History Provides Clear Warning to Crowning Yasiel Puig MLB's Next Great Star
It's tempting to say we've never seen Yasiel Puig before. Except we have.
The way the Los Angeles Dodgers phenom has taken over the sport to this point, just a month into his career, simultaneously feels like something we're witnessing for the first time and something we're all too familiar with already.
Puig is both the overnight sensation and the cautionary tale. There's no doubting that what Puig has somehow managed to do in his first 27 major league games—after Tuesday's 3-for-5 performance at Coors Field, Puig is now 47-for-106 (.443) with eight homers, 17 RBI and four steals—is stop-and-watch-this fantastic.
So, hey, why don't you stop and watch:
Puig's start has been so exciting, so dramatic, so historic, that it's hard to see past the success and even consider the possibility of failure. But the road to baseball immortality is littered with didn't-see-that-coming failures and whatever-happened-to-him tales.
Like Mark Fidrych.
Fidrych, an extremely colorful character known for his odd mound manner and quirky antics, became a must-see performer who looked like a can't-miss kid.
Except injuries, namely a shoulder problem, plagued Fidrych almost immediately after his rookie campaign. He wound up making only 27 more big league starts—two fewer than he made in 1976 alone—and he was out of baseball by 1980.
Joe Charboneau was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1980 only to have career-ending back problems derail everything not even a year later. Bo Jackson was a multi-sport freak of nature whose athletic gifts earned the never-seen-before label until he was cut down by a career-altering hip injury while playing in the NFL.
New York Yankees slugger Kevin Maas broke the record for fewest at-bats to reach 10 career homers in 1990 before it was broken by fellow Bronx Bomber Shane Spencer in 1998. In case you were wondering, Maas hit 65 career homers. Spencer? Just 59.
If you're searching for an example or three of more recent vintage, you only need to look to 2003, when both Dontrelle Willis, the Florida Marlins left-hander, and Rocco Baldelli, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' top outfield prospect, finished first and third, respectively, in NL and AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Baldelli's once-promising career was ruined by various injuries, including a rare disorder that sapped his energy and left him in nearly constant pain. Willis, on the other hand, didn't lack for energy and possessed a winning smile, but soon lost the ability to find the strike zone.
And who could forget Atlanta Braves wonderboy Jeff Francoeur, whose hot start at the age of 21 in 2005 landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, "The Natural." That turned out to be his career highlight.
While it doesn't apply to all of the cautionary tales above, injury is certainly a major factor in many cases. Clearly, the best way for Puig to avoid being thrown into the flash-in-the-pan bin is to stay healthy.
A player, logic dictates, needs to be able to rely on his arsenal of raw skills and tools, especially ones that are as loud as Puig's. But an injury can take that away in the blink of an eye. Maybe that's why it's as alarming as it is infectious to see how hard and how full-tilt Puig plays the game. For that, he's been compared to the always-all-out Bryce Harper of Nationals fame.
Maybe it's not just coincidence, then, that those two have each had scary run-ins with the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium, as Mike Oz of Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew pointed out.
As Troy Renck of the Denver Post wrote, "The Dodgers right fielder had 44 hits in his first month. Only the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio had more, totalling 48 in 1936. Ichiro, by comparison, had 39, in April 2001 for the Mariners."
Those two names make for pretty good company.
The other good news for Puig is that he's not the first Dodgers player to go from unknown foreigner to overnight sensation. The Dodgers, you'll recall, went through similar experiences with not only Mexican phenom Fernando Valenzuela, but also Japanese import Hideo Nomo—both of whom got the "-mania" treatment.
Puig-mania is just the latest to grip Dodgerdom. So he's in the right place; this is a franchise and a city built to handle this type of story.
Yes, things can be overwhelming in a big market like Los Angeles—all the more so when we're talking about a 22-year-old from Cuba—but as Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News writes, the Dodgers will do everything in their power to protect Puig, both on and off the field.
After all, it's not like Puig won't experience slumps on the diamond or go through more than a few growing pains off of it. In fact, he already has: Back in April, with Double-A Chattanooga, Puig was arrested and charged with speeding and reckless driving, per Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times.
One imagines that incident would have caused quite a bit bigger stir had it happened after Puig donned Dodger Blue. Certainly, it's Puig's responsibility to know better, and it's the Dodgers' responsibility to help him adjust to a whole new country and lifestyle. They'll make things as easy as they can when it comes to dealing with the demands of the press and the fans. They'll have an interpreter by his side.
When you're the biggest story in the sport, the franchise is going to do whatever it can to make the process as painless as possible. While Valenzuela and Nomo were never quite as captivating as they were in their respective rookie years, both turned out to be extremely productive players for the Dodgers for multiple seasons.
As Bonsignore put it, "All that's left now is for Puigmania to have the extended life of a Fernandomania or Nomomania." Yasiel Puig still has a ways to go. But, boy, what a start.
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