2016 MLB Preseason Primaries: Yasiel Puig

For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain. 

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Let the world tell it, Yasiel Puig is the antithesis to everything pure about the game: a physically gifted behemoth of a human who plays the game with a youthful, albeit sometimes naive, exuberance that often rubs the game’s establishment the wrong way. Status quo is a bitch, and the only way to change things from the top is to look at them from the viewpoint from those at the bottom, and those at the bottom with the most influence in that change become mythical figures for future generations. Puig currently lies at the intersection of marginalized human and mythical persona – and if the Dodgers are going to finally turn the corner and earn a World Series berth, The Wild Horse is going to have to expand the confines of human possibilities while he simultaneously fights against the machine.

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In April of 2014, Jesse Kats of Los Angeles Magazine wrote a wonderful feature on Puig’s defection from Cuba to Los Angeles. Puig was playing for $17 a month in his home country, and spent more than a year in a real-life purgatory as Cuban authorities, the Mexican cartel and MLB officials tried to determine what the man was worth. The story moves through three countries, features murder and threats of Puig losing limbs or digits if certain monetary agreements were not met. The most fascinating, and least talked about theme, in this story is Puig’s complete lack of autonomy during the whole ordeal. For more than a year, Yasiel was not a free man, he was not a baseball player, he was property.

What Kats’ feature helped create, however, was an origin story for the most physically enchanting baseball player in the world. It’s one thing to watch him make throws on target to third base from hundreds of feet away without a bounce, or leg out a triple after admiring what he thought was a home run – it’s another to have those awe-inspiring plays connected to a mythology that transcends both his physicality and his origin. While baseball may lack moment-to-moment excitement compared to other major sports, it outpaces any other athletic institution in historical lore. Word of mouth storytelling is still a huge part of how we receive baseball, and the opportunity for truth stretching exists in ways it never will in football or basketball or hockey.

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The Dodgers are coming off a fourth consecutive year in which they underperformed preseason expectations. The roster featured two of the 10 best pitchers in all of baseball, a dangerous lineup of youth and veteran bats, and an organization with some of the deepest pockets in all of sports. No more than a few bad pitches each year and a slumping bat here and there completely changed the course of what the Dodgers of this last half decade could have been. Instead, they’ve become one of the more fascinating case studies in personnel decisions and management styles.

Don Mattingly is gone, and the new front office has vowed to spend more responsibly, both of which should mean good things for the Dodgers. Also gone, however, is pitcher Zack Greinke, the National League leader in ERA and sub-ace to Clayton Kershaw. While missing Greinke hurts for sure, this isn’t a team hurting for talent. Adrian Gonzalez remains one of the more consistent bats in the National League, Justin Turner has weirdly become one of the toughest outs in the division while Joc Pederson and Corey Seager have become the faces of a desperately needed youth movement in Los Angeles.

And then there is Puig, ever the enigma, always compelling. At his best, there isn’t a more entertaining young baseball player in America. Mike Trout may be perfect, the MLB may be Bryce Harper’s birthright, and Kris Bryant may lead the Cubs to their first World Series since presidents were still wearing monocles, but none of these men can match the joy Puig can bring to a stadium in a single play. He’s a man who loves the game, and ostensibly loves all of the spoils that come with it. The problems he causes for the Dodgers are less about whether he hits the cutoff man, but whether he can manage the life he’s earned off the field as a result of rarely needing to hit a cutoff man. He’s an excellent talent on a team chalk full of excellent talents. More than anyone else on the roster save for Kershaw, he can control the outcome of individual games because his skill set lacks the limits of most ball players, and he’s self-aware enough to realize it.

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What makes Puig so fun is that he’s not the derivative of an established culture, but this is also what makes him baseball’s current paradox. We want to appreciate the great ones, but we want to appreciate them on our terms, appreciate them in the way we’re used to appreciating past stars. For a younger generation of baseball fans, Puig’s antics aren’t much of a problem. Bat flips are as fun as the home runs themselves, and watching a man use all of his physical gifts to try to nail a traveling runner is exhilarating. We can recognize the frustrations as a result of his missteps, but we can also recognize that everything he does is largely because he wants to win.

Unfortunately for Puig, the Dodgers haven’t won – at least not at the highest level. Playing in the second-largest media market magnifies those missteps, especially when the message is coming from the establishment. These moments register as a signifier of a cultural divide on multiple levels – age, race, and cultural. The divisive nature of Puig’s young career has also helped with his mythology, though – and this is probably a good thing. Maybe not for the current landscape of understanding him for his humanity, but for the collective growth of a community because of the conversation he inevitably sparks a couple of times per season.

For culture to survive, we rely on mythology. The most successful storytelling follows the heroes journey, and the heroes journey is nothing but a formula for mystique. More than anyone else – maybe in all of sports – Puig’s career could have the same blurred lines between myth and truth that have been assigned to Bo Jackson. He’ll never be the best, but his best will always be unbelievable. And when a baseball player is consistently unbelievable, we begin to merge story with reality instead of separate them.

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Most projections have the Dodgers winning a fourth consecutive NL West title. They’re still a flawed baseball team, but what team ever wasn’t. Many are curious as to how new manager Dave Roberts will run the team. Decision making in key moments was one of the biggest issues for the boys in blue over the last few years – and if Roberts can improve the team in just that area alone, look out baseball.

When everyone is healthy, the Andre Ethier v. Carl Crawford battle for starts in left field will be interesting. If Pederson can replicate his first half of the 2015 season and if Seager is every bit as good as he’s projected to be, there will be very few kinks in the Dodgers armor. Pitching after Kershaw can go either way, and they’ll certainly feel better about things if Hyun-Jin Ryu can come back and pitch close to where he was before sitting out for the better part of the last two years.

It’s still the preseason, and everything is conjecture, anyway. This team will either win the World Series or it won’t. If this is finally the year, it will be because Puig put things together and carried this team on those broad, august shoulders. Puig isn’t just playing for a Dodgers World Series, he’s playing for our future grandchildren, he’s playing for the culture. When future generations take a close exegesis of Puig’s story, I hope that they find a stark difference between perception and truth. This is the only true test of the influence Puig’s career has on the sport, and to an extent, his influence on the Dodgers – and they’ve never needed it more than they do in 2016.

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