Column: The naked truth of the matter is, a maturing Puig has grown on Dodgers
By the time Yasiel Puig walked into the locker room, the other Dodgers had already seen plenty of him — more of him than they would have liked, in fact.
Earlier in the day, Puig posted on his social media accounts a series of photographs that will be published this week in ESPN the Magazine’s body issue. Puig bared almost all in the pictures, with only a glove or a thigh concealing his groin area in the majority of them.
Two or three years ago, his teammates would have rolled their eyes in disgust. They would have shaken their heads in disapproval.
Monday, they laughed.
“No comment,” closer Kenley Jansen said with a chuckle.
Jansen didn’t really mean that, of course. He couldn’t help himself.
“I need to find a psychologist tomorrow,” he joked. “I don’t want to talk about it because that really traumatized me.”
Jansen mentioned a photograph in which Puig was naked save for a cap on his head and a vendor’s tray packed with peanuts covering his nether regions.
“One of my favorite things, man, peanuts,” Jansen said. “Can’t even eat them anymore. I just think about little Puig.”
Puig revealed that the pictures were taken a couple of weeks ago.
“It was really fun,” Puig said in Spanish. “They’ve asked me for a number of years, but I didn’t feel I was in the best condition. I decided to do it this year because it’s the 10th anniversary of the issue.”
That wasn’t a good enough reason for Matt Kemp, who said that he too was asked to pose for the body issue when he was younger.
“But I thought about my grandma,” Kemp said. “My grandma would have been mad. The whole church community would have been mad.”
Kemp threw his head back and laughed.
From a distance, the difference between a clubhouse nuisance and an endearing source of humor doesn’t look like much. That’s not the case.
Puig’s ability to transition from one to the other over the last two years reflects positively not only on him but also the players and coaches around him who have learned to accept his eccentricities.
“Puig being Puig,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin, as we saw.”
And so long as Puig’s moments of self-expression don’t disrupt what the Dodgers are trying to accomplish collectively, the team will embrace him, even if it’s with a snicker here or there. A smiling Roberts said of Puig’s semi-nude photographs, “I think his teammates are going to have fun with it.”
Banished to the minor leagues two years ago for being disruptive, Puig has gradually won over his teammates by gracefully accepting a diminished role on the team, as well as taking responsibility for his failures.
Reflecting on the first three months of the season, Puig mentioned without prompting that he hasn’t provided the Dodgers with the type of Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field that he did last year.
“My defense hasn’t been the way I thought it would be,” he said.
Puig often batted in the lower half of the lineup last year and has done so again this year. His season statistics are underwhelming, as he entered Monday night’s series opener against the Chicago Cubs batting .259 with nine home runs and 27 runs batted in.
But Puig has quietly turned around his season. He landed on the disabled list because of a bruised left hip in late April but was batting .306 since he was activated on May 9. All of his home runs have been hit since his DL stint.
“No. 1,” Roberts said, “he’s been much better staying in the strike zone and, No. 2, he’s understanding the value of each at-bat, of each pitch, whereas in years past, in games past, in seasons past, there’s kind of an in and out of focus.”
Hitting coach Turner Ward thinks Puig’s early-season slump started with misfortune.
“Early in the season,” Ward said, “I felt he was swinging it really good, but not getting anything to show for it.”
In Ward’s view, the frustration resulted in Puig’s expanding his strike zone. Puig was batting only .193 before he was sidelined.
“I’m giving my best,” Puig said. “I’m batting .300 since I returned from the disabled list, but my numbers are still down. I’m working hard to improve them.”
Ward remains his guide. The third-year hitting coach gained a measure of fame last year when Puig started celebrating home runs by planting huge kisses on his cheeks.
“The kisses are still good,” Ward said. “When he hits a homer, it’s a little more subtle now. Our relationship has grown. We do have a great relationship. Putting the joking aside, he trusts me, I trust him. We can be very honest with each other.”
So what’s Ward’s honest opinion of Puig’s photoshoot?
“I just saw it for the first time a little while ago,” he said. “It was a few guys kind of joking about it. It’s all in good fun.”
Ward laughed when asked if Puig asked him to be in the photos with him.
“No, thank goodness.”
Are you a true-blue fan?
Get our Dodgers Dugout newsletter for insights, news and much more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.