Do you even remember what the world was like before Yasiel Puig entered our collective consciousness one year ago? Certainly some of us had heard of him prior to when he debuted on June 3, 2013, but it was mostly because we thought the Los Angeles Dodgers had lost their minds by giving a virtually unknown then 21-year-old player a seven-year, $42 million contract in 2012. Then we saw Puig play, and we all agreed that he wasn't getting paid nearly enough.
At that point, you made the decision inside your own mind whether to love him or hate him. There was no in-between. He quickly became the most polarizing personality in the game and the most-politicized Latino player of his era.
You despised the way he flung his bat after home runs, the way he celebrated every minute on-the-field accomplishment, the way he belittled the media because you believed the game deserved a little bit more respect. Or you loved the way he played passionately, his immense talent and charisma so much that you were willing to dismiss the numerous fielding and baserunning gaffes.
"He came on the scene like that, caused a stir, we went on a run," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly recently. "He was kind of there at the beginning of that. He's an incredible player so I think he kind of gets all that attention for different reasons."
But you wanted to watch him, and baseball hasn't been the same since. Puig became a national obsession. People wanted to either bash him or defend him. He was either an immature jerk or simply a misunderstood young player. He was either arrogant or the victim of racism. Where you stood in the Puig discussion became almost like a political idealogical barometer. Liberal or conservative. Puig lover or Puig hater.
All these arguments of course ignored the possibility that Puig could be a combination of all of these things: immature, inexperienced, arrogant and a victim. He is, after all, human.
"If you're looking for perfection out of a rookie player that's been in professional baseball in this country for a year, you're not going to find it," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti recently. "If you understand how tough the game is to play and the patience it takes especially with a young player, I think sometimes you marvel at what he can do at a very quick period of time. I think most people expect perfection out of the gate. But I challenge anyone who has played professionally for one year to come up and be without fault, without error or mistake. I don't see it."
He was written about and talked about on television so often that at some point many simply suffered from Puig fatigue.
"I never thought things would happen the way they happened last year and how things are happening this year," Puig said in Spanish recently. "I've been trying to adapt. I need to keep working and to keep preparing for whatever else may come. The team is trying adapt as well and when we play better maybe things are going to get even a littler crazier."
Yet undoubtedly, it was the year of Puig. He has changed the game.
In his short time in the majors, Puig has made us rethink the old school unwritten rules. He's caused us to reimagine the role of Latinos in baseball and their right to impose their style upon the game.
"It's all over the game, it's expression of joy," Colletti said. "It's an expression of accomplishment all over the game. And it's not just in the batter's box of player hitting a home run and using the bat as a reflection of that joy. Why he seems to get the lion's share of the criticism? It's a young player that came up and took the game by storm. Everything he does gets a little more magnified and looked at a little bit differently. If you watch highlights every night, you'd have a hard time finding a night without somebody showing some form of exuberance when they accomplish something."
Puig has also made us confront the disturbing world of baseball-related defections, which has for decades been essentially an accepted form of human trafficking. Cuban baseball players are not made in factories and then shipped to the United States. As Puig showed us, these players come to the United States clandestinely and under dangerous conditions, and the players are often confronted with making seemingly traitorous decisions that ultimately cast them in a negative light. It is a world of survival and it's difficult to know what decisions we would make under those same conditions.
And even if we knew about this world before and chose to ignore it, Puig's tale has made us think about it again and in new ways. His popularity and fame demanded that we know more about his background. Digging by several industrious investigative reporters showed everyone the ugly truth.
Perhaps his story will someday change the rules or cause more scrutiny of the process. Puig has made us realize that not all crime is the same and that a recently-liberated man will at times act recklessly. Sometimes, freedom can mean driving a car really fast.
As a result of his eventful year, Puig has become the most transformational and important Latino player of his era, not for what he says, or what he does, but for the unapologetic way that he simply wants to be himself.
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In case you had forgotten, here is a sample of the Year of Puig:
- June 3, 2013 -- Debuts against the San Diego Padres and goes 2-for-4 in a 2-1 Dodgers win, ending the game with a 9-3 double play from deep right field.
- June 4, 2013 -- Hits two home runs and drives in five runs in his second game, a 9-7 win against the Padres.
- June 6, 2013 -- Hits a grand slam in a 5-0 win against the Atlanta Braves.
- June 7, 2013 -- Celebrates fifth game in the majors with a home run, his fourth.
- June 12, 2013 -- Gets beaned by Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy, which later incites two bench-clearing brawls in the game.
- July 2013 -- Loses fan voting for bid to the All-Star Game. National League manager Bruce Bochy also snubs him.
- July 10, 2013 -- Criticized by Arizona's Miguel Montero and Kennedy for his overly aggressive baserunning.
- July 19, 2013 -- The Los Angeles Times reports Puig is being sued by a man who said Puig made false allegations against him to Cuban officials that resulted in his wrongful imprisonment.
- July 28, 2013 -- Celebrates game-winning home run against the Cincinnati Reds by sliding into home plate.
- October 14, 2013 -- Gets criticized by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran for celebrating an apparent home run that did not make it over the fence in Game 3 of the NLCS.
- December 28, 2013 -- Charged with reckless driving in Naples, Fla. after being caught driving 110 mph. Had been arrested in Tennessee for the same charge in April.
- March 2014 -- Reportedly arrives for spring training overweight.
- March 6, 2014 -- Several outlets report Puig fired agent Jaime Torres and hired the Wasserman Media Group to represent him.
- March 23, 2014 -- Thrown out twice on the bases in a 7-5 win against the Diamondbacks in Australia. Manager Don Mattingly implies Puig may be faking injuries.
- April 2014 -- Two separate magazine stories detail Puig's defection from Cuba that involved the aid of several drug cartels. Also mention that Puig's life has been threatened.
- April 4, 2014 -- Benched for the Dodgers home opener after arriving late to the ballpark.
- May 10, 2014 -- Gets yelled at by San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner for flipping his bat after hitting a massive home run. (Bumgarner's teammate Tim Hudson didn't mind nearly as much.)
- May 28, 2014 -- Despite clearly being one of the top outfielders in the game, Puig is only fifth among NL outfielders in the first release of the All-Star voting.
The sum of all of these events, and many more, adds up to one magical, fantastic, maddening and complicated year. But that's only way to describe the Year of Puig.
The saddest part about the Year of Puig is that we won't likely see another one like this again. While Puig promises not to change his style of play, he has learned from some of his mistakes. He has hired a driver. He gets along better with his teammates. He's trying to root himself in the fundamentals of the game. So while Puig will always be flamboyant, he's trying not to be immature.
"Here you're expected to have more respect the game," Puig said. "You have to be early. And you have to have a lot of discipline so that things work like they did for all the guys that I've followed since I was a little boy. I hope to achieve some of the things those players achieved."
Puig's effect on the game is undeniable. For several years, many players, mostly Latinos, flung their bats after home runs. David Ortiz has done it since he became a home run hitter with the Boston Red Sox. But Puig made it fashionable and controversial. Gradually, attitudes about that style of play has become accepted by some of the old guard.
"It's not so much the flamboyance," Mattingly said. "I think it's the intensity that he plays with. It's magnetic really. It's something that we all love. We've just kind of helped his game mature to where it's solid baseball wise without taking the other part away. The way he plays is awesome."
So while Puig is changing the game, the game is also changing him in many ways.
The Second Year of Puig may turn out to be a dud because the first year was so eventful. But we'll continue to watch closely because some of us can hardly remember what the game was like before he arrived.