Yasiel Puig's journey from demotion to World Series

ByRamona Shelburne via ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
ESPN

The story of how Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and L.A. Rams quarterback Jared Goff became "friends" begins in the early morning hours of July 29, 2013.

Goff was a freshman at UC Berkeley, still a few weeks away from being named the Golden Bears' starting quarterback. Puig was eight weeks into his rookie season, 12 months into his time in America after defecting from Cuba and fewer than 50 games into the most dominant major league debut since Joe DiMaggio. On the afternoon of July 28, Puig blasted a monster walk-off home run againstCincinnati Reds reliever Curtis Partch in the bottom of the 11th inning to break a scoreless tie. Only he didn't just hit the home run and celebrate with his teammates. He hit the home run, flipped his bat into the air and then slid into home while his teammates crowded around him.

Goff, like many purists, didn't like the extra mustard on the celebration. So he fired off this tweet: "I really hope Yasiel Puig gets a fastball in his ribs tomorrow."

The tweet got a few likes and retweets at the time, but nothing like what happened nearly three years later, in April 2016, when the Rams picked Goff No. 1 overall and a Twitter account named @OldTakesExposed dug up Goff's tweet from his freshman year. Dodgers teammates Brett Anderson and Kike Hernandez retweeted it, with snarky comments about becoming intermediaries and making peace. Word got back to Puig, who called one of his agents, Andy Mota.

Puig wasn't mad, though. Somehow, without knowing anything about Goff except the circumstances he now faced as the top pick of L.A.'s new NFL franchise, Puig understood the kid needed a break. Mota said, "His initial text to me was, 'Say something like welcome him to L.A. That I'll pick him up, drive him around the city and show him around, something like that.' And with Twitter, you can use only so many words, so I forgot exactly what the tweet said. But we added #PuigYourFriend and that's how it all started."

It was so charmingly against the mixed reputation Puig had built for himself in his first three years in the big leagues that the tweet went viral. Goff seemed to be both grateful and touched by it. He tweeted back, "Thanks for the warm welcome. Let's just forget that tweet happened. I'll have to take you up on the offer. #PuigMyFriend."

It was one of Puig's better moments in a stretch of rough ones. He'd spent the previous few months hearing his name in trade rumors. His clashes with teammates, such as Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, had been exposed in Molly Knight's book, "The Best Team Money Can Buy," in the previous summer, and the fallout was still mounting. He and the Dodgers had underachieved in the playoffs once again. And everyone involved began to wonder if Puig needed a change of scenery to mature -- or if that was ever going to happen at all.

In his first three years, Puig had openly discussed reading and being affected by what was said about him on social media. Goff's old tweet could have set him off or down a deep hole of insecurity. Instead, it revealed an empathy and self-awareness he'd rarely shown. He didn't know Goff or much about the NFL. But he did know what it was like to be cast as a star and a franchise's savior before you were ready for the responsibility or had the support system to help you deal with it.

He knew because he'd lived it.

He was still living it.

There are those who believe that if Puig had done the normal minor league service time, rather than being rushed to the majors to prop up the Dodgers' stagnant offense, everything else might have been different.That in that star-studded Dodgers clubhouse, Puig didn't get enough guidance and mentoring to know how baseball expected him to behave. That a stint in the minors would have given him more time to learn American culture, speak English and assimilate into baseball's sometimes archaic code of conduct.

In other words, he'd have acted more like Corey Seager or Cody Bellinger -- rookies who broke out right away, but still knew how to be rookies. Instead he burst on to the scene, was anointed the future King of Los Angeles, with Lakers star Kobe Bryant about to retire, and was left to figure out how to fit in and say and do the right things all on his own.

"The way he broke out sort of isolated him," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said. "I don't know if he knew how to be a rookie, or even if he was allowed to be a rookie because he came up so fast and had success so fast."

Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it also presumes there weren't willing mentors around, and that's not as true. Puig had plenty of would-be mentors. Adrian Gonzalez took him fishing in Mexico and Canada. Juan Uribe was a constant presence. Kenley Jansen paid close attention and tried to keep him loose whenever he saw him pressing. Fellow Latin ballplayers like Albert Pujols, Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano reached out to offer advice and connection. He bonded with former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire. He had a deep connection with the man who served as his mentor and translator, Tim Bravo. Dodgers assistant coach Manny Mota tried to help bridge the cultural divide. Even Bryant offered advice on how to handle and embrace stardom.

Puig listened to them and appreciated that they cared, but sometimes it takes a while to truly hear what someone is saying. The message and the messenger have to be just right. Then, of course, you have to be open to receiving it.

"When you teach him, you don't push," Mota said. "Sometimes when you are teaching, you don't act like you are teaching. You act like you want to help, you have to laugh with them, have fun.

"If you push him too much, he might run away. He won't trust you."

It has taken four years for the Dodgers and Puig to find the right way to communicate. It is no small coincidence that the franchise is making its first World Series appearance in 29 years at the same time Puig is having his finest, most consistent individual season. He had a career-high 28 home runs and 74 RBIs in the regular season, hitting mostly from the eighth spot in the lineup. He has continued to rake in the postseason, hitting .375 with four extra-base hits, six RBIs, six runs scored and a head-turning six walks in the Dodgers' nine playoff games.

"We've seen a lot of maturation," said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations. "The last piece for him was going to be how he's going to respond in October, and he's been great. Just the calmness in the batter's box has been incredible."

The path here wasn't a straight line. Nor is the ground solid yet. But every person who played a role in the process, including Puig himself, understood that the key was never to tame the passion and wildness inside him, but to trust him to do the right things with it.

To see Puig running through the dugout at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, his cap on backward and hollering out who-knows-what at hitting coach Turner Ward and Mota as he puts on his batting gloves, it's hard to believe he's the same man who walked around so solemnly at a Dodgers Foundation charity event last season, just before the trade deadline.

One day in particular stands out as a low point. Reports had been flying that the Dodgers were talking to the Cincinnati Reds about a deal involving Puig. It wasn't the first time he'd heard his name in trade rumors, but the first time that it felt like it really could happen.

As he walked through the buffet line at a concert to benefit the foundation, Puig was trying to process what it meant. Did they not want him anymore? Had they lost faith in him?

He ran into Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss, who had invited him to basketball games over the years and always made him feel welcomed and special when he attended. ("She's my love," Puig says.)

So when she asked how he was, Puig opened up. He told her about the trade rumors and how it was weighing on him. She told him this was a normal part of the sports business and that everyone knew he still had the talent to be the star in L.A., now that Bryant had retired. They snapped a selfie together, and for one night at least, he felt like the old Puig.

The trade deadline passed and Puig was not dealt, but it was clear to all involved that certain things still had to change. His production hadn't improved. Nor had his lapses in concentration or problems with punctuality or following certain clubhouse norms. The Dodgers decided to send him down to Triple-A Oklahoma City to take pressure off, clear his head and hopefully address the issues he simply wasn't fixing.

Friedman worried about how the demotion would affect Puig's confidence and the trust between the player and the organization. He also felt strongly that Puig needed to prove some things. So he went over to Puig's house and made sure he understood exactly why the decision was made, and what he hoped Puig would take from it.

"I laid everything out," Friedman said. "I think I was there for three hours. It's too complex to sum up generally, but there were issues in terms of what was expected and how that was heard and understood by him. I think oftentimes he was confused by what was expected of him and didn't necessarily have the ability to say, 'Help, I'm confused.'"

Friedman wasn't sure the experiment would work, but he knew the only way it had a chance was if he met Puig at his home, where he would feel comfortable and could look him in the eye.

"Andrew's basic message was to go down and play hard, be a good teammate and give them a reason to bring me back," Puig said. "I had to earn it."

In Oklahoma City, Puig's job was to listen, learn and earn his way back to the major leagues. Manager Bill Haselman was working directly with the player, then filing daily reports back to the Dodgers.

