Yasiel Puig needs to learn tough lesson from Dodgers
The Dodgers returned home for the traditional start of the 2014 season with fresh Australian victories, renewed championship hopes, and a battered chunk of familiar baggage.
All of this lugging around of the constant turmoil that is Yasiel Puig is getting tiresome.
“I know Yasiel is a huge lightning rod,” Manager Don Mattingly said Tuesday as he took a deep breath. “Any time I say anything about Yasiel it turns into a story. Any time Yasiel does something it turns into a story. I understand that.”
There have been myriad stories about the Dodgers’ turbo-charged, hardheaded outfielder since he joined the team last June, but, really, it’s always the same story.
Puig messes up. Puig is publicly criticized by someone in the organization. Soon thereafter, Puig is publicly embraced and defended by that same person, who now says the criticism was misunderstood and, c’mon people, he’s a really, really great kid.
Benched for disciplinary reasons, then brought into the game two hours later. Scolded for reckless speeding, then turned into centerpiece for Dodgers FanFest. Rinse and repeat.
This enabling cycle continued Tuesday in Mattingly’s first media conference since he dared to show frustration after Puig made two trademark baserunning blunders and then left the game complaining of a sore back in the team’s 7-5 weekend win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As expected, given a few days to ponder his words and perhaps hear from team executives who have made Puig a focus of their marketing campaign, the manager made nice.
“He’s good, actually . . . he’s good . . . he’s good,” Mattingly said of Puig, who arrived 10 minutes before the club’s first Dodger Stadium workout and spent most of the time in the training room receiving treatment for a sore back. “Yasiel and I are fine.”
The truth is, they haven’t been fine all spring, what with Puig showing up about 15 pounds heavier than last spring and then batting .122 in exhibition games while continuing to show signs of the immaturity that continually threatens his awesome potential.
The truth is, Puig also is increasingly not fine with his many veteran teammates, who realize this team has a chance to do something special and are insulted by someone who does not take this rare opportunity seriously.
The truth also is, the Dodgers’ thinning patience is in direct correlation with the thinning of Puig’s numbers.
It’s one thing to foolishly run into an out when you’re hitting .350, or mindlessly overthrow a cutoff man when you’ve already thrown out two guys in the same game. It’s another thing to do the same dumb stuff when you’re not the same great player.
Puig batted .214 in the season’s last month while showing an increasing inability to hit the inside pitch. After rebounding to hit .471 against the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, he then batted .227 against the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series with 10 strikeouts in 23 plate appearances while make a couple of gaffes in the field.
This spring, he barely showed up, managing only five hits. Then, in Australia, he went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts in the opener before collecting three hits with two runs batted in during his baserunning-marred second game.
Sometimes, certainly, he’s still Wild Horse. But since late last summer, with opposing pitchers clearly having figured him out, he’s often just been Wild.
At this point, the Dodgers and Mattingly have not only a right, but a responsibility, to put their cleats down and hold Puig accountable. That’s what Mattingly was doing in Australia when, after the second game, he talked about dumb Dodgers plays like Puig’s baserunning and said, “I know at the end of the day this doesn’t play for the course of the year. This ends up getting you in trouble.”
Before the game, even though he was just being playful, Mattingly also was within his rights when he wondered about Puig’s penchant for constantly grabbing an area of his body after every on-field failure.
“He seems to grab something every time he takes a swing and misses,” Mattingly said at the time. “At this point, it’s like the little boy who cried wolf. At some point, you don’t ever really think he’s hurt. So one of these days he’s going to be hurt and we won’t know.”
It was not necessary for Mattingly to apologize for any of that, and he didn’t. But he held a meeting with Puig on Tuesday and then later clarified that he was not being critical of the young star.
“I don’t think that was fair. I think it was taken the wrong way,” Mattingly said of his comments. “I was in general frustration over that game. . . . I want our guys to know we can’t play like that and expect to win anything.”
One of the reasons Mattingly commands so much respect in the clubhouse and the community is that he’s so real. But in talking about Puig, he almost sounded rehearsed, and one wonders if he was asked to chill out by the highest levels of the Dodgers front office — a place that uses Puig’s signing as a point of pride and continually protects and empowers him.
A member of that front office said Tuesday it would be outrageously wrong to report that any official has ever attempted to influence Mattingly’s comments. But, given the marketing department’s huge investment in promoting Puig, the wonder persists.
Nobody on the Dodgers has ever really told Puig no. That’s what created this problem, and that’s what could turn it into a season-threatening clubhouse distraction if it’s not fixed.
Mattingly has a chance to fix it. He has the job security to do it. He has the potential outfield surplus to do it. He clearly has the stomach to do it.
Here’s hoping Mattingly feels the freedom to do it. For the Dodgers to work, Mattingly needs to be able to bench Puig without apology, hold him accountable without clarification, and run a professional dugout that accepts no excuses.
The rinse and repeat needs to cease and desist.
Heck, it would be nice if somebody could just slow Puig down. Despite apologizing in this column two months ago for driving 110 mph and promising he would not be driving this season, Puig is already driving his Rolls Royce again.
Of course he is. The only question is whether the Dodgers are giving him gas money.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.