As I mentioned last week, Molly Knight has a great new book coming out on July 14 about the Dodgers of the past few years. As I mentioned then, there is a LOT of Yasiel Puig stuff in that book, the vast majority of it which shows him to be a fairly significant pain in the butt for his Dodgers teammates and team management.*
Last night Jeff Passan recounted a few of the Puig anecdotes from that book, and added some new reporting which reveals that even though Puig has cut out the tardiness and, it seems, the occasional lackadaisical play on the field in 2015, he remains an annoyance in the clubhouse. I’ll add that, after I wrote that post about the book last week, I spoke to a current Dodgers player who said much the same thing: Puig gets on everyone’e nerves.
As a pretty prominent Puig defender, I have had a lot of folks asking me if I’m changing my tune about Puig in light of Knight’s book, reporting like Passan’s and the stuff I’m hearing independently. Stuff like this:
— Steve Gilbert (@SteveGilbertMLB) July 1, 2015
That’s fair, of course. I have certainly waved my Puig flag high over the past couple of years. Still, I think it’s worth pointing a couple of things out about the criticism of Puig and the basis of my defense of him.
To the extent my defense of Puig has been a direct defense, it’s rarely if ever been that his behavior was exemplary. Personally I like a good bat flip and some emotion on the field, so I’ll always like that. But when it comes to the other things — him being late for games or making dumb mental errors — I’ve always acknowledged that you can’t be doing that sort of thing. Look around the HBT archives and you’ll see no shortage of coverage of Puig’s perfidies.
When I do defend Puig it’s almost always when someone — primarily Bill Plaschke — comically overstates the gravity of his offenses against God, nature and baseball. The guy has claimed, with a straight face, that Puig will bring armed drug dealers/terrorists to Dodger Stadium, putting fans at risk. Less sensationally, he and some others placed every Dodgers failure at his feet for two years, regardless of whether or not he contributed to it, and proclaimed that he will bring on the team’s downfall. Over and over again. And of course there is a serious double standard at play here.
There is also a lot of weird racial and cultural baggage sitting around that colors coverage of all Latin players, and Puig coverage has been colored by this more than just about anyone’s. Remember, playing the game the right way is a subjective undertaking. So much of the Puig outrage in the public sphere has revolved around the nonsense that comes with thinking that, say, The Cardinal Way is the only right way to play. The Dodgers, for their part, don’t agree that playing the game the Puig way is a bad thing. At least on the field.
So, what to make of Puig’s testy relationship with teammates? Well, it’s not good. It’s never a good thing when players don’t get along in the clubhouse. But the fact that a guy’s teammates don’t get along for him is not the be-all, end-all of our assessment of a guy. The rundown:
- Whether players get along with one another matters to players because it makes their life and job harder. No one likes to have a jerk co-worker. A player’s jerkiness also matters to the press, as they have to try to get quotes from him.
- We, as fans, are perfectly capable of enjoying and even loving the play of a guy even if he annoys his teammates and the press. We really can. It should affect our enjoyment of him very, very little, assuming his behavior is not such that it reveals him to be a really bad person in an absolute sense. Short of that, someone tell me why I should care if Bill Plaschke or Justin Turner have a harder day at the office because of Yasiel Puig. They don’t have to work with Gleeman or that jackass in the cubicle next to yours who clips his nails and hums along to Maroon 5 songs and I don’t see them wringing their hands over it.
- Players like their routines and their harmony and a certain vibe in the clubhouse. But we are too quick, I think, to defer to players’ opinions about such things and to think that it matters for us as fans. Huston Street thinks his career will end if his role changes. Players have almost come to blows over music on a boombox. They also haze each other in dumb ways and look askance at players who are perceived as intellectuals and make a big point about how we, as non-players couldn’t possibly understand what is important to players. I’m fine to take them at their word on that, but I would hope that they as players would admit they don’t understand what it’s like to be just a fan and that I don’t have to care about the things they care about in order to enjoy baseball. Even if the media, oh so often, identifies with the players’ side of such matters, likely because of some weird combination of beng in the clubhouse themselves, relying on them for information and a strain of Stockholm Syndrome
- It does matter if the player’s jerkiness is so great that it causes his teammates to play worse. At least if you’re a fan of the Dodgers. Maybe, over the long haul, having to deal with an annoying teammate does make them play worse. For now, though, the value of Puig’s bat, legs and glove has outweighed any negative effect is attitude and personality have on the Dodgers. I say that based on the success the Dodgers have had since he’s arrived, his numbers and, admittedly, our inability to precisely measure how the bad chemistry he creates negatively affects the team. But don’t just take my guesses for it. In Passan’s article itself, the unnamed Dodgers player who said trading Puig would be “addition by subtraction” backtracked later and admitted that Puig is a top three or four talent in baseball and that the idea of trading him is a “Catch-22.” I think any honest Dodgers player would admit that, even with his problems, Puig has helped the Dodgers win more games than he has caused them to lose.
- There have been a lot of jerks in baseball history. One of the biggest is Reggie Jackson. He led his teams to five World Series titles and six pennants.
- Puig, for his part, has cut down on the tardiness, the dogging it and other weird behavior, even if he continues to be an annoyance in the clubhouse. Which isn’t to say he’s becoming a better teammate. Maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s growing more complacent as a professional in some ways, being a jerk in ways that are less obvious to the outside world. But if we’re going to slam Puig for stuff, it’s probably worth also noting when he does improve rather than running out the same litany of wrongs whenever he comes up. Passan’s article is fine, but let’s remember: most of it is recounting stuff from a book which covered the 2013-14 time frame. I’d be more interested in hearing how he’s bad for the Dodgers today than how he was bad for them during a 2014 road trip.
I hope those distinctions are clear, despite my rah-rahing for Yasiel Puig. I hope that we can agree that we do not have to consider Puig the same way his teammates or the press does, as we are the audience for his baseball entertainment, not people who share close quarters with him. Put differently, I hope we are totally capable of thinking that Puig is amazing and fun in some aspects (i.e. when he takes the field) even if he is less so in others.
*To be fair to Knight, and to clear up any misunderstanding, she is fair in her reporting on Puig. I don’t throw her in with the folks who go over the top on him. She mentions the racial/cultural stuff I mentioned above and gives both sides of the stories involving him. Many take these incidents and color them through their own filters, but I think Knight shoots 100% straight in her reporting.