Yasiel Puig walked slowly to the plate at Dodger Stadium earlier this week, cheers raining down upon him as they had so many times before. This time, however, he was wearing a red jersey and playing for the visitors, in his first trip back to L.A. since the December trade that brought him to Cincinnati.
After a sometimes stormy six-year tenure in Los Angeles, it was fair to wonder how Puig would be received by Dodgers fans before his first plate appearance. Wonder no more: It was unadulterated love, an ovation punctuated by Puig’s tip of his red helmet in acknowledgement.
What happened next would deepen Cincinnati’s own burgeoning love affair with the mercurial right fielder. Facing former teammate Clayton Kershaw—only the best pitcher on the planet for most of the last dozen years—Puig drilled a 1-2 pitch over the fence in left-center field and tossed his bat away, giving the Redlegs a 2-0 lead. The cheers from the Dodgers partisans faded, but that’s OK. Reds fans have been cheering Puig’s every movement since the moment that he arrived in the Queen City.
The off-season deal that brought Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati came as a big surprise to most observers, but Puig embraced the change in scenery with enthusiasm. On Instagram, he began posting workout videos in which he was always clad in red, and talked about how excited he was to play for Cincinnati. That was but a taste of what was to come.
In January, with the wind chill dipping below zero, Puig arrived in Cincinnati for a whirlwind tour of his new home. He darted across the city, visiting not just Great American Ball Park but also the Reds Urban Youth Academy, where he spent time with young fans. He stalked the streets in a Reds-branded knit cap and declared that it wasn’t all that cold. Puig even visited Mayor Cranley.
It was a charm offensive the likes of which hadn’t been seen here in many years. Could it be that one of most popular players in baseball, a guy who burst onto the scene as a brilliant 22-year-old rookie and made the All-Star team a year later, was happy to be a Red? Yasiel Puig, who’d been on playoff teams every single year of his career, actually wanted to be in Cincinnati?
Perhaps it was playing into our insecurities as Cincinnati sports fans, but it worked. And it was almost enough to make us forget the whispers that had followed Puig throughout his tenure in L.A.
No one ever questioned his talent, but as a Dodger he was legendary for showing up late to meetings and workouts and refusing at times to accept instruction. He chafed at the Dodgers’ positioning system in the field, stubbornly relying more on his gut instincts than the analytics. His work ethic was called into question by a number of individuals within that organization.
Watching from afar, I’ve been mesmerized by Puig’s talent from day one. Frankly, I had assumed that some of the criticism was overblown simply because he was so flamboyant on the field, which rubs a lot of “old-school” fans the wrong way. Puig always has fun when he plays baseball, and baseball is supposed to be fun. I like players who enjoy themselves on the field. Let the kids play, right?
I absolutely believe that Puig has been unfairly criticized at times (I’m looking at you, Bill Plaschke), but even Puig’s biggest fans had to concede that there might be something to the “work ethic” criticism. After all, though he’s been a productive big league player for his entire career, his numbers have leveled off, and he’s never again reached the heights of his first two seasons. And then, in late February, Puig—who is in the final year of his contract—conceded the point.
“I never worked hard,” Puig said. “Maybe that’s the reason why I didn’t have my better years….”
“The last couple years, I didn’t work hard because I still have a contract to go,” Puig said with a slight chuckle. “Now I think I’ll work hard more than any year in my life.”
Well, OK then. Ten days before those comments, Puig had indicated that he was open to signing a contract extension with the Reds, but here was a huge red flag being waved in our collective faces. And you know what? I’m still enamored of the idea that the Reds could sign Puig to a long-term contract.
The Yasiel Puig paradox was on full display this week as the Reds rolled into the City of Angels. The Dodgers planned a media conference and a quiet presentation of National League championship rings to Puig, Kemp, and Wood … and Puig showed up 70 minutes late. The Los Angeles media rolled their eyes. Same old Puig, right?
But then Puig raved about Joey Votto: “He’s the best guy I’ve ever met in my life. He has his good career, money, everybody knows him. He’s been in the league for I don’t know how many years more than me. He’s having dinner with me every day, talks to me every day, texts me and tries to be a better person than myself. That’s a reason I love and I respect him.”
And then he ruminated on how much he loved his new teammates: “That’s one of the most beautiful things I have with my new team,” Puig said in Spanish. “This support, and to be by each other’s side every day and talking in the locker room, on the bus, on the flight, on the field, off the field, we always have good communication. That’s what makes me not feel as much nostalgia as you might think I would feel for the Dodgers.”
And then he hit the home run off Kershaw, which capped a two-month stretch since the beginning of spring training in which Puig had done everything right. It didn’t stop with the charm offensive; he’s been playing hard every day, he’s been a great teammate by all accounts, and he’s still having fun, licking bats and flipping them. Maybe Votto’s influence has been a net positive, or maybe Puig is just going all-out because it’s his contract year.
If he doesn’t perform well this season, any talk of extending his contract will be a moot point. But what if we keep seeing this same energetic, motivated, and fun Puig all year? How will Reds management resolve the Puig Paradox?
Listen, I know all the baggage that comes with Yasiel Puig. But I have to concede that the Puig we’ve seen since he came to Cincinnati is a guy I’d like to keep around for a long while. He certainly makes this team more fun, and that’s half the battle (since I can never be sure the Reds are actually going to win games, you know).
“[T]his is my color,” Puig said recently. “I love red.” It certainly looks good on him. So far, anyway.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.