Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig takes center stage

Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who now lives in Miami and partied with Heat star LeBron James on Sunday night, made his Marlins Park debut on Monday night.

mnavarro@MiamiHerald.comAugust 20, 2013 

  • More information LA STORY A look at Yasiel Puig’s statistics this season through Monday’s series opener against the Marlins:
    Games67
    Hits91
    Home runs11
    RBI27
    Average.351
    OBP.412

Eric Guevara and his pregnant wife Jessica have been Marlins season ticket holders since the team moved to Little Havana, but Monday was the first time all season they made sure to show up early to watch batting practice.

Baseball’s biggest lightning rod, Yasiel Puig, is in town, and the Guevara’s were not going to miss an opportunity to see the Dodgers’ bright young star up close. In the end, they got more than they imagined with their pre-game field passes — an autographed baseball and a photo on their cell phone with Puig.

“What do I love about him? Just the way he is — he plays the game like an animal,” said Guevara, a 31-year old Nicaraguan from Miami.

“He plays like he remembers where he came from, taking extra bases, throwing guys out. I’m putting this baseball up right next to the rock we got from this place when they first broke ground at Marlins Park.”

Puig, 22, has only been in a major-league uniform since June 3, but he’s quickly won over a nation of fans — including quite a few in the Marlins’ backyard who can identify with the hunger and passion Puig plays the game now that he has the opportunity to.

In April 2012, Puig was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard in a speed boat somewhere between Cuba and Haiti trying to defect. He made it through on his second attempt, and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with L.A. after three scouts came to watch him workout in Mexico City. Puig reportedly didn’t even run, field or throw during the workout. All the Dodgers needed to see was him hit.

“You’re going to enjoy the show,” former Marlin Hanley Ramirez promised of Puig before Monday’s series opener. “He puts on a show every night out there. There’s a lot of Cubans here. They’re going to love him, the way he plays the game. When you’re young and have that type of talent, can do it all, the game is going to look easy from the outside.”

Puig has made it look easy since putting on a Dodgers uniform, ranking among the major-league leaders in hits (91) and runs (47) since being called up from Double A Chattanooga. The Dodgers were 23-32, 8 1/2 games back of first place in the National League West when Puig arrived. They came into Monday’s game on a 47-19 run and 7 1/2 games up in their division with Puig in the lineup.

Dodgers fans wore t-shirts Monday that read “Yasiel Sabe” — Puig Knows, an obvious play on the old Bo Jackson “Bo Knows” t-shirts.

Nowadays, Puig is attending the ESPYs, posing for photos with Kobe Bryant on Instagram and hanging at the Playboy Mansion with rapper Snoop Dogg and singer Chris Brown while making a run at the National League Rookie of the Year award.

TMZ reported Puig and teammates Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford were hanging out with LeBron James early Monday morning at South Beach’s LIV Nightclub, hours after the Dodgers had their 10-game win streak halted by the Phillies.

Was Monday morning the first time you met LeBron James? “Did you watch the ESPYs?” Puig responded in Spanish during a press conference created to meet the demand of interview request. “Don’t you have a TV in your house?”

To some, Puig is too brash, cocky for a rookie barely two months into his career. He doesn’t like doing interviews and used profanity in the clubhouse prior to Monday’s game when told by a Dodgers official about the aforementioned press conference he was to participate in.

“Do I like the media?” Puig said with a grin. “You guys are driving me crazy.”

It’s the price of fame, he was told by a reporter. “I didn’t pay for the fame,” Puig answered.

The Dodgers, with baseball’s second highest payroll behind the Yankees, don’t seem to care too much what Puig does off the field — or even on it.

For all the good Puig has done — hitting over .358 with 11 homers with 27 RBI, seven stolen bases and six outfield assists entering Monday — he’s also hurt his team by trying to throw out every base runner who dares to challenge his arm and trying to take extra bases.

Puig has run into 12 outs on the base paths between pickoffs and trying to take extra bases. Sunday against the Phillies, he got picked off at first in one inning and tried to throw a runner out at third in another, allowing the tying run to advance to second in a loss.

“There are mistakes you don’t want to see, but you take the good with the bad and there’s a lot of good,” manager Don Mattingly said Sunday. “He’s a ball of energy. And he’s a good kid, too. He goes 0 for 4 and we win — he’s as happy as anybody out there. You see him high-fiving and cheering. Those are all good traits. There are things he has to improve. But the guy loves to win. He loves playing and it’s great to see that.

“We’re going to keep teaching. We knew what we were getting into when we called him up.”

Puig doesn’t just play aggressive on the field. While playing for Chattanooga in April, he was arrested in Tennessee for reckless driving, speeding and driving without proof of insurance.

According to the police report, Puig was driving 97 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone when he was stopped.

Did Puig’s late night partying with LeBron bother Mattingly?

“I wasn’t afraid to go out myself honestly,” Mattingly said. “My big thing is being ready to play when you get here. If they were caught breaking a rule or being out after curfew that would have been one thing. They didn’t. We’re all here ready to play today. Honestly I’m not getting involved in it or worried about it.”

Puig isn’t either. “This is about baseball,” he said when asked about what he and LeBron talked about.

“I’m very happy to play in Miami, especially now that I live here ... There’s a lot of Cubans who were watching me with the Dodgers. Now they can see me in person playing four games.”

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