Sports
4:47 am
Tue September 24, 2013

Cuban Defector Yasiel Puig Ignites Los Angeles Dodgers

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 9:13 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, in trying to make a comeback, Blackberry might learn something from the Los Angeles Dodgers. A few months ago they were in last place. Now the Dodgers are heading to the playoffs. The team includes a Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, Dodger number 66. Here's NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: First off, not every ball player has his own theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Twenty-two-year-old rookie Yasiel Puig has been in the Majors for less than four months.

VIC JACOBS: June 3, 2013 will be a date forever in the minds of all Dodgers fans. That was the day Puig entered the Dodgers in San Diego and the magic began.

MERAJI: Well-known LA Sports Radio personality Vic "The Brick" Jacobs calls Puig's debut Christmas Day for the Dodgers. Here's even better know sportscaster Vince Scully announcing Puig's first at bat against the San Diego Padres.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BROADCAST)

VINCE SCULLY: The young fella out of Cuba making his major league debut.

MERAJI: You can hear the hesitation in Scully's voice. Nobody knows if the right-fielder is going to be able to perform under Major League pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BROADCAST)

SCULLY: So we will see. (Unintelligible) ready in the two-two pitch, swung on. He's got himself a major league hit.

MERAJI: Next game, Puig hits his first homerun in the Majors; seven homeruns and 16 RBIs in his first month.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BROADCAST)

SCULLY: The Wild Horse has done it again.

MERAJI: Vince Scully nicknamed Puig the Wild Horse. He can throw a runner out at home from deep right field without hitting a cutoff man. He slides into base with so much force, you think he's gonna break something.

DON MATTINGLY: Yasiel, I think, was kind of a turning point because he did bring an energy to our club, and I think a lot guys fell right in line with that.

MERAJI: That's Dodger manager Don Mattingly. For somebody who has to manage that kind of passion, how has it been for you personally?

MATTINGLY: Oh, a learning experience, it's good. Puig University, I tell everybody I go to every day.

MERAJI: Puig University, a diplomatic way of saying the school of hard knocks where you learn to discipline a phenom who doesn't always listen, stealing bases when he's told not to, throwing long when he shouldn't. On field he's exuberant and pouty, and the sports media has taken notice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now the question is, are we starting to hate Yasiel Puig?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's now sort have been synonymous with being a little bit abrasive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The blessing of the season, Yasiel Puig. The biggest Dodger curse, Yasiel Puig.

MERAJI: But there's one voice missing in this whole conversation about Yasiel Puig. (Speaking Spanish)

YASIEL PUIG: Yasiel Puig.

MERAJI: (Speaking Spanish)

PUIG: En Cuba.

MERAJI: On the field, he's an extrovert. Off, he's reluctant to talk to the media. But after a lot of back and forth, Puig said yes to this interview and I was hoping to get a sense of who he really is, wild horse, Dodger curse or otherwise. We met at the apartment he shares with his older cousin in downtown L.A. and when I asked him if he has a best friend here in the U.S...

PUIG: (Speaking Spanish)

MERAJI: He says Ramon, because that's his cousin and he always cries when he beats him at Playstation. Yep, this is the 22-year-old that has the sports media in a tizzy. A flat screen hooked up to a Playstation is the centerpiece of his furnished corporate apartment. Not much decoration here save a couple of bottles of unopened Cuban rum and a bobblehead of, you guessed it, Dodgers number 66, Yasiel Puig.

PUIG: (Speaking Spanish)

MERAJI: Puig says his game day routine is simple too. He goes into the kitchen, says good morning, makes breakfast and plays Playstation till it's time to go to the stadium. I tried to squeeze a story out of him, something personal. I asked him if he remembered his first homerun in Cuba.

PUIG: (Speaking Spanish) No, no remember.

MERAJI: I asked him what he misses about Cuba.

PUIG: (Speaking Spanish)

MERAJI: He told me he misses his house and friends a little, but he's feeling a lot of love here because the Dodgers are winning. Puig doesn't say much more about Cuba. He defected to Mexico in 2012 and shortly after signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers. He had three pairs of boxer shorts with him then. Now he's a millionaire and one of the favorites for National League Rookie of the Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: If you meet Yasiel Puig in person, he seems less like a wild horse and more like a typical 22-year-old guy who likes singing along to his favorite songs from back home, texting furiously on his phone, and of course playing video games, which he'll most likely be doing right up until it's time to leave for his first playoff game in the majors. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.