Before you pile atop irresponsible diva-punk-jerk Yasiel Puig, absorb a few random stories about the difficulties in his kind of transition:
Luis Castillo once set off a fire alarm in an American hotel, thinking it was a shampoo dispenser.
Euclides Rojas accidentally bought dog food for his son. He saw a smiling kid on the can. He didn’t know there was such a thing as food just for dogs in this country.
Jose Fernandez crawled around in the airport bathroom, trying to figure out how to flush and wash his hands, not knowing anything about sensors.
Rene Arocha felt his knees give — actually felt faint and almost passed out — the first time he walked into a grocery store and saw so many aisles of food.
Ariel Prieto didn’t know anything about banks or credit cards or our currency so he walked around for more than a week with his $1.2 million signing bonus in the pocket of his jeans.
Livan Hernandez decided to defect because, when the national team went abroad, he was tired of stealing soap and detergent he didn’t have back home to wash his uniform.
Hall of Famer Tony Perez ordered apple pie a-la mode his first month in America, even for breakfast, because he didn’t recognize anything else on the menu and didn’t want to sound stupid or disrespectful asking too many questions. (Perez still doesn’t bother to correct anyone that his name is actually Tani, short for Atanasio. Soft “a.” Pronounced Tah-knee. But he made sure “Atanasio” is what it says on his Hall Of Fame plaque.)
Manny Ramirez, breastfed until he was 6 years old because of poverty, once asked his agent even after signing a $160 million contract, if he could afford a house in Pembroke Pines for his parents. His agent turned to him and said, “Manny, you can afford this whole damn neighborhood.”
And one more:
In terms of style, Vladimir Guerrero’s most closely resembled Puig’s. Reckless. Raw. But so overwhelmingly skilled. Guerrero was Puig before Puig, albeit soaked in fear instead of defiance, but he got to make his mistakes pre-Internet, and more quietly in Canada. Guerrero drank from puddles as a child. He had a fifth-grade education because his mother had to put him to work in the fields.
Guerrero’s mother lived with him as a major leaguer because he was so scared of everything new and different and awful outside, and he wanted something, anything, that felt more like home. But you have to wonder how all of that plays out differently, how we and fame mutate Guerrero, if we had dropped him in Los Angeles and immediately demanded that he star for the city and the country and the sport beginning at 22.
HARD TO HANDLE
Don Mattingly feels comfortable criticizing Puig publicly. Guerrero’s manager, the so-rugged Hall Of Famer Frank Robinson, didn’t feel comfortable enough to even talk to Guerrero. On things like errant throws during games, Robinson wanted to approach Guerrero in the dugout after the inning but feared Guerrero might miss out on tone and think he was being reprimanded.
“I might do damage, so I leave it alone,” Robinson said. “I can’t teach him anything this way. I can’t help him with the mental parts of the game — slumps, approach, state of mind. It’s awkward. Frustrating. He would feel better, and I would feel better, if I could reach him, but I can’t. He’s on his own.”
Robinson was asked whether he knew anything personal about his star.
“No,” he said.
Read anything or seen any TV coverage that gave any meaningful insight into him?
“No,” he said.
As a manager, someone who has to push the right buttons to motivate, how do you remedy that?
“You don’t,” he said.
That’s the hands-off approach. Let an artist be an artist, and proudly put the painting on the wall as is without demanding he stay inside the lines. We are so much more handsy in this country and in 2014 about fame and sports, and Puig radiates a kind of get-your-hands-the-hell-off-me that doesn’t go over so well in the cathedrals ballplayers have made of their playpens. So everyone from the media to his manager have worked to get him in line already, damn it.
Even gentleman poet Vin Scully, voice of baseball, calls Puig “a wild horse,” an animal that must be tamed or broken, and the media clucks in agreement, calling a very proud human being an animal. Funny, Puig is supposed to be the one with the language problem.
And, of course, Puig should be punctual and professional. Of course. The clock is one of the few things not impacted by the language barrier. Of course. But anyone can understand how a 23-year-old kid, the second-youngest on the team’s 40-man roster, might be late to stretching in Miami last year because he was out on South Beach partying with LeBron James. Like it? No. Tolerate it? No. Understand it? Yes.
And, of course, Puig should stop speeding in his Rolls-Royce and his Mercedes. Of course. Even though the prevailing car in his shackled-to-the-1950s homeland remains the cruddy Russian Lada. Of course he should slow down in every way. But, um, that night with Snoop Dogg at the Playboy Mansion, that was kind of fun. And he kind of defected, leaving behind the land and people that he loved, because he dreamed of his skills being rewarded with fast cars like those.
And, of course, he should respect his craft and stay in shape. Of course. Of course. But you know why his minor-league meals were always steak and eggs and double portions of hash browns and two milkshakes? Because he couldn’t get that stuff when he was young, or anything like it. The food is rationed in his country. So, once he got here, to our shores and to our excess, he was eating like a man-child who had two decades of hunger to feed.
That’s the thing that always gets forgotten with the poor Hispanic guys such as Puig. Once they get the seven year, $42 million contract he got upon arrival, they’ve already won. That’s the finish line. That’s their championship. We don’t like it. The employer certainly doesn’t, and shouldn’t. But that’s what teams are buying. Anything the employer gets after that is born of the player’s personal pride and love of the game, things that can get contaminated in, you know, Los Angeles, when the models and celebrities and photographers and temptations start flooding in to complete the portrait of the American Dream some Cubans literally throw their life to the wind to chase.
LET’S TRY TO BE FAIR
Puig is still young, man, and he’s going to do young-man things, no matter our sensibilities. According to ESPN The Magazine’s Tim Keown — and there have been precious few illuminating profiles written about this sports star, the American media machine still somehow having trouble climbing over the language barrier even as our country browns like a pie crust — Puig’s favorite entertainment viewing is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There are very mature adult celebrities in that part of the world who can’t handle Hollywood’s vices and excess, and they are not 23, and they are not new to this culture, and they aren’t being asked to carry a baseball team with Magic Johnson as the owner and an $8 billion TV contract, and they are not watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
So Puig will do his growing up before our eyes and under our admonishing finger wagging. But, in fairness, if we are interested at all in that, this needs to be remembered, and it is not a small thing: He got here June 28, 2012. He played all of 63 minor-league games. In other words, around freedom, he is not even yet a 2-year old. Bryce Harper grew up around this country’s rules without culture shock, and he came through a pipeline filled with baseball codes, and he didn’t come from crushing poverty, and he, too, has many Puig traits.
We love rags-to-riches stories. Love them. But rarely, in any walk of life, does it happen as fast and as extremely as it does to the Hispanic ballplayer — to go from soap stealing to multimillionaire in a flash. Where else does that happen in life or entertainment with positive consequences? Going from having nothing, not even freedom, to rich with literally more freedom than you’ll find anywhere else in the world?
Lottery winners go broke at a disproportionate rate. The National Endowment for Financial Education cites research estimating that 70 percent of people who suddenly receive large sums will squander it within a few years. And those people are not likely to be quite as poor as the poverty from which Puig has emerged.
Remember Ted Williams? Not the ballplayer. The homeless guy discovered on YouTube begging for money with a golden radio voice. He was suddenly on every TV and being hired to do voice work by major companies … with a life-fixing fame … and he had an immediate drug relapse … and had to go to an emotional clinic after he left rehab, too.
Such a complicated thing, this particular climb and this particular barrier.
There are so many things these Hispanic ballplayers don’t understand while making the transition.
Almost as many as we don’t understand while watching them try to do it.