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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Reds 5, Pirates 4: Austin Meadows continues to mash the ball, crushing his fourth home run of the season on a three-hit afternoon. The homer cut the Pirates’ deficit to one run against Amir Garrett in the top of the ninth inning, but it wasn’t enough. Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez both went yard for the Reds. Suarez’s was a grand slam:

Angels 8, Blue Jays 1: The Angels chased Marco Estrada in the fifth inning, scoring four runs off of him, including one on a solo home run from Mike Trout that got the right bounce on top of the wall in left-center field.

Albert Pujols picked up a pair of hits, giving him 3,015 in his career. One of those hits was a solo homer, giving him 621 on the career. His next targets on the all-time list are Rafael Palmeiro for hits (28th; 3,020) and Ken Griffey, Jr. for homers (sixth, 630).

Orioles 9, White Sox 3: Dylan Bundy went the distance, giving up three runs on two hits and a walk with a career-high 14 strikeouts. Bundy threw 121 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since shutting out the Mariners on August 29 last year. All three runs scored on a home run by Jose Rondon in the fourth inning. Adam Jones homered on a three-hit afternoon. Manny Machado also picked up three hits of his own. Trey Mancini hit a solo shot of his own off of Lucas Giolito, who owns an ugly 7.53 ERA on the year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s scored all four of their runs against Felix Hernandez in the first inning. Hernandez settled down from there, but it proved to be just too much. He gave up the four runs on five hits and a walk with two strikeouts over six innings. The former Cy Young Award winner now owns a 5.58 ERA on the season. Jean Segura had three hits for the Mariners, raising his average to a lusty .317. This was essentially a bullpen day for the A’s, who used three pitchers to get through the first seven innings. Blake Treinen got the final four outs to seal the deal, staving off a series sweep in Seattle.

Astros 8, Indians 2: Alex Bregman was the star of this one, hitting a go-ahead three-run homer in the fifth inning, then adding an RBI double in the Astros’ five-run sixth. George Springer reached base four times and Jake Marisnick had three RBI. Charlie Morton held the Indians to two runs over six innings, which caused his ERA to go all the way up to 2.04. That, by the way, is the third-worst ERA in the Astros’ rotation behind Justin Verlander (1.08) and Gerrit Cole (1.86).

Rays 6, Red Sox 3: Wilson Ramos returned to the lineup, contributing three hits and a pair of RBI. Blake Snell struck out eight Red Sox over six shutout innings, yielding only three hits and two walks. Rick Porcello had a rough night, failing to exit the fourth after surrendering six runs (four earned).

Royals 8, Rangers 1: Salvador Perez had a pair of run-scoring singles. Ramon Torres, appearing in his first major league game this season, scored a couple of runs for the Royals on this little league home run:

Danny Duffy limited the Rangers to one run on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings. The outing helped lower his ERA to 6.14.

Mets 5, Brewers 0: Steven Matz fired six shutout frames, limiting the Brewers to four hits and three walks with three strikeouts. Brandon Nimmo reached base five times, doubling twice with a walk and a triple. Adrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores picked up a pair of RBI each.