LOS ANGELES -- Search for Yasiel Puig's past, and you'll find a haze of half-explanations and full-blown mythology. In one account, his defection from Cuba included time spent as a hostage aboard a boat off Mexico, while his conveyors negotiated more cash before releasing their precious cargo. In another, he tried to defect at least once before, but no one will explain when or how.
Look into the 22-year-old Puig's future, and you'll see hallucinations. You'll imagine a latter-day Willie Mays, maybe start constructing a Cooperstown plaque from just 13 games in a Dodgers uniform. You'll know it's absurd, but the brain just goes there, on autopilot at the sight of him. Until Puig arrived, it didn't seem possible that an outsider would pity L.A., with its pricey roster sundered by injuries. But the city's joy over him seemed hard-earned, a form of restitution.
So you stop projecting and resolve to see Puig only in the present. That will be more than enough to occupy the senses, as one day of drama layers itself upon another.
Four home runs in his first five games should have been sufficiently spectacular for any rookie, but this one did it on a different pitch each time -- changeup, fastball, slider and curve. He hit two in his second game and a grand slam in his fourth. Two of the homers went to the opposite field. He is not patient, not at all. He has walked just once, and that was intentional. Yet he still primly sends balls all over the field.
Puig hasn't homered in the last 10 days, but he will take a .479 batting average into Yankee Stadium Tuesday night, after going 3-for-4 Sunday in Pittsburgh. He has had eight multi-hit games already, in just two weeks as a major-leaguer.
From right field, his arm took down two runners in the first week, a sight more thrilling than even the homers.
On any given day, virtually any everyday can drive the ball out of the park. Only a handful have arms that summon visions of Roberto Clemente.
Bookers for Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel called the Dodgers, trying unsuccessfully to land Puig. He's still learning English, requiring a translator whenever he speaks publicly, but the bookers either didn't know or didn't care. Their instincts didn't veer too far from sound. Puig doesn't have to make much effort to command a stage. He just has to show up.
Nine games in, Puig took a fastball off the end of his nose and then an ejection for making fist-flailing forays into the scrum of the Dodgers-Diamondbacks brawl, despite his teammates' attempts to push him away and declare him ineligible for combat.
"Not you," they reportedly kept saying to their Herculean right fielder, even as Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw freely ventured into the fray.
The D-backs did a better job of holding Puig back than most of their opponents have, but he still appeared to make hard contact. Somehow, when penalties came down three days later, Puig evaded all but a fine. Who knows what MLB disciplinarians saw or didn't see when they reviewed footage of the mayhem? But this certainly wouldn't be the greatest mystery of Puig's career.
His season-long suspension from Cuban baseball, which preceded his defection last summer, has never been fully explained. He doesn't talk about it; he doesn't talk about much. His most profound -- and witty -- comment since becoming a Dodger came when he marked off an area in front of Luis Cruz's neighboring locker stall with athletic tape, to prevent reporters from encroaching on his buddy's space when they clustered to wait for a few syllables from L.A.'s new superstar.
The widely circulated storyline holds that Puig tried to defect and then Cuban authorities revoked his playing privileges. But according to Peter Bjarkman, an American historian of Cuban baseball, Puig was suspended for trying to steal tennis shoes from a shop in the Netherlands while playing for the national B team at a tournament at Rotterdam (the same one from which Aroldis Chapman had defected in 2009 simply by walking away from the team hotel and into a prearranged waiting car). Bjarkman said he had traveled to the tournament and heard this version from Cuban players on the national A team, who said the Dutch authorities handled the matter discreetly rather than trying to punish a visiting athlete. The Puig defection effort, he said, began after that.
Bjarkman related the story matter-of-factly but not unsympathetically. "The players are so poor, and then they go on these trips with no money," he said by phone. "They're usually given cigars to take with them that they're allowed to sell when they get there. They'll sell them to people in the stands so they have spending money for these shopping expeditions they go on. But it's not easy for them."
Bjarkman never got to know Puig well, since he was only 20 when suspended and he never rose above the B team. "But other players said they liked him," Bjarkman said. "He wasn't considered a bad guy, not at all."
Puig fled the island after almost a year out of the game and sought Mexican residency, which would allow a major league team to sign him. Up in Los Angeles, Logan White, the Dodgers' vice president of amateur scouting, heard from an agent about Puig's availability and made plans to go see him in Mexico. In the years of penury under the McCourt ownership, the Dodgers, once MLB's leading portal to global baseball, had found themselves out of the international market. With the new ownership group's willingness, even eagerness, to spend aggressively, the window reopened.
White, along with scouts Paul Fryer and Mike Brito, an idol in Mexico ever since he played matchmaker for the Dodgers and Fernando Valenzuela, went to Mexico City to watch Puig's public workouts. The workouts consisted of batting practice and not much more. No sprinting, no throwing. Puig's agent, Brito said, did not want the player to risk injury or less than optimal performance, especially after so much time away from the sport.
