The bat flip went mainstream last week.
That is why this week should be so intriguing. We generally do not hold a referendum on the popularity of our celebrities, but this is the time when America extends a collective thumbs up or thumbs down to Yasiel Puig.
On Wednesday, Major League Baseball is set to announce the initial National League leaders in fan voting for the All-Star Game. After a contentious debate last season over whether Puig should merit an All-Star spot on one hellaciously hot month, he should win in a landslide this season.
If the election is all about the statistics, this is no contest.
Puig has triggered a Triple Crown watch, as he ranks second in the league in batting average, second in runs batted in, and sixth in home runs, through Friday's games. He leads all major league outfielders with a 1.063 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). The NL can take the next six weeks to find a third outfielder to start the All-Star Game, but Puig and Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins ought to be locks for the first two spots.
For Puig, of course, it is never all about the statistics. It is about his fantastic feats and foibles, about a player with an almost unfairly strong arm and almost no restraint about showing it off. It is about a guy who can flip his bat and thrust his arms skyward to admire a home run, then realize the ball is in play and turn on the jets for a standup triple, as he did in the playoffs last year — and again Saturday.
In one game alone — in New York on Thursday — Puig made a spectacular diving catch after a scarcely believable sprint, ignored the infield fly rule and got needlessly tagged out, danced off second base only to get doubled off the base, and flipped his bat only to find out what he thought would be a home run was actually a fly out.
Whenever he sets foot on the field — at bat, on the bases, or in the outfield — something breathtaking might happen. Sports at its best is genuine suspense, and no player in baseball is better at getting fans scooting up to the edge of their seats.
The All-Star Game is all about putting on a show for the fans, starring the players everyone wants to see. We thought that logic would get Puig to the All-Star Game last year, when he was one of five candidates in a fan vote to decide the final spot on the NL team.
Puig did not win. Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves did.
It might be that Puig cuts an even more polarizing national figure now than he did then. The issue then was whether a player should arrive in the major leagues in June and play in the All-Star Game in July. That topic is relatively tame, compared to the frankly tedious rancor about whether his every bat flip threatens to destroy the dignity of our national pastime.
So, in the interest of persuading the purists reluctant to vote for Puig, we were delighted to see the video segment MLB and MTV put together for him last week, while the Dodgers were in New York. Puig set up shop in a park, where the host invited anyone walking by to grab a bat and celebrate an occasion on national television.
"My 21st birthday," said a woman.
"My sister's graduation," said a guy in a bow tie.
"A divorce. Free at last," said one apparently unburdened soul.
"Graduating from college and impending unemployment," said a sadly astute young man dressed in cap and gown.
Puig demonstrated the art of the bat flip for each celebrant, then let each one take a swing, and a flip. When his work there was done, he walked over to the nearby MLB Fan Cave, where he sang and danced with fans, then played a video game in which he put his virtual self into the lineup. The virtual Puig hit a home run, and the real Puig flipped his game controller.
This is the league endorsing the bat flip as entertaining, not offensive. This is a sanction from a league run by a commissioner two months from turning 80.
That should be good enough for those fans worried that a vote for Puig is a vote for impropriety. If not, at least, those fans ought to remember that the guy who made the Mickey Mouse sign atop his helmet during last year's playoffs was Adrian Gonzalez, not Yasiel Puig.