Puig Being Puig Is Back: Bat Flips, Tongue Wags Turn Problem Child to Catalyst

Scott MillerNational MLB ColumnistOctober 16, 2017

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig celebrates after his triple against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the seventh inning of Game 1 of a baseball National League Division Series in Los Angeles, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Turns out Yasiel Puig—the bat-licking, tongue-wagging, arm-flapping, electricity-generating, sensation-creating, Los Angeles Dodgers-igniting superstar-turned-bust-turned-superstar again—is just like you and me.

"My mom told me, 'You need to listen to people'," Puig told B/R during a recent, quiet conversation at his locker. "They want to help you."

Five years into his MLB career, finally, his ears are wide-open as his mouth and his mind is (mostly) in tune with that of the Dodgers.

When manager Dave Roberts and teammates reach out, Puig (mostly) reaches back.

The results have been stirring, right down to his drawing a leadoff, bottom-of-the-ninth walk before Justin Turner crushed the Chicago Cubs with a walk-off homer to give the Dodgers a 4-1 Game 2 win and a 2-0 advantage as this National League Championship Series heads back to Chicago.

Puig this season remained a citizen in good standing long enough to play in a career-high 152 games. And following the best all-around season of his career (28 homers, 74 RBI, consistent Gold Glove-caliber defense), he is absolutely crushing it in October.

He batted a scorching .455/.538/.727 to help the Dodgers sweep Arizona in the National League Division Series, then added a double, a homer and two more RBI in the first two games against the Cubs in the NLCS. He now has six RBI in six games this postseason after producing just five RBI in 27 postseason games entering this year. In leading the Dodgers into the NLCS, the way in which he battered the Diamondbacks may turn out to be his most lasting mark on this postseason.

He punctuated plate appearances with gyrating legs like something out of a Michael Jackson video and turned a Game 1 triple into an indelible moment the Dodgers can market from here to eternity: After sliding safely headfirst into the bag, he remained on the ground long enough to soak in the deafening Dodger Stadium roar while staring straight ahead into the Dodgers dugout, sticking out his tongue, lizard-like, and shimmying it back and forth.

The place went nuts.

"That's the first time I've seen that one," pitcher Ross Stripling told B/R, chuckling. "I'm anxious to find out who taught it to him.

"We were saying, next year's Yasiel Puig bobblehead, it's gotta be one where his head is still and his tongue is the only thing that moves."

Said Dodgers starter Alex Wood: "He's the best. He does some dumb things sometimes, but we love him."

How Puig worked his way from exile back into relevance is a tale that covers most of the past 24 months, a change in managers, ongoing English lessons, a timeout in Triple-A Oklahoma City last summer and an analytics-heavy Dodgers front office that goes beyond numbers to understand the human condition.

Since Puig's debut in 2013, the Dodgers have exercised Herculean doses of patience with him and, even at that, Puig consistently pushed both his teammates and the front office to the brink. Early on, he earned the nickname "Wild Horse."

But by Andrew Friedman's second season as the club's president of baseball operations in 2016, however, he was beginning to understand something essential: Baseball, Friedman told B/R in the spring of 2016, was failing its Cuban players.

Maybe the way to do things, Friedman argued, wasn't to simply bring in players from other countries and assume they would understand the American way, or force them to understand it. No, there had to be a better way. And that way was better, more personalized communication.

That's where the hiring of Roberts, who replaced Don Mattingly, came in. There were many reasons why Roberts was a great match in Los Angeles, his communication skills chief among them. Roberts checks in with each of his players daily, and maybe none of these individual mini-meetings is as important as those with Puig, whose relationship with Mattingly was, according to B/R sources, broken beyond repair.

Maybe Puig saw something in Roberts. Perhaps Roberts, who was hired in 2016 and was named NL Manager of the Year last season, simply arrived at the right time. Whatever the case, the Japanese-born manager has been able to reach the Cuban-born prodigy in a way that others haven't.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

What has impressed Roberts most this year, the manager told B/R, is Puig's "understanding that when things don't go perfect, he's holding himself accountable. And he holds himself to a higher standard, and the way he plays the game on a daily basis reflects that."

