The Queen City rides a Wild Horse

2018-12-22 YasielPuig
Yasiel Puig, right after hitting the three-run homer that put the Dodgers ahead temporarily in Game Four of the World Series . . .

Vin Scully called him the Wild Horse. Any time Yasiel Puig hit the field or the basepaths in Los Angeles, Dodger Stadium knew the only thing predictable about the talented but maddeningly inconsistent outfielder was how unpredictable he often was. In six seasons as a Dodger, Puig was many things. Boring wasn’t one of them.

It’s not that you can say he didn’t give advance notice. A young man who survived daily death threats from the Castro regime, escaped on what amounted to a milk carton raft, stowed aboard a coyote boat across the Gulf of Mexico, slithered through Mexico with and without the notorious cartels, and walked into Texas to finish his defection, knows a few things about how precious is life is and how exponential is the preciousness of freedom.

Love of life has been snuffed out of lesser creatures in circumstances far less grave. Landing in major league baseball, Puig was like a small boy turned loose in the toy store and told not to even think about coming out unless his wagon was loaded to overflowing. Crash Davis in Bull Durham told a meeting on the mound, “This game’s fun, OK?” Puig has played the game as if Davis’s admonishment was Article VIII of the Constitution.

He had only to learn how to distinguish between incandescent fun and immaturity without wrecking what made him unique in the first place. At one point it took an exile to the minors to deliver the point. Sometimes it really did seem as if nobody loved Puig but the people, at least those in Dodger Stadium or clinging to their televisions and radios around southern California.

But he learned enough in that exile to return as a better teammate with a reasonable harness whose doffing should be saved for particular occasions, such as helping a fun clubhouse atmosphere and dugout enthusiasm. Now the Wild Horse, who can break a game wide open one minute while occasionally letting it escape temporarily the next, has the chance to teach Cincinnati more up close and personal what it means that the game’s supposed to be fun.

On Friday, and with apologies to Whitey Herzog (who once said it of the late Joaquin Andujar, pitcher/human time bomb), the Dodgers traded their Puig-in-the-Box and a concurrent nine surprises a day—along with veteran outfielder Matt Kemp, pitcher Alex Wood, and reserve catcher Kyle Farmer—to the Reds, for struggling pitcher Homer Bailey and a pair of prospects, infielder Jeter Downs and pitcher Josiah Gray.

In one grand move the Dodgers cleared a serious enough outfield logjam and bought themselves some breathing room regarding the luxury tax (oops–competitive balance tax, ho ho ho), which translates even more simply to room for a serious run at free agent rightfielder Bryce Harper, a player who has long enough believed in making baseball fun again and has no reserve about enunciating it.

Things haven’t been all that much fun for the Reds since their last known postseason appearance. And if they weren’t even a topic when it came to the teams with the interest and the finances to hunt down Harper, getting Puig means there’s an excellent chance of things becoming a lot more lively in Great American Ballpark for at least one season.

Puig, Kemp, and Wood can become free agents after the 2019 season. Kemp restored himself as a valuable player in 2018 when he returned to the Dodgers in a deal with the Braves that many thought was supposed to mean a brief stopover before moving on promptly. But he stayed in Los Angeles, made his third All-Star team, and had a first half that looked like a reasonable facsimile of the former self that looked like a superstar in the making but didn’t quite get there.

(Here’s a pretty one for you: the so-called “untradeable contract.” As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times tweets, “Remember this the next time you hear a player has an “untradeable” contract: Matt Kemp has been traded four times on his ‘untradeable’ contract. The Dodgers alone have traded him twice on that same contract.”)

Wood has been a better than useful pitcher for the Dodgers even if his 2018 wasn’t quite the level of his 2017. In the latter he led the National League in winning percentage while having his best season overall to date. Like Puig, Wood is a six-year veteran; Kemp has thirteen seasons on his jacket and may yet find Great American Ballpark’s hitting friendliness enough to his liking to play himself into one more two- or three-year payday.

But the eyes of Cincinnati will remain on Puig, who could make for the plain most exuberant days of Reds baseball since the incendiary Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers forged the Nasty Boys bullpen who factored big in the Reds’ unlikely 1990 World Series sweep and left their own trail of mayhem in their wake before the group was broken up starting a season or two later. Maybe Puig, likewise a free agent after 2019 and looking at age 28, will bring enough fun, mayhem, and destruction of enemy pitching and baserunners (if he doesn’t throw them out, his missile launcher arm at least keeps them still enough) to convince the Reds to extend Puig a few more seasons.

“When Puig entered major league baseball,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Gabriel Baumgaertner, “bat flips and exuberance were still frowned upon as unnecessary showmanship and disrespectful to opponents. Now, MLB runs marketing campaigns encouraging the type of emotion that was discouraged for so long. Puig is no small reason why the shift in mindset has occurred.”

His first week in major league service sure didn’t hurt. Puig had a week that players would kill to have over a full season: he caught a high drive and doubled up a runner on the same play; he hit four home runs including a grand salami; he threw out Andrelton Simmons at first base from deep right on a throw for which Roberto Clemente would have given a champagne toast.

His final days as a Dodger reversed Don Vito Corleone’s maxim about the relationship between misfortune and reward. On 14-15 September, against the Cardinals in St. Louis, Puig smashed five home runs—two the first day, three the second, overdue vengeance against the fans who’d trolled him a few years earlier, as the Dodgers fell out of the postseason early enough, with “Dodgers win? When Puigs fly!” Games like that helped send the Dodgers to this postseason. And almost helped them win the World Series.

Puig’s three-run homer off Milwaukee closer Jeremy Jeffress in the top of the sixth put Game Seven of the National League Championship Series enough out of reach to send the Dodgers to the Series in the first place. Puig flew, all right—a little bat flip here, a little crotch chop or two there as he ran the bases, having the time of his life, and not even his worst critics this side of Madison Bumgarner could really blame him.

But in Game Four of the World Series, Puig’s great reward led to unforeseen misfortune. A day after the Game Three marathon ended in Max Muncy’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighteenth, Puig checked in at the plate—in the bottom of the sixth—after Cody Bellinger’s infield ground out turned into the game’s first run on a throwing error. With one swing Puig made it 4-0, this three-run homer landing even farther up the left center field bleachers than his Milwaukee blast did after bounding off the yellow line.

Who knew that Red Sox pinch hitter Mitch Moreland would answer with a three-run bomb of his own in the top of the seventh? Or, that eventual Series MVP Steve Pearce would hit the game-tying bomb in the following inning, a prelude to his Game Five mayhem? Or, that the Red Sox would run the table for five in the top of the ninth, putting the Dodgers into a Series hole from which they never really saw light again?

In the moment as Puig’s drive flew over the fence Dodger Stadium was noisier than a heavy metal concert. The Wild Horse had almost as much fun running that bomb out as he’d had running out the Milwaukee mash and even the Red Sox weren’t about to think it untoward of him. Maybe they knew in their heart of hearts, “Let the kid have his fun, we have a little fun of our own to have yet.”

In the centenary of their first and worst-stained World Series championship, the Reds hope Puig does with them what he did often enough as a Dodger. The promotional possibilities are limitless, if nothing else. Imagine a Great American Ballpark audience festooned with T-shirts and placards referencing his uniform number and hailing, “Get your kicks with Puig 66!”

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