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Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig took long road to become overnight sensation

Cuban Yasiel Puig has electrified the Dodgers, and their fanbase, hitting .421 with 10 RBI and four home runs -- not to mention one of those was a grand slam -- in his first five games.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

One swing of the bat and more than 44,000 fans in Dodger Stadium erupted. As the ball sailed over the right-field fence — with the bases loaded — even Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully was at a loss.

“I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed to television viewers. “A grand-slam home run!”

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On the Dodgers radio broadcast, veteran announcer Charley Steiner shouted, “This doesn’t happen even in Hollywood!”

As the stadium shook with emotion and Dodgers in the dugout exchanged high-fives and hugs, a chiseled 6-foot-3, 245-pound ballplayer circled the bases.

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Yasiel Puig was in his fourth major league game.

The 22-year-old defector from Cuba had already hit three home runs and driven in nine runs. With his power, speed on the bases and cannon arm from right field, he had single-handedly energized frustrated fans who were fed up with their heavily paid, lightly producing last-place ballclub.

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Even to the untrained eye, Puig looks noticeably stronger and faster than everyone else on the field. Whether swinging a bat, running or throwing, everything he does is an explosion of controlled violence — the equivalent of a championship boxer’s best punch.

“This cat’s a different animal,” is how Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly explains it.

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A little more than a year ago Puig was stewing in his parents’ home in the coastal town of Cienfuegos, upset at being suspended from Cuba’s top baseball league for attempting to flee the country. Since then, he has embarked on a whirlwind odyssey in which he has been transformed. Once exiled from baseball, he’s now a multimillionaire; once virtually unknown, he’s now an overnight sensation.

“Everything is different,” Puig says in Spanish.

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The consensus in baseball was that the Dodgers grossly overpaid when they signed Puig to a seven-year, $42-million contract last June. Skeptics noted there was little known about him and not much of a track record against tough competition.

Opinions about him remain varied. Though Puig was the best player in all of spring training this year according to one National League scout, a well-read list of the game’s top 100 prospects excluded him.

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Even Dodgers officials were cautious. They downplayed the significance of his promotion to the major leagues, which happened only because outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford sustained injuries.

Puig is an unlikely baseball phenom. His parents are engineers who hoped their son would attend college as they did. But once Puig started playing baseball at 9, he says, he never considered anything else as a career.

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At 17, Puig played for a Cuban junior national team at a tournament in Canada. He made his debut in Cuba’s top league later that year, in the 2008-09 season. He played two seasons in the league, which remains off-limits to major league scouts because of the United States’ embargo of Cuba.

“Everyone in the world dreams of playing here in the United States,” Puig says.

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Like many Cuban athletes who have left their homeland, Puig declines to answer questions about his escape from the island, or how he landed on the shores of Cancun, Mexico, last spring.

Around that time, Puig’s agent, Miami-based lawyer Jaime Torres, said he received a phone call from someone claiming to be close to the ballplayer. Torres had a long history of representing Cuban exiles in the major leagues, and he knew that the first order of business was to establish Puig as a resident of Mexico. Doing so allowed Puig to sign with a major league team without violating the terms of the U.S.-Cuba embargo.

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Next, Torres arranged for Puig to work out in front of scouts. There was a firm deadline to sign him: July 2 — the day new rules for signing international players would go into effect. Until then, teams were permitted to pay foreign prospects as much as they wanted. But under a new agreement between the leagues and the players’ union, teams could not spend a total of more than $2.9 million each year on international signings.

Dodgers scouting director Logan White and scout Mike Brito rushed down to Mexico, along with representatives from a few other teams. They didn’t see much — just three batting practice sessions.

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Even so, White was convinced the Dodgers should sign him. The team had money. Months earlier, the Dodgers had been purchased for a record $2.15 billion, and the new owners were willing to dig deeper into their pockets. Team President Stan Kasten, a longtime baseball executive, was already on record saying the club needed to restock a depleted farm system.

Paul Fryer, a high-level scout, was dispatched to Mexico City to watch the final two of Puig’s workouts. Fryer has a knack for projecting how a player in an overseas or college league would transition to pro ball in the U.S. However, in other instances he always had the benefit of watching a player perform in games.

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The first thing Fryer noted about Puig: “He’s pretty much a specimen, physically,” he recalls.

