The backlash Puig is experiencing for showing his personality on the field is something to which Harper can relate. But here’s the thing: Harper hasn’t changed the way he rolls — and neither should Puig. For gifted, emotional ballplayers like Harper and Puig, passion fuels their performance. It’s a package deal. Regardless of what their uptight critics think, Harper and Puig (when either is at the plate this weekend at Nationals Park, I won’t miss a pitch) are great for baseball, which could benefit from a little jolt every now and then.
Last season, Harper delivered one. The 2012 National League rookie of the year energized the Nationals as much with his accelerator-to-the-floor intensity as his talent. On any list of what went right for last season’s NL East champions, Harper’s name should be near the top. Likewise, the Dodgers are getting a shot in the arm from Puig. The 22-year-old outfielder’s start — only Joe DiMaggio had more hits than Puig in the first month of a rookie season — is the sort of thing they like in Hollywood.
So what’s the problem? Why has Puig gone from being a fresh-faced hero to a black-hat-wearing villain in only 161 plate appearances? The Dodgers’ opponents are a big part of the story.
They’ve been downright ornery in reaction to just about everything Puig does. From his aggressiveness on the base paths to his chest-thumping after clutch hits, nifty catches and pinpoint throws, Puig is making enemies one highlight at a time. And that toothy smile he flashes doesn’t help.
Puig craves attention, longtime baseball people tell me. He would rather do something spectacular when a basic move would suffice. The word is, Puig doesn’t “respect the game.” In baseball parlance, that’s about as bad as it gets.
Usually, the label is assigned to young players who, intentionally or not, show up veterans. Leave the showmanship to football and basketball players, the thinking goes. Baseball is supposed to be above all of that. Sometimes, though, when a player is great and his reaction is genuine, everyone just needs to relax.
There isn’t any phoniness in the way Harper plays. When Harper’s effort results in success, which happens often, you see true joy. Puig seems to be from the same mold. He doesn’t hold back when things go well — and he’s getting a lot of practice celebrating.
Puig hit four home runs in his first five games. He already has several signature catches and throws. With Puig igniting their revival, the formerly underachieving Dodgers (they have the NL’s highest payroll) arrive in the District having won 16 of 21. Suddenly, Los Angeles was only 21
2 games behind first-place Arizona in the NL West entering Friday.
Recently, Puig has cooled off. After hitting seven homers in his first 101 at-bats, he has only one in his past 50. But it’s clear why the Dodgers signed the Cuban defector to an unheard of seven-year, $42 million contract after watching him work out and take batting practice a few times. And don’t be fooled: Puig’s breakout beginning has a lot to do with the nasty stares directed at him.
Believe it or not, there’s jealousy in professional sports. Puig possesses more natural ability than a lot of players at his position. Or any position. Factor in the huge payday he received before he proved anything in the big leagues, and you realize Puig would be a target even if he were as free-spirited as a robot.
Young players should show deference to older players. It’s the right thing to do. But Puig hasn’t done anything to warrant the bad-guy treatment he’s receiving. He hasn’t even played in half a season’s worth of games. Puig, just like Harper, is just getting started.
In the past, I was critical of Harper for exercising questionable judgment in an interview and on Twitter. As evidenced by his latest ejection before the all-star break — he has been tossed three times in 197 games — Harper has a ways to go in learning how to channel his emotions. What’s also obvious is that Harper is growing without sacrificing the best part of himself. That’s great for him and the Nationals.
So much of what makes Harper and Puig fun to watch is how they attack every game. They’re definitely different. And even in baseball, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.