard. He’s high-energy, definitely. I liked him.”

Not everyone does, of course, including some of his teammates, who reportedly have been irked by Puig’s too-aggressive baserunning, repeated mistakes, frequent tardiness and ability to spark conflict with opponents.

Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly, who has benched Puig a handful of times in an effort to curb his mental errors and headstrong attitude, held a team meeting in March to get complaints about the brash Cuban in the open, and Puig responded by vowing to improve.

“I asked them to please keep helping me, ” Puig told ESPN.com after the meeting. “Specifically with baserunning and hitting my cutoff man — I want them to help me with everything.”

Maturation process

Oliva, who is looking forward to meeting his young countryman this week, said Puig’s impertinence is understandable. Most Cuban defectors are in their mid-20s or older when they come to the U.S., and younger players spend time in the minor leagues, learning how the game is played.

Oliva played 337 games in the minors before becoming AL Rookie of the Year with the Twins in 1964. Puig played only 63 before being called up from Class AA last June and immediately helping the Dodgers win the NL West with a .319 average and 19 home runs.

“His start was perfect. He’s a winner. And the mature part, I don’t worry about that. He’s young, he’s learning,” Oliva said. “I don’t know what he’s done that’s so bad — late to the park? Driving too fast? He’s not a guy using drugs, he’s not getting into trouble. I don’t know if he needs to change very much.”

But even the Dodgers seem to be hoping that Puig will change, will mature. A commercial currently running on the team’s network, SportsNet LA, shows Puig from a distance, tearing down the baseline and then rounding first base, with legendary broadcaster Vin Scully narrating: “The wild horse, the stallion, running wild out there with magnificent talent …”

The commercial cuts to Scully, facing the camera and adding, “And I’m still waiting to see if they can ever break him in.”



 

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