Yasiel Puig: Arrogance, Awesomeness & Annoying Double Standards
As a journalist I’m enamoured with facts, so here comes one:
Yasiel Puig is awesome.
That’s not an opinion but an ironclad reality. In first 36 games since his promotion to the Los Angeles Dodgers he hit .397 with eight homers, 27 runs scored and 19 more batted in. And in the six weeks since he became a big leaguer he consistently provided some of the most eye-popping highlights in all of sport. Over that span his team went 23-13. He has moved a lot of Dodgers merchandise and TV ratings have zoomed upward.
Those are facts, as is this:
Puig plays hard. Probably too hard at times. Like the moment he nearly blew out his shoulder with a head-first slide into first base. Or the ill-advised attempt to score on a bobbled ball against Arizona a couple of weeks back, the gamble that led to his infamous collision and staredown with Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero.
This week I’ll spend my time and money to watch him play in person here in Toronto, because he’s worth paying to see.
Normally a string of facts like this makes a man a folk hero, but Puig’s feats aren’t subject to legendary accretion because we’re watching live as he does things we scarcely thought possible. Even in retelling these tales we can’t make them taller. We’re talking, after all, about a man took a fastball to the face and stayed in the game.
My friends at the Sports Fan Journal get it.
Yet somehow a large and influential segment of sports media have spun the Cuban defector’s exploits into something negative, peering straight past the numbers and the hustle to focus on alleged character concerns.
There’s Fox’s Ken Rosenthal, who thinks Puig’s anger over getting hit in the face by a fastball is evidence of self-defeating, team-damaging temper — as if Rosenthal would react pleasantly if someone slugged him in the cheek while writing a column.
Then there are reports Puig declined to greet 2001 World Series hero Luis Gonzalez before a recent game in Arizona, and shook Gonzalez’ hand only when Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire chewed him out.
And then there’s this from ESPN’s Pedro Gomez. If Gomez thinks there’s something unusual about a baseball star sending a flunky to grab a pretty girl’s phone number, he should probably spend more time around the dugout during batting practice.
But he covers baseball for ESPN, so he’s in those spaces daily. He knows the score.
Something else is going on here, you need not break out the Ralph Wiley mass media prism to recognize the troubling double standard.
This isn’t to suggest that everybody writing unflattering articles about Puig is actively biased against players who are black, latino or any combination of the two. But just as sports writers often look at a mid-career improvement and ask whether a player has taken up steroids, consumers and analysts of sports media are justified in wondering what’s behind a flood of negative press concerning a player who, by all accounts, isn’t just an individual star but a dedicated teammate.
So Puig is arrogant.
If I were as good at my job as he is at his I would be arrogant, too. And so would you.
And if a white, anglo player with Puig’s tools and jagged edges appeared in the majors next year, how would media reports portray him? As temperamental boor, or as a prickly but productive gamer with grit, hustle and an old-school attitude?
What’s the difference between Puig’s hard-charging attitude’s and George Brett’s, except that Puig’s is coupled with a raw athletic ability unseen in Major League Baseball since a pre-hip injury Bo Jackson?
How does his mindset differ from Pete Rose’s, except that we can be reasonably sure Puig isn’t gambling on games?
And how does it look for any of us when we’re pointing to Steroid Era poster boy Mark McGwire as Puig’s role model on baseball etiquette? Are members of the sports media so eager to pillory Puig that they’ll look to Mr. “I’m Not Here to Talk About The Past” to set an example of how to honour the sport’s history?
Do that at your own risk.
I’d rather focus on how Puig’s portrayal in certain segments of the press highlights the media minefield black and latino players navigate.
Three years ago the baseball blog Walkoff Walk ran a search on the phrase “lack of hustle,” then logged the ethnicites of the players to whom sports writers applied it. Turns out 22 black and latino players turned up in the search, superstars and scrubs alike.
And white players?
Only David Wright.
To any young black or latino player the message seems clear. When in doubt hustle harder, lest reporters and columnists label you lazy. Yet when Puig hustles hard we in the media thank him by bringing up his pre-defection run-ins with the Cuban sports system, as if butting heads with the Castro regime necessarily makes you a bad guy. If he were compliant proponent of La Revolucion, he’d still be in Cuba and we’d be wondering why he’s wasting his talent playing for free instead of raking in MLB’s millions.
So the message is really about as clear as pine tar. Black and latino players need to play hard enough to keep critics quiet, but not play so hard that they inflame those same critics.
A difficult position, and it doesn’t take Nostradamus to see whether the relationship between Puig and the mainstream media is headed.
Eventually he and his agents will figure out certain media members are determined to see the worst in him. It won’t matter whether he’s hitting home runs, gunning down baserunners, or resurrecting a Dodgers club that, before he arrived, boasted a high payroll and a low win percentage. Some folks will zero in on his perceived shortcomings.
It won’t be every writer, but it will be enough to make dealing with the media worth less and less of Puig’s time and energy. And when that happens we’ll see another flood of stories detailing how Puig transformed from gregarious rookie to aloof, standoffish and reticent veteran.
And if he transforms into the grump who rarely gives interviews I won’t judge or begrudge him.
Especially not if he stays awesome.
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