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What we talk about when we talk about Yasiel Puig


After reading one really, really bad Yasiel Puig column and one really, really good one this morning, I stopped to think about what really animates people about this guy. And I decided that, while it isn’t racism as we’ve come to think about it — I don’t for a second think that everyone who gets on Puig’s case is a racist or a bigot — there is certainly a barrier, borne of passive ethnocentrism, at work.

If you go back and look at the commentary about a young Roberto Clemente or, really, almost any other young Latin superstar in baseball history, you see a lot of the same things being said about them that are being said about Puig. Many of the actual words are different — I don’t think anyone these days actually calls them “hot-blooded” or anything — but there is this presumption, it seems, that most young Latin ballplayers are some breed of wild horse that needs to be tamed. Contrast this to young American ballplayers who mess up sometimes and are talked about as if they need to grow up. We assume age-appropriate immaturity in the latter that will inevitably be grown out of and assume culturally-determined otherness in the former that must be beaten out of them via discipline and disapproval.

It’s an unconscious thing, I think, fostered by the cultural differences, even if it isn’t necessarily inspired by them. I mean, take race out of the mix as the reason why someone may be critical of Yasiel Puig. Let’s call it an aversion to his youthful brashness and perceived arrogance. Bryce Harper had a lot of that said about him when he first hit the scene too. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The bold and unorthodox move to bypass the usual rites of passage in high school or college. The taunting of opposing pitchers in the minor leagues. Harper is getting endorsements and kudos all the time now, but a couple of years ago he was spoken of as Everything That Is Wrong With Kids Today.

Except we’ve seen a decided turn in the commentary about Harper since he burst on to the scene. We’ve seen it because writers and observers have gotten to know Harper, his motivations and his back story. The real person behind the image to which many had an initial aversion. We have met his family and know some about his religion. We’ve seen him interact with his teammates and elders in the game like Chipper Jones.  It has allowed us to change our perception about him.

That entire process is much, much harder with Puig. He doesn’t speak our language nor do most of us speak his. Because he’s from Cuba, his background is much harder to know and what we do know of it is told more like a fantastical tale than just a story of a kid growing up. We aren’t as privy to his interactions with elders in the game because we can’t necessarily understand his conversations veteran Latino players. There’s an otherness to his experience and maturation in the game which makes it harder to know him.

The result: stuff like references to him “jetting off to join a South Beach conga line for the winter. Party on!”  The conga is a dance that broke big in the 1930s. Would we have ever assumed a 22 year-old American would “jet off to Peoria, Illinois” to Fox Trot? Of course not. Because we know his culture and don’t make such ham-handed references. And because, before we ever think to, we work to understand him a little bit before we assume he was a monster.

Maybe Puig is the worst. Maybe he’s a jerk who is arrogant and untamed and in need of a good lesson. It’s totally possible. No one saying such things, however, has put forth any evidence justifying such a conclusion. Jimmy Rollins was fined for being late to the ballpark several years ago and I don’t recall anyone writing deep thought pieces about how he needed to be benched. Jeff Francoeur missed plenty of cutoff men when he played for the Braves due to the confidence he had in his arm and he was never pilloried for it.  Just recently, Adam Eaton slid into home when he hit a walkoff homer and no one carried on about it like they have with Puig.

People didn’t because it’s easier to know those players and their motivations. Because they’re easier to talk to after the game. In contrast, it is so very difficult to really get to know Yasiel Puig to see what makes him tick. For that reason people fall back on assumptions and generalities that are rotten with centuries of racial baggage, even if the people making the assumptions are totally unconscious that they’re doing it.

My suggestion: before concluding that Puig is a major problem in need of solving, figure out whether he’s a problem in the first place. That may take a bit longer and may require some extra work — and that, in turn, will keep you from writing a pithy column during a week when Puig is in the news — but it may help stop this dumb cycle of misunderstanding Latin ballplayers for large parts of their career.

Republicans accuse Hillary Clinton of being a bandwagon Cubs fan

CHICAGO - APRIL 4:  Hillary Rodham Clinton throws out the first pitch before the Chicago Cubs Opening Day game against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field on April 4, 1994 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This was inevitable: The Republican National Committee published a ridiculously detailed and self-serious opposition-research report accusing Hillary Clinton of being a “bandwagon” Cubs fan.

If you’re of a certain age you’ll recall that Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spoke about being a Cubs fan as a kid. You’ll also recall that when she was running for her senate seat in New York, she gave shoutouts to a heretofore unheard of Yankees fandom. A lot of people have had fun with this at various times — we’ve mentioned it here on multiple occasiosn — but I wasn’t aware that anyone considered it an actually substantive political issue as opposed to an amusing “politicians, man” kind of thing.

The Republicans think it’s serious, though. Indeed, there’s more detail to this oppo-hit than there is any of the party’s candidate’s position papers. And while someone could, theoretically, have a lot of fun with this kind of material, the opposition report is not even remotely tongue-in-cheek. It reads like a poisition paper on nuclear proliferation. If the GOP had been this serious about vetting its own candidate, I suspect they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today.

As for the substance: eh, who cares? Sports is entertainment and cultural glue. As a kid in Chicago, being a Cubs fan is both fun and makes some sense. As a senator from New York in the early 2000s, you’re gonna get to go to some Yankees games and sit in some good seats and that’s fun too. And, of course, politicians are going to say opportunistic things in order to attempt to connect with their constituents. Think of that what you will, but if you think of that as something which reveals something deep and dark within their soul about what kind of person they are, you probably need to step away from the cable news for a while and get some fresh air. Or you probably need to admit that you already believed the worse about her and that this is just an exercise in confirmation bias.

Heck, at this point I almost hope she finds a third or fourth team to rot for. Indeed, I hope she makes a comic heel turn, puts on a Chief Wahoo hat for tonight’s game and claims that, deep, deep down, she had always rooted for the Indians. Then even I could get on her case about it. And we could all talk about how, in her own way, Hillary was really bringing the nation together.

Video: Jonathan Lucroy who? Roberto Perez homers twice in World Series opener for the Indians

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians hits a three-run home run during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Back in July, then-Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy vetoed a trade that would have sent him to the Indians, helping the club make a significant upgrade behind the plate after losing Yan Gomes to an injury. At the time, Roberto Perez had only played in 11 games, batting .043. Gomes had hit .165 before his injury, and Chris Gimenez batted .202 over 42 games. It was not much of a logical leap to think the Indians would eventually falter due to a lack of production at the catching position.

But here the Indians are in the World Series facing the Cubs. In Game 1 on Tuesday night, Perez — who finished the season with a .183 average and three home runs in 184 plate appearances — drilled a pair of home runs, accounting for four of the six runs the Indians would score in a shutout win over the Cubs.

Perez’s first blast was a solo that that just cleared the left field fence at Progressive Field, coming on an 0-1 fastball from starter Jon Lester. That padded the Indians’ lead to 3-0.

The second homer put the game away, as he punished reliever Hector Rondon for hanging a 2-2 slider with two runners on base, slugging this one enough to clear the left field fence by plenty. That doubled the Indians’ lead to 6-0, the score by which they would eventually win.

Perez is the first catcher to homer twice in a World Series game since Gary Carter did it for the Mets against the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. Perez is the first Indian to homer twice in the same playoff game since Jim Thome in the 1999 ALDS against the Red Sox.