Puig is ‘El Diablo’ in new book about the Dodgers

Alan Truex

The Best Team Money Can Buy does not go on sale until July 14, and already it has created tsunami waves in Southern California.  ESPN Magazine editor Molly Knight chronicles the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2013 season and adds some anecdotes from 2014 that have sent the baseball world a-twitter.

Advance copies were delivered to various media outlets, and the response has been electric, the buzz primarily relating to 24-year-old Yasiel Puig and what a pain in the butt he is to his teammates.  He should have a lucrative future endorsing hemorrhoid medication.

Knight has covered baseball for eight seasons and knows her stuff.  Early reviews of her book are positive.  Kirkus praises the author’s “style and discernment” and notes that “many personalities emerge as the season progresses.”

Knight describes Puig “smacking home runs and gunning down runners and generally playing like an inspired maniac fans couldn’t take their eyes off.”

Puig is part of a young crop of talent that’s the fruit of (subtitle here) “The Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse.” 

Guggenheim Partners, which include NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, paid $2.15 billion for the Dodgers in December 2012.  Coming off a second-place finish – 8 games back – in the National League West — the restructured club had instant success:  division championships in 2013 and 2014.

Knight credits general manager Ned Colletti, who “preferred cowboy boots to calculators.”  The very old-school Colletti is assisted by the deepest front office in the sport, and it does include people who study sabermetrics and any other available analytics.

To give you an idea of front-office depth, Gerry Hunsicker, builder of World Series teams in Houston and Tampa, is nothing more than “senior adviser” to Colletti and CEO Stan Kasten.  But Hunsicker’s advice is treasured; no deal is made without his review.

Colletti and staff have built a remarkably talented baseball club, but Knight’s book reports the moodiness, jealousies, anger and drama that disturb the clubhouse chemistry and make this a team worthy of Hollywood.

The central character is Puig, Cuban refugee who apparently is the most annoying player in baseball.  The more English he learns, the more offensive he becomes to his teammates. 

When Puig joined the Dodgers in 2013, his reputation for troublemaking was already established by his behavior in the minor leagues.  Clubhouse manager Mitch Poole assigned Puig the number 66 as a reference to the Biblical No. 666, “like he was Diablo.”

High numbers go to rookies before they make the team, but usually a lower one is given when the major-league roster is finalized.  Surprisingly, Puig wanted to keep No. 66 because he thought it was good luck.

Truth is he’s both lucky and devilish.  His work ethic is denigrated, and he has a record of tardiness, and not just at games.  Pitcher Zack Greinke became so exasperated with Puig delaying the departure of the team bus in Chicago that he hurled his suitcase onto Michigan Avenue.  There would have been fisticuffs had not pitcher J.P. Howell restrained Puig.

A similar near-fight broke out between Puig and second baseman Justin Turner.  The team’s flights are limited to guests who are wives or girlfriends of the players, but Puig tried to facilitate the boarding of someone else in his entourage, and Turner vehemently protested.

Reporters who have read advance copies have found testimony supporting Knight’s view of wide and deep dislike of Puig.  One unnamed Dodgers player is quoted by Yahoo Sports saying trading Puig would be “addition by subtraction.”

Knight points out that the organization has expended special effort to care for Puig.  A security detail was organized to protect the right fielder from threats from the drug cartel that smuggled him out of Cuba and into Mexico.

The author considers him worth the trouble:  “Whatever Puig’s issues were, he was one of the best players in the game, he sold tickets and he was relatively cheap.”

Yet some Dodgers insiders say the resentment of Puig is so overwhelming that he will be traded.

That would seem to be a dubious move.  Even one of the Dodgers who wants Puig to go acknowledged he has “top 3 or 4 talent.”  Sandy Koufax compared him to Roberto Clemente.

Other comparisons might be Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson or Will Clark, egotists who were disliked by teammates (and many others) but were tolerated because of the games they won with their wondrous skills.

I remember when the Astros had a cocky 22-year-old rookie pitcher who threw hard with pinpoint control but was a little chubby (as is the 252-pound Puig) and had a spotty work ethic.  So Curt Schilling was traded.  Several years later he matured into one of the sport’s greatest pitchers and competitors.  And also one of its consummate gentlemen.

Yasiel Puig is immature, and unfamiliar not just with American culture but with American baseball culture.  Chances are the supremely intelligent Dodgers’ brain trust will recognize his value on the field and in the bottom line.

The team would be much less of a powerhouse without him.  And this new book won’t hurt his box office appeal.


Comments will post after a short period for review