x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Dodgers in a state of fugue but out of the blue comes Yasiel Puig

In a dismal season, Cuban expat Yasiel Puig is giving Dodger fans a reason to show up to Chavez Ravine to catch a game.

Yasiel Puig, centre, has electrified fans at Dodger Stadium with his bat and his glove.
Yasiel Puig, centre, has electrified fans at Dodger Stadium with his bat and his glove.

Enough Cuban-born players play in Major League Baseball these days that some of the exotic intrigue associated with them has waned.

In Los Angeles this past week, it certainly did not matter where Yasiel Puig came from, just that he was there - hitting home runs, making jaw-dropping plays, winning games and transforming the Dodgers' depressed ballpark into a carnival.

Dodgers fans did not care if he were from Cuba or Krypton which seemed more plausible. But the facts are that Puig joins a growing number of players from Fidel Castro's isolated island nation who dot major-league line-ups.

Some 15 Cuban-born players are now active, from rising stars such as Oakland A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, to the journeymen regulars such as Milwaukee shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

None made a debut like Puig.

One year ago, the 22-year-old defector was in Mexico establishing residency there to circumvent diplomatic barriers between the United States and Cuba.

Last week, he hit four home runs in his first five big-league games becoming the second player in 114 years to accomplish that feat with 10 runs batted in.

It seemed as if he were ready to justify immediately the record amount of money - US$42 million (Dh154.2m) over seven years - the Dodgers paid to secure the big kid's services. Puig caught a runner at first base with a laserlike throw from the right-field fence to end his first game. The next night, he hit two home runs, equalling Matt Kemp's output from the first nine weeks of the season.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw was sufficiently impressed by Puig's talent and enthusiasm to exclaim to the Los Angeles Times: "I'd pay to watch."

Cuban players do still come with an air of mystery, since Castro forbade them to leave his country in the early 1960s. More than 50 Cuban natives have made their way to the majors anyway, according to baseball-reference.com. Another 70 have played in the minor leagues since then.

Puig appeared ready for the majors in spring training, when he led all hitters with a .517 batting average. But the Dodgers already had high-priced outfielders Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier (earning $20m, $21m and $13m, respectively), so Puig began the year in the minors.

Injuries to Kemp and Crawford, and the Dodgers' last-place standing, almost accidentally created the excitement of the raw-but-gifted player.

"The cat's a different animal," Don Mattingly, the Dodgers manager, said of Puig. "You see it in spring training, and you're, like: 'Can he keep it up?'

"The more you see it, the more you believe it."

 

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