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It's a good thing Puig didn't make it
For weeks, I said Yasiel Puig belonged in the All-Star Game.
I thought it would be great for fans, to see the game’s newest phenomenon on a worldwide stage. I thought it would be a boon for Major League Baseball, to seize upon Puig’s marketing potential just as his popularity is cresting. Moreover, I thought Puig could help the National League win and earn home-field advantage in the World Series.
But Puig isn’t going to the All-Star Game. (At least, he almost certainly isn’t.) Fans chose Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, not Puig, through the Final Vote on MLB.com. Unless Bruce Bochy picks Puig to replace a fan-elected starter or one of his manager’s selections, Puig will need a ticket if he wants to watch the Midsummer Classic Tuesday at Citi Field in New York (All-Star Game on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Despite my initial support for Puig, I’ve come to believe this is for the best.
The electorate has done a tremendous favor for Puig and his Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s cooled a little lately — 15 strikeouts and one home run in nine July games — but this isn’t about a statistical regression to the mean. Puig — 22 years old, born and raised in Cuba, with barely more than one month in the majors — is unprepared for the All-Star hype vortex.
Puig fascinates many of us in the national media, because of his limitless tools and mysterious backstory. He provides the blend of athleticism and bravado that baseball has lacked in recent years. To the extent that Twitter is a measure of global interest in sports, @NBA’s following more than doubles that of @MLB. Puig is the type of figure who could change that — but only if he’s willing to connect with the public.
And right now, he’s not ready.
Veteran Dodgers beat reporter Ken Gurnick wrote recently on MLB.com that Puig “has refused virtually all interview requests.” During a series in Phoenix, Puig ignored retired five-time All-Star Luis Gonzalez when the 19-year veteran attempted to engage Puig in friendly conversation about their shared Cuban heritage, according to Dan Bickley of azcentral.com. (Puig provided a different version of the encounter with Gonzalez, telling ESPN’s Max Bretos Thursday that he “thought it went OK” and did say hello.)
In a recent story on FOXSportsArizona.com, Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero said Puig is “creating a bad reputation throughout the league,” and Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy said Puig plays with “arrogance.” (Disclaimer: Diamondbacks players aren’t entirely impartial on Puig and the Dodgers, after last month’s brawl during a game in which Kennedy hit Puig in the nose with a pitch.)
None of that makes Puig a bad guy. It does, however, suggest that he’s struggling with the interpersonal aspect of playing baseball, in this country, under the spotlight that follows his current level of performance. Given the state of US-Cuban relations, Puig is not the first major leaguer to have an easier time adjusting competitively than culturally after his defection. The media should be patient with Puig — and has been, in many instances. But his apparent disinterest in the non-playing aspect of the job is mildly concerning.
No one should demand that Puig enter the quotability Hall of Fame as a rookie. However, regular cooperation with the media — as a means of promoting the sport — should come standard with a $42 million contract. In fact, that’s spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement that has made Puig a very wealthy man: “It is very important to our game that ALL players are available to the media for reasonable periods and it is the player’s responsibility to cooperate.”
If Puig were the 25th man on the Dodgers roster, this would be a non-story. But the reality is that he’s not the 25th man on the Dodgers roster. In some respects, he’s the first. Despite not debuting until June 3, he has the top-selling jersey of any player on the team this year. In fact, he has the 10th most popular jersey in the majors — just behind Mike Trout and ahead of reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
Marketing executives — with MLB, with the Dodgers, with potential endorsement partners — salivate over that sort of instant star power. For a sport that lacks a superstar persona on the level of LeBron James, this is “New Face of the Game” territory. So if he had been named to the All-Star team, Puig would sit at a table during All-Star Media Day ... and ... uh ... decline comment?
In a Spanish interview with MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, Puig said, “I’m not bad, I just don’t like the press and I don’t like the fame.” Puig is entitled to feel that way. If we in the media wanted to be liked, we would have chosen another vocation. But if Puig can’t get along with the Fourth Estate when he’s hitting .394, when, exactly, can we get on his good side?
Some will say the language barrier is to blame. That is a factor, but only to a point. Puig has an interpreter, as is common with players from Cuba, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. If he wanted to engage more with other players, fans and media, he would put in the effort. At some point, if he is to maximize his earning and endorsement potential, he will need to do it.
In the age of social media, sports icons are increasingly relatable. LeBron’s image has evolved over the past several years, humanizing him to many casual fans and expanding his popularity. Part-time Blue Jays infielder Munenori Kawasaki became an overnight sensation in Toronto after an exuberant, endearing postgame interview in which he earnestly showcased his limited (but expanding) command of English. The clip has been viewed on YouTube more than 2 million times.
LeBron James and Munenori Kawasaki have almost nothing in common athletically, except that they are making genuine attempts to relate to the public. Eventually, Puig must do the same. And here’s hoping that happens well before the first of what should be many All-Star appearances.