Then he saw Puig hit. “I’ve never seen the ball come off somebody’s bat like that,” Fryer says. He was also impressed with the mechanics of Puig’s swing, leading him to believe Puig would be able to hit a top-level breaking ball.

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Fryer still had reservations. Baseballs traveled farther at Mexico City’s high elevation.

“You have to put your instincts on the line there,” Fryer says.

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The Dodgers asked themselves, would a player of Puig’s caliber be available to them in the 2013 draft? The answer was no. White and Fryer were also buoyed by how quickly other Cuban league stars such Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman had transitioned to American baseball.

The Dodgers had less than a week to work out a deal, and not much to go on. They knew Cespedes, who was older and more established than Puig, had signed a four-year, $36-million deal with Oakland. They also knew Jorge Soler, a year younger and less polished than Puig, had received $30 million over nine years from the Chicago Cubs.

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What other teams might bid for Puig was unknown. So, as they had with their purchase of the Dodgers, ownership went bigger than ever, offering a record contract for a Cuban amateur.

Fryer called Puig’s signing “as unique an experience that any scout has ever been involved in.”

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People involved in the situation insinuate — without explanation — that someone other than Puig and his agent decided which team won out. Says Fryer: “There’s a lot of things I don’t want to get into; how we had to find the real decision-maker.”

Last summer, Puig was playing at the Dodgers’ spring-training facility in Arizona. Between the Arizona rookie league and Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, he batted .354 in 23 games.

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Becoming acclimated to American culture, both on and off the field, was the greater challenge. The Dodgers assigned Spanish-speaking executives to aid Puig in his transition, but word quickly spread that he didn’t always hustle and that he was disobedient.

“There are unwritten rules that apply here that don’t apply in Cuba,” Torres recalls telling Puig.

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Puig’s English teacher and chaperon, Tim Bravo, thought Puig was misunderstood. He saw a different side of the ballplayer.

When Bravo’s 6-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, Puig offered to pay for the treatment.

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“I love him like a son,” Bravo says of Puig.

Puig was scheduled to play last fall in an Arizona league that is a finishing school for baseball’s top prospects. After he developed a staph infection in his elbow that required surgery, he instead played winter ball in Puerto Rico — and batted only .232.

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Between the unflattering reports about his temperament and his disappointing winter season, the Dodgers didn’t know what to expect when he reported to spring training in Arizona.

He arrived with Eddie Oropesa, a former major league pitcher the Dodgers hired to help Puig acclimate.

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Puig was not only well-behaved in the clubhouse, he exceeded even the most optimistic of on-field projections. His .517 average led the Cactus League and his all-around game wowed teammates and rivals.

Kemp, the Dodgers’ star center fielder, compared Puig as an athlete to Bo Jackson, who played both professional baseball and football. Cespedes predicted Puig could do better than he had in 2012, when he was the runner-up in American League rookie-of-the-year voting.

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But there was nothing Puig could do to make the Dodgers’ opening-day roster. In Kemp, Crawford and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers had three former All-Star outfielders who were earning a combined $53.5 million per season. Puig was sent to the Dodgers’ double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It really came down to him having to play the game,” Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. “He needed repetition, game repetition, situational repetition.”

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In Tennessee, Puig sulked. He butted heads with coaches. He was arrested for driving 97 mph in a 50-mph zone. His behavior was enough of a concern that longtime coach Manny Mota, a mentor to many of the organization’s Latin American players, was asked to speak with him.

Puig never stopped hitting, though, and his attitude improved. So, on Monday, with the Dodgers in last place and Kemp and Crawford out with injuries, he was called up to the major leagues.

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Again, the Dodgers didn’t know what to expect. While Puig’s physical capabilities were never in doubt, his minor league experience in America was limited to 262 plate appearances over 63 games.

When Angels star Mike Trout made his major league debut in 2011, he had played in 249 minor league games. Trout played in 14 major league games, hit .163, and was sent back to the minors before being recalled late in the season. He spent the early part of last season in the minor leagues, too, before being called up in late April and becoming the American League rookie of the year.

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With Puig nearing the completion of his first week in the major leagues, questions remain.

Considering how little he has played over the last two years, will his body and mind wear down as the season progresses? How will he adjust to different pitchers and different strategies? When failure inevitably strikes, as it does for everyone in baseball, how will he react?

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“This isn’t the end of the story,” Colletti said. “This is the beginning . . .”

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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Twitter: @dylanohernandez


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