L.A. Embraces Dodger Rookie Yasiel Puig
Originally published on Wed July 10, 2013 6:03 am
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In baseball, the summer of Yasiel Puig goes on. The breakout star for the Los Angeles Dodgers is a mere five weeks into his major league career. And in that short time he is set hitting records and also helping turn around a struggling Dodgers team. Puig is a 22-year-old Cuban defector. His past remains a bit of a mystery, but that doesn't seem to bother the fans caught up in Puig-mania.
Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The retractable roof was closed Monday night at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. At game time, the outside temperature in downtown phoenix was 113 degrees. Inside, everything cooled down to a comfy 81 - everything except Yasiel Puig's bat.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CRACK AND CHEERING)
GOLDMAN: A small contingent of Dodgers' fans and, yes, even some Arizona fans cheered yet another Puig hit while statisticians searched for yet another record. Found it. Dodgers beat writer Bill Plunkett tweeted: With that hit, a single, Puig became only the second player since 1950 to maintain at least a 400 batting average through his first 130 at bats. Remember, 300 is a really good batting average.
Dodger's first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has spent the last five weeks saying wondrous things about Puig. Monday night, after Puig's 17th multi-hit game, Gonzales was asked if there's any more to say.
ADRIAN GONZALEZ: No.
GONZALEZ: That simple.
GOLDMAN: Puig keeps it simple too, with his post-game comments. They're in Spanish. English translator Tim Bravo at his side.
TIM BRAVO: He said that he's happy. I'm happy that I got to play for a month, he says. I just thank God that I'm helping my team get better.
GOLDMAN: His answers don't add much to the Yasiel Puig bio, which is already thin. He played professionally in Cuba but was suspended for a season, possibly because of concerns that he'd try to defect - Puig tried and failed several times. One of the attempts he reportedly was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard with his belongings in a garbage bag. He finally ended up in Mexico, where Dodgers' scouts watched a few batting sessions. And to the amazement of the baseball world, they signed Puig to seven years, $42 million.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Puig. Puig. Yasiel. Yasiel.
GOLDMAN: Even in hostile territory like Chase Field, fans clamor for autographs, pictures. Puig may be an enigma off the field, but not on. He has an engaging smile, boundless energy as he patrols right field - he's made a few highlight throws from there - and then the bat. His 44 hits in June, only one other player had more in his first month as a major leaguer: Joe DiMaggio in 1936.
MARK MCGWIRE: He was born to play baseball. He was born to hit.
GOLDMAN: Mark McGwire is the Dodgers' batting coach. The little bit he knows about Puig is that Puig's parents are engineers. It's where Puig gets the intelligence, McGwire says, to craft a swing that seems effortless.
MCGWIRE: When we work together in the cage, you can see him - he's always thinking. He knows where his hands need to be. He knows where his legs need to be.
GOLDMAN: Certainly Puig is not a finished product. He swings at a lot of first pitches - up to now with great success - but patience may be the better long-term virtue. His base-running needs work. And will pitchers figure him out? Not so far. Pre-Puig, the Dodgers were 23 and 32. Since Puig, and after last night's second win in a row over division-leading Arizona, L.A. is 21 and 13. it's not all Puig, but a lot. And the consensus is, more to come.
Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.