RIGHT FIELD TIM NOONAN
Column
by

Yasiel Puig story is just beginning

The script for a movie based on gifted baseball player's amazing life so far would have the ingredients of a classic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:14pm

With a combined annual salary of an astounding US$241 million, there are multimillionaires everywhere you look on the Los Angeles Dodgers roster.

On a team with the highest payroll in the history of professional sport, Yasiel Puig seems right at home.

An impressive physical specimen, Puig is a five-tool baseball player; he hits for both power and average, runs like a locomotive, can catch anything and has arguably the most powerful throwing arm in all of baseball.

It's bad enough having the sadistically ruthless Mexican drug lords after you, but to be a stool pigeon in Cuba as well would put a rather large bullseye on the young man's back
Tim Noonan

He is the type of rare generational talent that baseball organisations salivate over and has a seven-year contract with the Dodgers for US$42 million.

But unlike some of his teammates, eight of whom make more than US$15 million annually, Puig is an absolute bargain.

At only 23, his most productive years are clearly in front of him and the Dodgers have him locked up at a very reasonable rate for most of them.

Called up to the majors in June last year, Puig kick-started a moribund Dodgers team and led them to a divisional championship. In the process he finished runner-up for rookie of the year and is one of the top five properties in all of baseball.

That's the good news.

The bad news is far more ominous. A Cuban defector, Puig has exhibited a complete nonchalance towards his professional playing career.

He certainly hustles on the field, when the mood hits him, and his over exuberance and showboating has not only irritated a number of opponents, but also resulted in a series of boneheaded plays that hurt his team.

He has been late for games and benched a few times because of it, and has also been arrested and charged with reckless driving a couple times, as well for taking his powder white Rolls-Royce Ghost beyond the speed of sound.

Of course, none of this is unusual behaviour for many young and rich sporting stars. The type of prodigious talent Puig possesses virtually assures that the Dodgers will not give up on him.

They will be stern and vigilant with him, but there is no way they will cut him loose. Ah, but if only the issues surrounding Puig ended there.

Last week, two well-researched and laborious stories, one in ESPN The Magazine and another in Los Angeles Magazine, chronicled Puig's harrowing escape from Cuba in 2012.

The reports detailed his escape with the assistance from a notorious sect of the Mexican drug cartel and the subsequent death threats against him from that same cartel for unpaid smuggling debts after Puig was sprung from their captivity in a daring raid.

This guy is not your typical ballplayer.

While Puig has been virtually mum on his escape from Cuba since arriving in the major leagues, he has said all along that his story will make a great movie.

And rest assured, playing in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign there will be a Yasiel Puig movie made at some point.

But how that movie ends is still anybody's guess.

Apart from the threats made against the life of Puig and his family, there is another matter of immediate interest.

A federal lawsuit he is now facing in Miami alleges that he had falsely accused an imprisoned man of being a human smuggler in Cuba to garner favour with the authorities in his home country and regain a spot on the national team after Puig had been caught trying to defect.

"Puig told me that if he co-operated with state security, he would be permitted back on the [Cuban national] baseball team," said a lifelong friend, who successfully defected with Puig.

"He appeared to take a strange sort of pride in the number of people he had sent to prison."

Puig, through his lawyers, vociferously denies the charges and well he should.

It's bad enough having the sadistically ruthless Mexican drug lords after you, but to be a stool pigeon in Cuba as well would put a rather large bullseye on the young man's back.

Oh, and on top of all of this he has to get his mind focused so he can play baseball every day at the major league level.

You would think he would be awash in distractions and an absolute mess of a player. But to hear the life and death tale of his defection, these would seem to be the gravy days for Puig.

Playing baseball is the easiest part of his life right now. External and legal issues often have a way of blowing over when lots of money is waved at them.

A year from now, the travails of Yasiel Puig could well be passé. The Dodgers, and the honchos at Major League Baseball, certainly hope so. Either way, it is one riveting tale.