Not that the Los Angeles education of Yasiel Puig was without its issues in the Roberts era. Effectively, Puig drained the club of most of its extra reservoir of patience by late last summer with nagging hamstring injuries and sluggish performances. Friedman and Co. tried hard to trade him at the deadline last July 31 and, when those attempts failed, they shipped him to Triple-A Oklahoma City last Aug. 4. He was hitting .260 with just seven homers in 81 games at the time.

It was then that the words from Puig's motherYou need to listen to people! They want to help you!—really, finally began to sink in.

"The last couple of seasons, I don't want to listen to nobody," Puig told B/R. "I only wanted to listen to myself.

"This year is a new year. I'm listening more to the coaches. I'm listening to Dave Roberts and guys like Adrian Gonzalez, who are trying to help me. That's the reason I'm having a better year than the last two years."

Being shipped out got his attention.

"Last year, when the team put me in Oklahoma City for a couple of months … I never listened to nobody, but when I go down there and hang out with the players in the minor leagues, the coaches, they helped me a lot," Puig said. "That's the reason I came back and I do my best.

"Bad things happened last year. And I don't want these things to happen again."

The Dodgers did not and could not know how Puig would react, and there was a thought that perhaps he would never see Dodger Stadium again. After their attempts to deal him fizzled last summer, many expected them to push again for a trade over the winter.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

It was a wakeup call, Roberts said of Puig's demotion to Oklahoma City. "All the credit goes to him. We optioned him last year, and he made the most of the opportunity, learned from it, grew from it.

"Even from last year when we recalled him, he's been a different person. I think his care for his teammates and doing the right things is a priority now. And it's good to see him getting rewarded with a tremendous season."

Some of Puig's relationships are coming easier, too, as his English continues to get better and better. Through the Dodgers, he started language lessons shortly after he signed with them and worked extensively with a man named Tim Bravo, a teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico. "He's the best," Puig raved.

He furthered Bravo's lessons and learned more English by watching movies, especially the Transformers and Fast and Furious series. He's nimble enough now to conduct some media interviews in English, which reveals his playful side even more.

His interplay with teammates, whether it's the daily give-and-take with Wood and others or social media moments with Justin Turner, can be highly entertaining. Roberts regularly kids him. Radio broadcaster Charley Steiner is fond of telling Puig he's going to knock the outfielder "into next week," and Puig feigns boxing.

"I'll be ready," Puig joked regarding Steiner's threats. "I need to [bob and weave]."

Said Roberts: "You know what? He's a very lovable guy. And now his true character and heart are starting to come through. Not only on the field with his play, but with people close to us."

Throughout the organization, the Dodgers are noticing.

"I do think going through some of the adversity he's gone through over the past couple of years has changed his outlook," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi told B/R. "He has an appreciation for getting to play baseball for a living, and on a winning team."

Zaidi senses that Puig has taken pride in how many games he's played this year, and he thinks that during July and August Puig produced some of the "best at-bats of anybody on the team, and we've had some guys put up some good at-bats." Roberts said the same thing last week, noting that Puig's Game 2 at-bats were the best he'd seen, and added after Puig walked three times in Sunday's NLCS Game 2 win over the Cubs that Puig is "as focused as I've ever seen him."

Now, the man who often has displayed a surly side, getting into spats with everyone from opponents to his own teammates, is the center of fun again in Dodger Stadium.

"This year everything is different," Puig said. "I come to the park and have fun with my teammates. This is my best year because it's not just about baseball. I'm talking with teammates, having fun with teammates, and that helps me feel better."

He hasn't just opened up to teammates. Zaidi noted how much time Puig has spent on community events, with kids, and how much the children of the team's coaches love hanging out with him.

"There's a certain energy and spirit there," Zaidi said. "What's happened over the last couple of years has impacted the way he goes about his business, and he should be really proud of the results."

In the moment after Game 1 last weekend, he was quite proud of the attention his tongue was getting.

"I don't know why, I feel maybe ice cream in front of me or something like that," he quipped.

Roberts, chuckling, said it was "no surprise. … He's called the Wild Horse for a reason."

Roberts, in fact, has developed such a good relationship with Puig that when his mother comes around, she makes a point to say hello to him, too.

"She tells me, 'You better take care of my son,'" Roberts said. "And I do."

            

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.