Yasiel Puig sat alone in the corner of a cramped clubhouse, in a black folding chair labeled “MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.” He stared up at the television set. The Dodgers were playing the Boston Red Sox, and at one point he saw a picture of himself. He could pretty well imagine what the announcers were saying.
This was two years ago, and the last game the Dodgers and Red Sox played before this World Series. The Dodgers had exiled Puig to triple-A, and he knew exactly why he was not at Dodger Stadium that night.
“He’s not there because of his conduct, the way he’s acting,” said Luis Matos, the coach who interpreted for Puig that day in Des Moines. “That’s why he’s here, to get better in that part of his life and his game.”
Puig did, and he batted sixth for the Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday. Manny Machado batted fourth.
Puig had two hits, both infield singles, both times busting his butt to beat the throw to first base, the second time as the tying run scored in the 13th inning.
Machado had one hit, also a single. He got his by hitting a fly ball off the top of the left field wall, admiring it lovingly as he prepared to ease into his home run trot, then moving just fast enough to assure himself of an embarrassing single. Not that the Dodgers have been any good at getting a runner home from scoring position, but it would have been nice if Machado could have broken a sweat and given them that chance.
“Very, very, very, very poor baserunning by me,” Machado said.“I probably wasn’t going to be on second base, but very embarrassing.”
On Friday, at least, the home fans were forgiving. The next time Machado batted, with the potential winning run on base, the fans chanted “Man-ny!”
Hey, it has been 30 long years since the Dodgers’ last parade. If Machado could hit one over the wall – or even another one off the top of the wall – the Dodgers would have been three outs from victory.
Machado struck out, in what almost assuredly will be one of his final acts in Dodger blue. He got cheers again in the 10th inning and the 13th inning, the hopes of a city conferred upon him. A home run would have been a walkoff either time. He popped up one time, flew out the other, and finished the evening with that one hit in seven at-bats.
The Dodgers’ business model does not call for spending $300 million – or more – on one player. They have not signed any player for more than $100 million since they rewarded Clayton Kershaw with an extension five seasons ago. The Dodgers’ business model emphasizes depth, and it’s hard to knock the plan after the team’s first back-to-back World Series appearances in 40 years. You can buy a lot of depth for $300 million.
When the Dodgers acquired Machado in July, they did not mask their intentions.
“This is about 2018 for us,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said then. “We hope he plays well, and creates a good market for himself.”
Still, in the recesses of the collective brain of the Dodgers’ braintrust, there was always a chance to bring back Machado. He is 26, just entering the prime of his career, and he can play a premium defensive position. Maybe the Dodgers could justify spending the money and trading Corey Seager for a stud pitcher.
Now? There is no way the Dodgers could justify bringing Machado back.
Dave Roberts, the manager, has worked tirelessly to get star players to buy into a system that does not afford anyone star treatment. If you play for the Dodgers, your track record and your most recent hot streak and $6.50 might get you nothing more than a Dodger dog, and a seat on the bench.
In that system of depth above all, signing Machado to a long-term contract would be the equivalent of tossing a bomb into the clubhouse.
Puig still has his moments, to be sure. He does not report for work on time every day. But the majority of the mistakes he makes on the field result from trying to make something happen -- running into an out, overthrowing the cutoff man, and the like.
In this postseason alone, Machado has taken out middle infielders on dirty slides, almost taken out a first baseman on a dirty leg hook, and owned up to a repeated failure to hustle but defied any notion that he might change. This isn’t just a cranky columnist’s opinion. The umpires cited him for the slide, the league fined him for the hook, and he told The Athletic that he was “not the type of player that’s going to be Johnny Hustle.”
In April, when Roberts determined Cody Bellinger had not been Johnny Hustle on a play, Roberts benched him. Two years ago, when the Dodgers had their fill of Puig, they demoted him to the minor leagues.
The Dodgers tolerated a variety of behaviors from Puig during his first two years in the major leagues, when he was a precocious and productive hitter, and they probably would do the same for Machado.
But, if his hitting went south and his behaviors did too, the Dodgers would not be able to send him to the minors without his consent, because he has played enough years in the majors to earn that right. And does anyone really believe Machado would reform, or even care, if Roberts were to yank him one night for not hustling?
Would he listen to Justin Turner and a small group of veteran leaders, as Puig did when the Dodgers recalled him from the minor leagues?