"He came down wanting to work and wanting to learn," Haselman said. "So every time he did something that was just not the way it's supposed to be done, I would take him aside and talk to him face to face. I think he was dying to have that kind of interaction."

A minor league clubhouse is far more conducive to those kinds of talks than a big league club. There's maybe one or two reporters around. The Dodgers catered meals before and after games, so most players ate together and hung out together in the clubhouse.

"I think anyone will say, a minor league clubhouse is less stressful," said Charlie Culberson, a teammate this year in L.A. and last year in Oklahoma. "There's not as many eyes on you down there in the minor leagues. He was able to just relax and do his thing down there."

When Puig had a question about hitting or baserunning or whatever, Haselman said he'd spend hours in his office talking it through. During games, the former major league catcher would nudge him to remind him of things. "Like, in the seventh inning, I'd remind him, 'You might pinch hit here,'" Haselman said. "Even if he wasn't pinch-hitting, I wanted him to be ready every time with his mind on the game. He would be like, 'Yeah, I'm ready. I'm ready.' As it went on, near the end of his stay with us, you could tell he was totally ready and prepared for it."

Puig had been humbled by his demotion, and he genuinely seemed to want to fit into the Triple-A clubhouse. So when everyone started dancing as music played in the clubhouse Aug. 8 after a loss to the Iowa City Cubs, he went with it.

Oklahoma City had lost eight of its previous nine games and, like the scene in "Bull Durham" where Crash Davis runs the sprinklers at night to create a rainout, veteran pitcher Sam LeCure thought the clubhouse could use a little levity.

"I'm all like, 'Sam, What's up with the music?'" Haselman said. "And he goes, 'That was me. I put it on. I just wanted to change the atmosphere. We're going to hang out in the clubhouse tonight, just chill.'"

Haselman understood. He left the clubhouse and walked back to the team hotel. By morning his phone was blowing up with texts.

Did you see what Puig did?

It didn't take long for Haselman to piece together the story. Puig had posted clips of the team's clubhouse party on his Snapchat account, with captions about how much he loved the team because they could still have fun after a loss. There were scenes from inside what appeared to be a party bus, too.

"The hotel always provides a bus, but their regular bus was in service so they had to get us a different bus and the only one they could find is one with lighting and sound speakers," infielder Alex Hassan said. "It looked so much worse than it was. I think from Yasiel's perspective, it was like, 'These guys are struggling, they're trying to turn things around, I'm going to be involved in it so people can see that I'm one of the guys.'

"Unfortunately, it ended up on the internet."

Haselman explained what happened to the Dodgers brass. They issued a statement saying they were "disappointed in his and some of our other players' judgement" but would address the situation internally. That became a conversation between Haselman and Puig in which the coach told him he did nothing wrong by joining in the clubhouse party. The only mistake was in putting it on social media. Beyond that statement, details were kept in house.

"If you try to explain all that stuff when it happened, it looks like you're just trying to make it better," Haselman said. "But that really is exactly what happened. Ask any of the players."

Culberson and Hassan corroborated the account. Hassan, who retired after last season and is now living in Boston, said he feels badly if it overshadowed any of what was otherwise a good experience with Puig.

"It honestly was a really harmless thing," Hassan said. "I was really impressed with him. He wasn't bitter about being down there. He knew he had stuff to work on and he really worked hard at it, played hard and I feel like earned his way back up there.

"He deserves a lot of credit because I think there was a very real scenario where if he didn't perform well, he wouldn't have got called back in September of last year."

Before the Dodgers were willing to bring him back up, Friedman and Roberts convened a meeting of the team's key veterans, including Kershaw, Justin Turner, Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley.

"We felt it was the right thing to do to get the group of veteran players together and talk to them and see, would they be open to having him back?" Roberts said. "I think that part of being a good teammate is that those guys gotta accept him. And to a man, each person wanted him back."

Shortly thereafter Puig addressed the team as a whole, apologizing for mistakes he'd made and affirming that he was committed to doing better.

