MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Puig just being honest about Cardinals

Puig just being honest about Cardinals

LOS ANGELES -- It was a typical midsummer afternoon at Dodger Stadium, the home team having finished batting practice about 15 minutes earlier and gone to the clubhouse to prepare for that night's game. A journalist was sitting in box seats near the dugout chatting with Don Newcombe when a large, familiar figure arrived, a big smile on his face.

Yasiel Puig had come to pay his respects to the legendary pitcher from the "Boys of Summer" days. As Puig and Newcombe engaged in friendly banter, the writer excused himself to go do some work. This was no big deal, but it did seem a little strange. Why wasn't Puig down in the clubhouse with his teammates?

It was just another example of Yasiel being Yasiel.

This is a very different brand of player, a very different personality. Puig has a body that calls to mind Bo Jackson, remarkably swift and powerful with muscles on top of muscles. His physical gifts are unmistakable. But the comparison goes deeper: Puig, like Bo in his day, moves freely to his own beat, seemingly without concern for what people think.

There isn't a more polarizing player in Major League Baseball than the 24-year-old outfielder from Cuba. Some people find him endearing in his freewheeling ways, marveling at what he does on the field. Others -- including a some people inside the game -- are offended that he doesn't abide by or even seem to grasp the unwritten rules and codes of behavior.

So, there was Puig the other day, telling a few reporters about a 10-year-old L.A. kid he knows who is a big Cardinals fan and how much it bugs him, adding that the Cardinals are the bane of his existence for knocking out the Dodgers in the playoffs in both of his seasons.

While this, on face value, was not so bad, when Puig went on to say that the Cardinals were the Dodgers' big rivals because of what they've done to his team, well, that was just too much for some folks to handle. What about the Giants and their long, historic rivalry with the Dodgers dating back to the boroughs of New York?

How insulting could he be not to acknowledge the Giants' latest World Series triumph after finishing six games behind the Dodgers in the National League West race? The Puig detractors had all the ammo they needed.

Mad Dog goes off on Puig

Where Puig grew up, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry wasn't part of the culture. What he knew of the Giants was that in his two seasons in the Majors, they finished 16 and six games behind his team in the NL West.

Of course, he was aware of the dramatic nature of San Francisco's third Fall Classic triumph in five years. But it wasn't the Giants who ruined his team's season for a second year in a row. The Cards were his personal villains, the red-clad demons he couldn't keep out of his nightmares.

The media lives for athletes who actually say something. Puig was simply being truthful when he gave voice to what was in his heart, unaware that he evidently was committing another betrayal of those unwritten laws governing behavior.

In another time, before social media became such a force and players weren't so keenly aware of the potential impact of words and actions, Puig's comments would have caused hardly a ripple. Reggie Jackson had more provocative things to say on a daily basis before his first cup of coffee. 

The sport once was loaded with players not shy about expressing themselves. The Dodgers of the 1970s and '80s had a clubhouse full of athletes, notably Reggie Smith, who spoke openly. Smith once grew upset with a reporter -- this one -- for not writing a story quoting him in a way that would have created serious negative fallout for him. The story finally was written and Reggie got hammered, as expected. A man of intense integrity, he expressed no regrets.

Puig has done some things wrong on and off the field and admitted it. Pressing badly, he was benched by manager Don Mattingly for the final game of the 2014 NL Division Series against the Cards, giving more fuel to those who just don't like him.

He is an imperfect player, needing to iron out fundamental flaws while maintaining the passion and love of playing the game that make him who he is. He is no Mike Trout, the Angels' superstar down the freeway in Anaheim, but who is? Puig is a terrific talent, a player Trout, incidentally, enjoys watching play the game. Fascinated by the athlete, Trout frequently asks about Puig, what makes him tick.

Through two tumultuous seasons, Puig has an impressive .305/.386/.502 slash line. His postseason line, despite the 22 strikeouts in 14 games, isn't too shabby either: .314/.364/.412. Yes, he has missed too many cutoff men and has run into too many outs with reckless abandon on the bases. But he also makes plays calling to mind Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, and he brings a crackling energy to the ballpark.

It is a humbling game, but there are few limits to what Puig can do down the road. He is still early in the process of figuring things out. If he ever manages to tie together the mental and emotional secrets with the astonishing physical gifts, those dreaded Cardinals might be in trouble.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.