Maybe we should consider this the education of Yasiel Puig.
His and ours.
No Dodgers rookie has begun his career in a more electrifying manner — or become more of a lightning rod for controversy. On Wednesday afternoon, we saw precisely how much he can affect a game, not by what he did on the field but by what he didn’t do.
It’s possible the exact reasons he was pulled from a 4-0 win over the Chicago will ever be known, but it’s reasonable to make some assumptions. Puig simply didn’t play as if he cared.
Watch a replay. You’ll see him run – not slide – into second base on a ground ball by Carl Crawford that was turned into a first-inning double play. It happened just before Hanley Ramirez’s home run.
If Puig slides, maybe he causes an errant or delayed throw, and maybe that’s a two-run homer that Ramirez hits.
Now fast-forward to the fourth inning. You’ll see Puig run nonchalantly to catch a fly ball in right field for the third out, then fling the ball into the pavilion seats with his glove.
Did those two incidents aggravate manager Don Mattingly enough to do what he did – send Skip Schumaker to play right at the start of the fifth and end Puig’s day?
Mattingly wouldn’t say, but there seems little doubt. Mattingly has fined Puig for coming late to the ballpark, has left him out of the starting lineup, has called him into his office for meetings and has let the team’s veterans scold Puig for his mistakes.
What Mattingly hasn’t done is embarrass him. He could have done that on Wednesday by allowing Puig to take the field, then called him back to the dugout and left Dodger Stadium fans to wonder why. But Mattingly, who played the game with distinction and professionalism, understands the kind of effect that can have on a player, especially one so young as Puig.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Mattingly must teach the game to Puig without affecting his enthusiasm or his ability to make plays. Reprimand him too much and he risks the chance that Puig may stop doing what he does best, which is make big plays.
As the man who’s steering this team, Mattingly doesn’t want to dress down his player in a public forum. He understands the ramifications of doing so, that criticizing a 22-year-old Cuban-born player to the media might do greater harm than good.
“I love these guys,” Mattingly said after the game. “I love all my players, and I see the good in all of them.”
He also knows that 25 players need to be handled 25 different ways. Puig must be treated differently than Clayton Kershaw; Adrian Gonzalez is handled differently than Juan Uribe.
There are also cultural differences to consider. Puig learned the game on Cuban soil, where it’s played freely and easily and purely for joy. You swing the bat or you don’t play. You take an extra base or attempt a long throw because that’s the style.
In the U.S., it’s a different game. Puig defected just 16 months ago. The Dodgers dropped a seven-year, $42-million contract in his lap, sent him to the minor leagues and watched him develop, knowing his fundamentals were far from polished.
He had just 63 games on his resume when the Dodgers called him up on June 3, really out of necessity. So he’s still in a classroom setting, although at the big-league level.
The lessons are coming hard. He is still learning to hit the cutoff man and avoid making mistakes on the bases. There are times to take chances and times to take a more conservative route. But it’s always about playing the game the right way.
This is where Puig finds himself, and where fans must pause and let him learn. His talent will grow as his education increases. Mattingly is holding him accountable for his actions and so are his teammates. But it’s up to him to absorb the things they’re saying and put them into practice.
He’s a kid. He’s enjoying his wealth and celebrity, but he’s finding out there is a great responsibility to everything he does and says. Being a big leaguer is a privilege; it must be earned.
Right now, the Dodgers can punish Puig’s gaffes with a slap on the wrist or a day on the bench. But in the playoffs, those same miscues will be magnified 10 times. There are no excuses.
One lesson he has yet to learn: It only takes an instant to go from great to goat.