"Walls were broken down," Roberts said of the meetings last year. "It was beautiful. For him to be vulnerable like that, and for them to connect back with him, so he knew they actually cared about him. It was beautiful."

After those meetings, Jansen said the team saw what he'd always known about Puig and the key to unlocking his ability. If they kept him loose and focused, he'd respond. If he was allowed to drift without people pointing out specifically what they needed from him, he'd disappoint.

"We wanted him to be with us if he was going to be focused all on baseball," said Jansen, who texted Puig every day while he was in Oklahoma. "His mind was in a lot of places. Once he just focused on one thing, you can tell how amazing he is."

Zaidi said he notices little things happening this year that have strengthened the connection.

"We'll have hitters meetings, and JT [Turner] will sit right next to Puig," Zaidi said. "When someone makes a point that JT wants to reinforce, he'll kind of elbow him to make sure he hears it."

And there is no hiding the connection Puig has had with hitting coach Turner Ward. By now everyone has seen images of Puig kissing him on the cheek after home runs or bear hugging him in the Dodgers dugout. It has become as viral as #PuigYourFriend ever was, and just as unlikely in origin.

Remember the brawl between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2013? Ward, then the D-backs' assistant hitting coach, got slammed against the railing by Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell and put in a headlock by Dodgers utility man Skip Schumaker. Puig got hit in the face by a pitch from Ian Kennedy. Both were ejected, along with four others, in one of the wilder brawls in recent memory.

When Ward became Puig's new hitting coach in 2016, it took a little while to move past that incident.

"I know that he wanted to kill me earlier," Ward said, smiling. "But I came in with an attitude to have a clean slate. I didn't know him. He didn't know me."

Ward started the relationship by telling Puig about his family. He went to school at the University of South Alabama, had four brothers and a sister, as well as a 6-foot-6 son whom Puig reminded him of, and played 12 years in the majors for six teams as a run-through-the-wall outfielder.

"I wanted him to know more who I was more than what I do," Ward said. "Then I wanted to know everything about him and his family and what it took for him to come here. I wanted to be able to relate."

Ward said he brought in assistant coach Mota to help ensure his message was translated accurately into Spanish, and conveyed in the right way.

The key thing Ward needed to get Puig to do was trust his eyes and instincts, rather than "cheating" and diving forward at pitches. Everything else would flow from there. They could start watching film together (something Puig had rarely done in the past). Then they could come up with plans on how to hit each pitcher, rather than simply, "see the ball, and hit the ball," Ward said.

Once he learned to control the instinct to attack everything, to quiet his mind and trust his ability and preparation, he'd evolve as a hitter and begin adjusting to the way the rest of the league was pitching him: Hard in, soft stuff away.

While the bond was immediate between Puig and Ward, the results took some time to manifest. That's when Ward simply asked him to keep trusting in him and what he was trying to teach him.

"It's all confidence," Ward said. "There was a time when he was leaning at the breaking ball. At first, I was trying to get him to stop. Just stop doing that. You don't have to do that. But then, it was like, 'OK, lean.' Now let me just give him something, make him smile, make him laugh because I know he's feeling pressure. There's pressure in this game. There's pressure to all have success. If I can kind of temper that somehow, someway, that's what he needed to find that confidence again."

When Puig was sent down to the minors, Ward texted him every day.

Once upon a time, he'd been where Puig was, too. He'd played winter ball a few times down in the Dominican Republic, in a small town you've probably never heard of. A stranger in a strange country, trying to figure out how to communicate well enough to be understood.

"When I left there, I had a totally different perspective," Ward said. "I was that guy that couldn't speak and needed help."

Once Puig came back up to the majors, he had a surprise for everyone. He was going to try to speak English now. To the media, to Ward, to his English-speaking teammates. Earlier in his career, Uribe had told him his job was to play baseball, not speak English even though he picked it up rather quickly after coming to the United States.

But after everything he'd been through, it just felt like he should make more of an effort to be understood.

"I decided to finally lose the fear and try," Puig said. "Sometimes you're afraid that things won't come out right, but I feel that I'm doing OK."

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