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Dodgers

Column: Yasiel Puig shows a familiar flair while morphing into the Dodgers’ enemy

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15, 2019: Cincinnati Reds Yasiel Puig flips his bat after hitting a 2-run ho
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig flips his bat after hitting a two-run home run off Clayton Kershaw during the first inning of the Dodgers’ 4-3 victory Monday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The tradition is as much a part of the Dodger Stadium experience as the wave or the beach balls. When the visiting team scores, the fans boo.

An exception was made Monday night in the first inning of the Dodgers’ 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, when Yasiel Puig redirected a first-inning slider by Clayton Kershaw over the center-field wall for a two-run home run.

The celebration was classic Puig.

He flipped his bat. He pointed to the heavens. He pointed back toward his team’s bench. And upon touching the plate, he pointed into the stands.

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“I was able to put my team ahead 2-0 against Kershaw in my return to Los Angeles,” Puig said in Spanish. “I was very emotional.”

About the only unfamiliar part of this was the Reds uniform he was wearing.

When the conservative wing of baseball’s fanbase used to complain of such behavior, the fans here championed it. They wanted to see players who looked as if they were playing, not working. Whatever his many faults, Puig became avatar for childlike enthusiasm in a game that was made overly business-like by a strange blend of dogma and analytics.

The same fans who felt he projected their joy and angst over the previous six seasons weren’t about to boo him now, even if he was traded in the offseason and in a red jersey circling a downtrodden Kershaw. Some of them went as far to cheer and scream, “Puiiiiiig!”

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Of course, reality is more complicated than what is in public view, as Rob Butcher was reminded earlier in the day.

Before Puig saluted the fans in his former stadium by tipping his helmet, before he launched a rocket against Kershaw, he was late.

He was late to his news conference. How Puig of him.

As vice president of media relations for the Reds, Butcher was tasked with informing the three-dozen or so reporters gathered in the Dodger Stadium interview room of the right fielder’s tardiness.

Seated where Puig would later be seated, Butcher announced, “Yasiel is late. I cannot tell you when he will be here.”

Puig was scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. He was 39 minutes late and counting.

Is Puig at the stadium?

“He is not,” Butcher said.

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Butcher answered a few more questions and sighed.

“I don’t know what else I can tell you folks,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Cincinnati Reds right fielder Yasiel Puig talks about returning to Dodger Stadium and his time with the organization.

Next to answer for Puig was Reds manager David Bell.

Asked when the Reds would consider Puig late, the rookie manager replied, “That’s not something I would want to talk about. I’m happy to talk about Yasiel, all the great things he’s done since he’s been here. He’s done everything right.”

He’s been punctual?

“Absolutely,” Bell said. “Yes. 100%. That wouldn’t be the first thing I would talk about. It would be more about the way he’s played the game, the teammate he’s been. He’s been outstanding. We love having him.”

When Puig showed up, he didn’t say much. That was expected. Contrary to his reputation as a nonconformist, he rarely says anything noteworthy.

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He wondered whether he would cry when the fans applauded him and chanted his name.

“When I get the most emotional is when I come up to hit and people are chanting my name,” he said in Spanish.

His criticism of the Dodgers was subtle.

“My teammates continue to support me,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I have with new team. It’s not just about winning or playing well. There’s support. We’re eating together every day and talking every day in the locker room and on the bus and on flights, on the field, off the field, we’re always communicating well. That’s why I don’t feel as much nostalgia as you would think about not playing for the Dodgers.”

The ruckus over Puig’s tardiness confirmed to Jack DeLance and Tim Bravo that Puig was better off in Cincinnati.

DeLance, who has a background in sports marketing, calls himself Puig’s executive assistant. Bravo was hired by DeLance to do what he did in Puig’s rookie year of 2013, which was to live with Puig and ensure he maintained a responsible schedule and diet.

“We were determined to come in with a new game plan for Cincinnati,” DeLance said.

Bravo took a leave of absence from his job as a high school teacher in New Mexico. He lives with Puig, Puig’s girlfriend and Puig’s two boys in a six-bedroom house in Northern Kentucky.

“I think he’s embraced the change,” Bravo said.

In fact, Bravo and DeLance said change was necessary.

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“He wants to play every day,” DeLance said. “And with all due respect with the Dodgers, they’re an organization that has their way of thinking on how they’re going to execute their game plan. In Cincinnati, it’s like, ‘You’re our starting right fielder, you’re going to go out there, good, bad, ugly, left-handed, right-handed, you’re our guy.’”

Take the game Monday. The Reds were taking on a left-hander in Kershaw. Puig entered the game with a .163 average. This was the kind of game Puig would have started on the bench last season, when he batted .209 against left-handers.

Puig struck out in the fourth inning. With Kershaw pitching in the seventh, Puig singled to left field. He made an exaggerated turn around first base, the kind he made countless times here over the last six seasons.

Only this time, something was different. There were a significant number of boos mixed in with the applause.

By the time Puig stepped into the batter’s box to face closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game, the entire stadium booed. Puig flied out to right field, advancing Curt Casali to third base and setting up Matt Kemp’s go-ahead single.

Puig heard a familiar roar as he walked off the field. Only these cheers weren’t for him. They were for the Dodgers, who won the game on a walk-off home run by Joc Pederson.

The fans might still claim Puig as theirs, but their loyalty to their team won out. Puig was the enemy now.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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