Stop me if you’ve heard this from baseball people: “Yasiel Puig is a [expletive] showboat. He needs to be sent a message.”
Sending a message, of course, is code for a pitcher intentionally throwing at an opposing player to cause physical harm or extreme fright. If the player is terrified or physically hurt, then the message was sent.
If you’re keeping score at home, marveling at your own accomplishments on the diamond is seen as bad in baseball. Purposefully trying to hurt another player who celebrates in such a way is viewed as a necessary part of the game because it teaches players to “respect” their opponent.
Only in baseball would Puig, a 22-year-old Cuban who only saved the Los Angeles Dodgers’ season and probably Manager Don Mattingly’s job, be portrayed as the unrefined, fresh-off-a-raft-from-Havana rube in this parable, the guy St. Louis Cardinals all-star right fielder Carlos Beltran said “doesn’t know” how to act on the field.
Puig twirled his bat and tossed it at home plate in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series , raising his arms and celebrating a long drive he thought was a home run. Realizing the ball didn’t clear the wall, he burst into a dead sprint and legged out a standup triple, celebrating further by raising both arms. Dodger Stadium fell into delirium.
If you’ve never seen an inside-the-park home run or a rangy player with elongated legs flying around the bases, it’s probably the most exhilarating moment in the game after a walk-off homer or a strikeout to end a series or a perfect game.
Puig is the first baseball player I can recall to wildly celebrate a home run and a triple in the same at-bat, and the fact that he made it to third base without sliding was all the more reason to be in awe.
There is no sabermetric available to quantify those frantic moments when he rounded second. There is no advanced statistic to tell what this burst of emotion and adrenaline did for the Dodgers, who trailed St. Louis 2-0 in the NLCS before beating the Cardinals, 3-0, Monday night.
It wasn’t an insult to the grand old game; it was a spontaneous celebration of it — and of course the reaction of many in the sport was, “He was showing the Cardinals up.”
For this display of boyish exuberance, the kind of unbridled joy Dodgers part-owner Magic Johnson once used to make an entire league smile, Puig was castigated as a showboating dolt, too young, green and stupid to understand baseball protocol.
“As a player, I just think he doesn’t know” how to act, Beltran said afterward. “That’s what I think. He really doesn’t know. He must think that he’s still playing somewhere else.”
Figuratively, Beltran is right. Puig is playing somewhere else; it’s called the game’s future, in which young stars are allowed to express themselves and not be taken as disrespecting their opponent.
The purists will argue Puig and fireball players like the Nationals’ Bryce Harper have yet to show proper decorum befitting their years and reputations in the game. And, as usual, they will sound like chaperones at a high school dance telling couples to maintain six inches of space between their torsos.
This doesn’t excuse Harper’s crotch-grab against the Cardinals in the postseason a year ago. Nor does it excuse Puig’s stubbornness on the base paths earlier this season that involved the kid running the Dodgers out of a couple of innings.
But let’s remember: Puig is 22. He defected from Cuba last year. Baseball is a party in many parts of Cuba, replete with music and celebration throughout the game. He played a mere 58 minor league games before coming to the Dodgers, who were 11 games out of first place when he arrived and ran away with the division.
Should he have been more aware of the fact that his deep drive wasn’t gone? Sure. If he was thrown out at second after the ball is played nicely after the carom off the wall, he makes a costly error.
Instead, he won the risk vs. reward game. He ignited a slumbering team and a yawning home crowd.
Moreover, he made baseball that more enthralling and exciting in October.
“I’m always having fun on the field,” he said through an interpreter. “That’s all it really is for me, having fun.”
Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson’s majestic walk-off home run against the Oakland A’s in Game 1 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, a moment that further cemented Vin Scully as the greatest baseball announcer of his time. Unless I’m remembering it wrong, Gibson double-clutched his right arm as he rounded the bases. No one accused him of showing up Dennis Eckersley that night.
If America really wants to call baseball the national pastime and mean it, then baseball needs to cut Puig some slack and realize its old-fangled ideas of sending a message don’t compute in 2013.
If not, Yasiel Puig will send his own message: It’s okay to enjoy getting paid to play a child’s game.