What we talk about when we talk about Yasiel Puig

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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.

Yoenis Cespedes should be ready for Tuesday’s game

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The Mets are off today, and that day off may be just enough to get outfielder Yoenis Cespedes ready to start their next game, on Tuesday, against the Braves. At least that’s what he’s telling Mets manager Terry Collins.

Cespedes did not play in the weekend series against the Nationals, but was available as a pinch hitter yesterday. He was even on the on-deck circle at the end of last night’s game.

Cespedes, who tweaked his hammy running to second base on Thursday, is hitting .255/.364/.636 with six homers and 10 RBI in 15 games on the young season.

Marcus Stroman was called for an illegal quick pitch for some reason

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A “quick pitch” is an illegal action in which the pitcher pitches the ball before the batter is prepared. What makes a quick pitch a quick pitch? According to Rule 6.02(a)(5), it’s this:

 . . . Umpires will judge a quick pitch as one delivered before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box. With runners on base the penalty is a balk; with no runners on base, it is a ball. The quick pitch is dangerous and should not be permitted.

There are a couple of reasons why you don’t want quick pitches in baseball. In one respect, it’s about safety, as mentioned specifically in the rule. You don’t want a pitcher throwing a 90 m.p.h. fastball in the batter’s general direction if he’s not ready for it, because if it goes off course the batter will have no ability to defend himself and bail. But there’s also a spirit-of-the-game reason for it. The essence of baseball is the face-off between batter and pitcher. While everyone wants the game to move along promptly, the game isn’t really the game if the batter isn’t ready.

There is more art than science to all of this, of course, as all batters and pitchers have different pre-pitch routines, but when you watch a game, there’s a rhythm to all of that. You know the batter is gonna take a couple of practice swings and settle in. The pitcher tends to respect that. The quick pitch rule is rarely invoked for this reason.

It was used in yesterday’s Angels-Blue Jays game, however. And used badly in my view. Watch Marcus Stroman pitch to Kole Calhoun. The ump is Ramon DeJesus. The count was 3-1, so the automatic ball resulted in Calhoun being awarded first base:

Calhoun was obviously upset about something, calling time after Stroman is into his motion (which is not allowed) throwing his hands up and stuff after the pitch. But tell me, in what way was he not “reasonably ready” for that pitch, to use the language of the rule? He’s facing Stroman, looking at him. He’s done with his warmup swings, his bat is up and cocked and he’s standing in hitting position. I understand that it’s a judgment call by the umpire, but it seems to me like the umpire just called time too late because Calhoun didn’t feel ideally comfortable or something.

Either way, it set off Stroman and manager John Gibbons. Gibbons was ejected arguing the call. Stroman, who was otherwise excellent yesterday, was rattled for a bit, giving up a couple of hits and a run afterward. It was Calhoun who scored, natch.

It didn’t affect the outcome, but it certainly seemed like a bad call. And possibly a bad precedent, as batters may now try to lobby harder for quick pitch calls, given its success yesterday. Or, if umpires tend to think that was a bad call too, maybe they’ll overcompensate for it and be less likely to call quick pitches? You never know how this stuff will play out.

Whatever happens, I’ve been against Major League Baseball’s habit of increasingly taking judgment calls away from umpires, trying to make the subjective objective and making a flawed instant replay system the Supreme Court of Baseball Calls. But jeez, it’s hard to argue for allowing umps to hold on to judgment calls when they blow ’em like this.