PHOENIX – Just when the baseball world thought it had seen everything that Yasiel Puig could become, the Los Angeles Dodgers phenom has added yet another tool.
It’s not as overwhelming as his bat, or as strong as his arm, but it can be just as powerful – or powerfully destructive – as both.
The hot young outfielder and hitter is also now officially a villain.
It happened this week in Arizona, where the charging Dodgers breathed down the collars of the first-place Diamondbacks against a backdrop of boos, accusations and rips.
It wasn’t Arizona hating on Los Angeles. It was Arizona hating on Puig.
It was folks in both the Chase Field stands and home dugout jeering the Dodgers’ 22-year-old magician for what they considered needless sleights of hand and crass tricks.
They hated the way he tossed his bat after even the mildest of hits. They hated how he growled at the pitcher even after walks. They hated how seemingly every bit of hustle was accompanied by a glare.
“He plays with a lot of arrogance,” Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy said.
They hated on him even though he had had no homers, no extra-base hits and no RBIs in the series. They hated on him because it’s become obvious in the last 35 games that Puig is about a lot more than numbers.
The kid is about an unbridled swagger that hasn’t been seen around the Dodgers since Manny Ramirez, the kind of swagger that enrages fans and distracts opponents. It is an attitude jolt that, if backed by good play, can turn a complacent club into champions. It is also an attitude jolt that can tear that same club apart.
The Dodgers, for now, are publicly looking on the bright side.
“I don’t mind a guy playing with a little attitude, honestly,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “I played with Rickey Henderson. He was a guy who irritated a lot of people, but he was a pretty good player.”
Mattingly, however, knows there’s a line that kids should not cross, lines that separate villains from fools. Like everyone else on the Dodgers, they are holding their breath that Puig can successfully straddle that line.
“If he’s my teammate, I’m probably trying to help him not be hated in the major leagues … that’s where he’s going right now, creating a bad reputation throughout the league,” Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero said.
Montero was talking about, among other things, a play Tuesday night in which Puig foolishly tried to race home from first on a dropped fly ball in center field.
He was easily thrown out, but not before he hit Montero with a forearm shiver and then glared at him as he left the field.
“Does he have talent? Of course,” Montero said. “It’d be really bad if he wasted it doing the stupid things he’s doing.”
The Diamondbacks were also angry at Puig for a perceived snub of one of the franchise’s legendary heroes, Luis Gonzalez.
Before the series opener Monday, Gonzalez approached Puig behind the batting cage to introduce himself and talk about their shared Cuban roots.
Puig had apparently never heard of Gonzalez, and paid him little attention until Dodgers coach Mark McGwire explained Gonzalez’s winning hit in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and his significance to the organization.
Gonzalez then went on the local radio ripping Puig for showing bad manners, which is a little silly considering Puig has only been in the big leagues 35 days and can’t be expected to know about players who starred when he was a child in information-controlled Cuba.
But that is what happens when you are a villain. Every move is scrutinized. Every action can be a distraction.
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