They were in a high-altitude city, where the ball soars, and they couldn't know how much the results were skewed. But the crew liked the fact that this young right-handed hitter maturely drove the ball to right-center. "If he was just pulling it, you'd worry," White said.
YouTube helped fill in a couple of the blanks, hinting at Gold Glove potential.
"There was a video that we researched online," White said. "You can probably find it. He makes a diving catch and a tremendous throw, gets the guy at second."
Other than that, they had to go with their instincts. The pure talent was beyond question; "Jose Feliciano could have scouted him," Brito said, chuckling. But would he develop, and at what price?
White has told this story more than once. He called Fryer to his Mexico City hotel room at about 2:30 in the morning and laid out the plan: $42 million over seven years. "Paul said: 'Are you out of your bleeping mind?' and other choice words," he said.
White knew he risked bidding against himself, especially for a player who had been idle so long. But did not want to let this one get away. He sensed that the Cubs would be the other contenders, and he started working Puig like a college basketball recruit.
"I'd say: 'Yasi, Chicago es muy frio, L.A. muy bella,' beautiful," White said. "And we'd laugh."
They had to rush the deal through on June 28, beating by four days the arrival of a new rule that restricts MLB teams to $2.9 million annual spending on international prospects.
From there began the project of grooming him, more emotionally than physically, for life in the States. For much of his time here, Puig has had a chaperone, someone to translate for him, teach him English, explain American culture, make him feel halfway at home. It's similar to the arrangement the A's have set up for Puig's compatriot Yoenis Cespedes, who has been shadowed by former Cuban pitcher Ariel Prieto, a defector from the '90s.
Tim Bravo, the team's director of cultural assimilation for the last six years, took the initial assignment. A special-ed teacher and high school wrestling coach, he played college ball with White at Western New Mexico University.
"Yasiel arrived in July," Bravo said, "and I got the call: 'Drop what you're doing and get over here.'"
He knew that Puig had a reputation for rebellion. Everyone knew it. But he saw a smart young man adjusting to an entirely new world, capable of great kindness. When Bravo's son, then six, was diagnosed with cancer, Puig offered to pay for the treatment.
"He's got a big heart," Bravo said.
When Bravo had to go home to be with his son and start school, the job of tending to Puig went to Eddie Oropesa, a former Cuban pitcher, much like Prieto. Oropesa tried to settle down a newly wealthy young man who sometimes balked at the buttoned-down U.S. approach to the game -- no to bat flips, yes to running out every grounder.
The mentoring required reinforcements down on the farm after Puig, assigned to double-A Chattanooga, was arrested for going 97 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone. Manny Mota, a longtime Dodgers coach and eternal gentleman, went to visit.
"We talked about how to respect the game, be on time, and be humble, and work hard and the fans will like you," Mota said. "He learns fast, because he's smart and he has a passion for the game."
Bravo has now returned to chaperone duty. The two live in side-by-side apartments in L.A., eat together, commute to the stadium together and try to work Puig's English up to the next level, though it's harder in the midst of a major-league season. At the ballpark, Bravo waits near a stairwell leading from the dugout in case Puig needs translation.
"I'm with him from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep," Bravo said.
Of all the things Puig has done the last two weeks, the most shocking might be this: In the L.A. maze of freeways, following road signs in his second language, he never gets lost.
"All you have to do is tell him something one time and he knows exactly what he's going," Bravo said. "He's my GPS. I don't have to put it up. He says: 'Teacher -- that's what he calls me -- teacher, where are we going? I tell him, and that's it."
The son of two engineers, he also has a teenage sister. The family reportedly arrived in the U.S. early this year, and Puig bought them a house in South Florida. How did they get here? Nobody will say. What did Puig endure to reach the States? "He won't talk about it," Bravo said. The story about the ransom demands made on the boat off Mexico first came from Brito. Now, he says: "That's what I heard, but I don't want to get too involved in that."
Most defection stories, if they don't unfold on trips to foreign countries, tend to be murky. The past is the past is the past. Revisiting it can only invite anger from people better forgotten.
So far, the Dodgers -- even skeptics who saw him misbehave -- say Puig has done his job professionally, with respect for his teammates.
His distinctive uniform number, however, winks at his past. When Puig came to spring training, he wanted No. 14, but Mark Ellis already wore it. So clubhouse manager Mitch Poole looked at the available jerseys, saw No. 66, and thought it would be fun to play off Puig's reputation. For better or worse, he was a little devil.
When he was called up from Chattanooga, Puig surprised Poole by asking for it again. In less than a week, the jersey had become definitive, an offensive lineman's number on the back of an outfielder built like a tight end or perhaps, as some have suggested, like Bo Jackson reborn and able to hit a breaking pitch.
"He doesn't like the football comparisons," White said. "They don't have football in Cuba, and he always says: 'No, I'm not a football player. I am a baseball player.'"
That seems fair. It's all we know about him for sure. Why mess with it?