Puig still adjusting to a new way of life in US
Dodgers outfielder has gone from humble beginnings to having world at his feet
Sure, Yasiel Puig is living life to the fullest, rushing through it all as if the whole thing is some kind of fantasy that could be taken away. Maybe that's exactly how he feels. Do you know where he came from? Have you seen the world through his eyes?
Before Puig fled to the United States, his life was unlike anything most of us can comprehend. It's a world of smothering, all-consuming gray poverty. It is a world in which simple things -- a bottle of aspirin, a fresh apple, a doctor -- are rare and precious treasures.
In our land of supermarkets and shiny new cars and department stores -- all of it within reach on some level -- Puig seems to be trying to experience it in large bites, all at once. At some point, he may slow down, may accept that this new world is now his world.
No player was more fascinating to watch last season. Swing hard, run hard, go, go, go. If Puig was on first base, he wanted to be at second base. He had the confidence, arrogance -- whatever you want to call it -- to believe no one was good enough to stop him. And so there he went, sprinting, sliding, jumping up, clapping his hands. Given the chance, Puig would take off for third, too, sometimes regardless of the situation.
"You could smell it in the air. The wild horse had to run," Vin Scully said after watching Puig steal second and then promptly get thrown out at third in a sequence not unlike several others.
Puig played the outfield the same way -- crashing into walls, making rocket-like throws, all full speed ahead. He was that way at the plate -- swinging hard, swinging often. Puig clearly drives the Dodgers crazy with some of this stuff, but they'll tell you it was his energy and his drive and his sprint into this new world that got them going last season.
If Puig didn't always play things by the book, it might be because he never had a book. He has enormous talent, scary talent, the kind of talent that doesn't come along very often. Money, fame, success, possession have come almost overnight these past two years.
Puig's challenge in his second season will be to see the game as a teammate, to understand the things he can and can't do, both on the field and off. Whether he can discipline himself -- hit those cutoff men, kid -- may determine how good he's going to be. On the other hand, Puig is blessed with so many gifts that he may accomplish great things anyway.
Those of us lucky enough to see all the amazing talent and unbridled energy are rooting for him, because there haven't been many players who've made the world's most difficult game look utterly easy.
Fifteen years ago this spring, I watched a hundred or so Cuban parents endure an hour or more of a blazing Havana sun and a line that stretched several blocks long to get their kids small dishes of ice cream.
Two memories of that afternoon linger in my heart and mind all these years later. One was how the natives urged me to cut in front of them and experience the moment of delight they were about to experience. Another was how the children squealed happily as they slurped away at the watery ice cream. To you or me -- to your children or mine -- this moment is one we probably take for granted.
To those Cubans, it was a spectacular moment of happiness, one that required no small sacrifice, but one that they seemed to accept.
I was in Havana to cover a game between the Orioles and the Cuban national team. For me, a child of the Cold War, Havana was pretty much what you would have guessed: decaying fighter jets scattered about the airport, immaculately cared-for American cars from the 1950s on the streets, and people getting by without a lot of material possessions.
At the time, Havana's infrastructure was a mess, with roads almost impassable and homes that looked like they hadn't had a coat of paint in 50 or so years. One day as I left the hotel for a morning run, I came upon Sandy Alderson, then an MLB official and now the general manager of the New York Mets, coming back from his run.
"Watch the sidewalks," he said.
"No," he said, "keep your eye on the sidewalks."
Alderson meant that the sidewalks essentially had disintegrated, that they were even worse off than the streets. Those streets were symbolic of a country that had been transformed from one of the most beautiful on earth to devoid of so much.
When Livan Hernandez fled to the United States, he had trouble getting his mind around this new life: supermarkets with rows and rows of fruits and vegetables, drive-through fast-food restaurants, shiny cars, beautiful homes, medical care, on and on and on.
Hernandez had trouble adjusting. He wanted to experience it all. Hernandez had been raised with so little that he ate and drank and spent, perhaps worried that this new world -- this world so different from his own -- would disappear overnight.
Maybe that's how Puig sees it, too. Maybe he's in a world he could never comprehend, and perhaps he's having trouble comprehending it still. Here's hoping Puig can slow himself down a bit, learn to say no, smooth out the rough edges and do the things his manager and coaches ask him to do.
Puig has taken us on a wild ride so far, a really amazing ride. Hopefully, this is just the beginning and the best is yet to come. As you watch Puig this season, don't forget how far he has come in so many ways. Don't forget to take a moment to see the world as he's probably seeing it. And don't forget how much more interesting baseball is with a Puig in it.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.