Yasiel Puig doesn't exist anymore, which means a certain section of the baseball media has done their job. Most anyone who exists in the public eye is obscured by focus, but Puig -- perhaps baseball's most charismatic young star -- has been reduced to an unknowable abstraction in barely a year's time. Applause is due to many for this great reporting feat, but none more so than Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times.
You, being an Internet capable person who enjoys baseball, have perhaps read Plaschke's recent column, which alleges that the Los Angeles Dodgers organization has gosh darn had it up to here with this Puig character. The column raised a stir because that's what happens when a columnist uses an insignificant .122 spring batting average as the jumping-off point for broad condemnation. Vague reports of clubhouse tension, convenient interpretations of manager Don Mattingly's public comments and the rookie mistakes Puig made as a rookie are all it takes or Plaschke to declare:
"Sometimes, certainly, [Puig's] still Wild Horse. But since late last summer, with opposing pitchers clearly having figured him out, he's often just been Wild."
Plaschke is riffing off Vin Scully's Wild Horse nickname for Puig, and the riff ends with him emphasizing the first half of a nickname that Puig didn't choose for himself. Let's note here that the black man-as-dim savage is one of America's foremost racist tropes, which means dismissing a black Latino from Cuba as "wild" probably isn't the best rhetorical strategy if one wishes to avoid being misread.
It's a choice made worse by the evidence Plaschke cites. You're coming up short of convincing when the evidence is Mattingly sounding "rehearsed" and the anonymous supposed grumblings of teammates failing to follow their own edict of confidentiality. For as much as one might believe that a 23-year-old millionaire out-of-step with American baseball culture norms could rub his teammates the wrong way, there is also reason to believe that a cultural outsider could simply be misunderstood -- it's the Gotta Hear Both Sides axiom. Plaschke isn't giving us both sides and, in failing to do so, offers a narrow viewpoint.
Unsurprisingly, some chose to ignore legitimate criticism of the column -- and, by proxy, the nature of the discourse surrounding Puig -- and effectively declared anyone who had an issue with it as The Real Racist, as ESPN's Buster Olney did. Another ESPNer, the inimitable Chris Jones, doubled down on the narrative by calling Puig -- who incidentally speaks an idiomatic Cuban Spanish that even native speakers can have problems with, and around whom one doubts Jones has spent all that much time anyway -- a "five-tool a--hole." Say "racism" in public and this is what happens.
As controversial as any allegation of racism always is, sports media really have no right to act aggrieved about accusations of bias, because bias in sports media is a measurable truth. An analysis of 200 baseball broadcasts by The Atlantic found that announcers favor American players over foreign ones. "The Temporal Nature of Racialized Sports Consumption," a frequently-cited 2002 study, concluded that media portrayal of athletes "are contingent upon the race/ethnic identity of a respective athlete." Concerns about racialized athlete narratives aren't the fabrication of some make-believe reverse racist think tank.
Somehow, though, this is where we end up when trying to talk about Yasiel Puig, the most viscerally exciting baseball player since Bo Jackson, and yet one who exists only as a media narrative. The idea that a Cuban learning English in an unfamiliar culture could easily be misunderstood and should be covered thusly is anathema to those hellbent on making a story out of next to nothing. Drop anyone into a new, bizarre culture and their actions will, regardless of intent, be readily misinterpreted by those unwilling or incapable of grasping contextual nuances. Puig and his media detractors are fundamentally incompatible in this regard, but there is an upside to the way Puig is being covered -- it's forcing the media into the same kind of spotlight they're training on him.
Despite all the column inches spent on how the wild Puig must be broken, the truth is that a lot of fans like Puig, and not a few love him. Short of him murdering Vin Scully, that's not about to change. He's an entertaining player with a magnetic way about him and, more importantly, sports fans are developing a BS detector on manufactured stories. In making Puig into a racially loaded caricature, the old-line baseball media is providing a litmus test to anyone who side-eyes old dudes decrying malignant youth. Just weigh the joy of watching Puig play baseball against the joy of watching others turn his life into a soap opera, and it becomes easy to pick the right side, no matter how scorching the next take may be.
"Yasiel Puig is always going to be a story," goes a recent ESPN report on this mess, and it's spot-on. He always will be a story, because he has been cast as a character in a cheap melodrama that's easy to keep running. Puig exists in the public eye at a time when recklessly mining every out-of-context moment of a celebrity's life has never been more lucrative. That we live in a country born of an ongoing and still unreckoned with racism just makes things more toxic.
This all makes for an impossible, self-defeating situation -- in the end, maybe the ideal outcome. When there's no point in reading anything about Yasiel Puig, the only thing left to do is watch him play baseball. No one can hope to know much of anything about Puig the person anymore, but watching him play baseball is still a solid deal. He's pretty good at it when the games count.