Baseball purists can complain and frown at the way Yasiel Puig plays the game, but the fact is, the 22-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers rookie is the most polarizing player in the major leagues today.
That's saying something considering he's played a grand total of 36 major-league games.
It speaks to Puig's talent and compelling presence on the field, but it also exposes just how boring most of the game's stars are to the casual or non-fans. If you've been watching, playing and loving baseball for the majority of your life, then this obviously wouldn't apply to you. But for fans who have yet to pick up a the love of the game (young kids and adults who haven't appreciated the game thus far), a player like Puig will get their attention.
It also doesn't hurt that Puig has generated a .397 batting average, eight home runs, 19 RBI and five stolen bases in Los Angeles. Hollywood stories performed this close to Hollywood are bound to be more sensationalized.
Just missing out on making the National League All-Star team is a bummer for fans and Puig, but it could be a blessing in disguise. Too much, too soon can be a bad thing.
Puig still has a ton to prove. He hasn't accomplished anything overly historic yet, but the tools and charisma are there.
Purists may say "who cares about the casual fan? This is my game and I love it." But baseball has to care about attracting new fans—especially young ones—to grow the game. Puig is the type of talent who can bring new fans to the game.
He's physically gifted in a way that is comparable to other sports. At 6'3" 245 pounds, Puig could easily pass for a big running back, tight end, linebacker or even quarterback in the NFL.
His speed, power, arm strength and quick twitch athleticism makes him more than a baseball athlete. For all of Miguel Cabrera's awesome skills, it is hard for a non-baseball fan to immediately recognize Miggy's brilliance. Speed, power and an immensely strong throwing arm is easier to see than extraordinary hand-to-eye coordination.
Is that fair? Of course it isn't, but it is a reality.
There are other players in the major leagues who are impressive physical specimens. You'd be hard-pressed to find a ton of athletes who are more physically-gifted than the L.A. Angels' Mike Trout. Similar things could be said of Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.
Even though baseball has athletes with pure athletic gifts that could grab the attention of the casual fan, not many of them perform with Puig's flair. Swagger doesn't score runs, but it does score cool points.
In the grand scheme of things, Puig's exuberance and cockiness is a welcomed departure from the stoic disposition we see from most of the game's stars.
Recently, Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero criticized Puig's on-field behavior, saying he does "stupid things." Puig used all 245 pounds to plow through Montero during a collision at home plate during a game between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks earlier this season.
Puig certainly seemed to get the best of the collision and thus he glared back at Montero as if to say: "don't ever block my path again."
In the same spirit, Puig defiantly responded to Montero—and any other critic's—barbs with this quote from a recent ESPN interview:
That's my game. I'm going to play my baseball the way I play. We don't like the way [Gerardo] Parra plays or the way Montero plays, but we don't go to the press or anybody and talk about how we don't like it, because we're more reserved.
This attitude is prevalent in other sports, but baseball has long considered itself above this type of on-field swagger. That self-righteous approach is part of the reason the sports' sins are so glaring.
No matter which side of the Puig perception fence you sit, it is hard to deny this type of controversy brings baseball more attention. It is markedly more appealing and less-damaging to the sport than conversations about performance-enhancing drugs.
Love Puig or hate him, you'll probably tune in just to see what he'll do.
With all the new-found attention, Puig must be sure to keep the controversy surrounding him related to on-field occurrences and steer clear from making news away from the diamond. As a young, free-spirited man, this will be a challenge for him.
He's already had a relatively high-profile speeding ticket during spring training and a less-than positive experience with Diamondbacks' great Luis Gonzalez. It was reported by Dan Bickley of USA Today that Puig ignored Gonzalez's attempts to converse with him before a July 8 contest.
This could be chalked up to immaturity, ignorance or a little of both. Either way, Puig needs to walk the line of mean, surly and brash on the field, but a likable character off of it. Finding that balance will be difficult, but ideal for the young Cuban phenom.
He's still just a rookie, but he's quickly learning that for whom much is given, much is expected.
As long as the Puig headlines stay predominantly positive, his journey will be one of the most interesting and profitable one's the sport has seen in a while.
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