In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Unpolished Yasiel Puig makes strides on, off the field

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig steals second base during the first inning of a Major League Baseball game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park in Miami on May 2, 2014.
Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig steals second base during the first inning of a Major League Baseball game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park in Miami on May 2, 2014.
David Santiago / El Nuevo Staff

Yasiel Puig took a sip of Cuban coffee, held up his thimble-sized paper cup and bellowed a joyful pronouncement to his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates.

“They know how to make it in Miami!” Puig said.

His loud, gravelly voice complements his rambunctious, unpolished personality.

Puig, at Marlins Park on Friday in the Dodgers’ 6-3 loss to the Marlins, playfully accused the young clubbie serving cafecitos of trying to poison him. Not that Puig needed caffeine, even after a redeye flight from Minneapolis following Thursday’s chilly doubleheader. He mock-boxed teammates at their lockers, drowning out an interview with Clayton Kershaw. His burly frame stretched the fabric on his white T-shirt, embossed with his name inside a Cuban flag.

Puig was glad to be back in Miami, his first home upon defecting from Cuba and starting his Major League Baseball career two years ago. His mother, who lives here, was coming to see him play, he said.

Local baseball fans came, too, eager to get a look at Puig, runner-up to Marlin pitcher Jose Fernandez for 2013 National League Rookie of the Year and a 23-year-old on the ladder to superstardom — if he doesn’t fall off.

His whiffs tend to be as big as his hits.

“He’s got phenomenal potential,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “We see a lot more patience at the plate, and in the outfield he’s throwing the ball where he’s supposed to more often. We still see aggressive mistakes on the bases, but he’s making more good decisions also. He’s better and better.”

Puig’s youth was glaring on two gaffes. He allowed Jarrod Saltalamacchia to score from first base on a double to right field by Garrett Jones because he threw to second base when he should have thrown to cutoff man Adrian Gonzalez. The misplay enabled Saltalamacchia — no gazelle — to slide home for a 2-0 Marlins lead in the fourth inning. In the eighth, Puig broke a cardinal rule by running into an out at third base for the first out of the inning.

But there’s no denying that Puig — who arrived Friday hitting .410 with nine RBI in his past nine games and collected one hit and one RBI — is another talent via the remarkable Cuban pipeline. Somehow, despite all the deprivations on the island, there is no shortage of high-caliber ballplayers.

Somehow, they keep finding a way to the USA. Puig’s perilous journey, described in a federal lawsuit filed in Miami and first reported by Los Angeles Magazine, illustrates just what money magnets these athletes have become. The promise of their mega-million-dollar contracts attracts unseemly characters who propose, “I’ll pay for your escape if you cut me in on your future earnings. You’ll no longer have to play for the glory of the people. You can play for the glory of yourself!”

Puig had been suspended from the Cuban national team for misbehavior and as a defection threat, but after informing on smugglers to the government, he was reinstated and plotted to leave. On his fifth try, he made it out by speedboat with his then-girlfriend, a Santeria priest and a boxer. A Miami man with a record as a small-time crook arranged for smugglers to take the group to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where they waited in a seedy motel as the smugglers — led by a captain who was later found shot to death in Cancun — and Puig’s Miami facilitator haggled over payment that had risen to $400,000.

Cuban players typically alight in a third country to establish residency so they can become free agents and negotiate with MLB teams.

After nearly a month, the Miami man sent enforcers to extract Puig and his friends. Puig signed with the Dodgers for $42 million, then paid $1.3 million for the smuggling operation, according to the lawsuit, which Puig won’t discuss.

On Friday the Florida Legislature passed a bill pressuring MLB to change its policy on Cuban players or else the Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays won’t have access to state sales tax money for stadium construction.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the bill was “for every young boy in Cuba that wants a fair chance to come to this country and play baseball without having to be forced into the arms of human traffickers, smugglers and drug cartels.” Co-sponsor Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, wants MLB to allow Cubans who get to U.S. shores to be free agents rather than be consigned to the amateur draft, which limits their salaries.

It’s a largely symbolic gesture. The U.S. embargo of Cuba endures. Smuggling Cuban defectors to the United States can entail the same risks and criminal entanglements as smuggling them to Mexico or anywhere else.

But the Puig case and others like it have prompted MLB to re-examine its signing rules, consider an international draft and meet with the U.S. State Department about the trafficking issue.

Puig didn’t want to talk about his role as impetus for change. He’s concentrating on improvement, and getting a hit off countryman Fernandez on Sunday. He’s excited to play before Cuban fans but prefers the large crowds at Dodger Stadium, where he feels like “I’m playing in a video game.”

Puig has taken criticism for tardiness, defiance, speeding tickets, being overweight. He’s learning to be more responsible – although he couldn’t help making a pun about it.

Maduro?” he laughed when asked if he is more mature. “No. Maduro is the president of Venezuela [Nicolas Maduro].”

Puig lifted his expressive eyebrows when asked about his mistakes.

“If you keep hitting yourself up against a rock, you learn to stop,” he said.

He’s adapting to his big new life, a long way from Cienfuegos.

“It’s like the tide,” he said. “Have you been in the ocean? That’s the way baseball is. That’s the way life is. You’re going to be up and down. That means you have to prepare every day to give your best so the days turn out like they are turning out for me now.”

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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