Love or hate him, Yasiel Puig makes baseball fun

When you think of the Los Angeles Dodgers, usually the first name that comes to mind is Clayton Kershaw – the team’s unequivocal ace, and baseball’s most dominant starter.

Then there’s 23-year-old shortstop Corey Seager, one of the game’s brightest young stars and a perennial MVP candidate. You have Justin Turner, a man whose beard and elite level play warm the hearts of many. Don’t forget about rookie Cody Bellinger, a record-breaking, home-run-hitting machine who, along with Seager, gives the Dodgers one of baseball’s best one-two punches now, and for the future.

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.

Throughout the club’s first two postseason games, all the attention is on the spirited, 240 pound beast of a man, whose nontraditional approach has singled-handedly injected life into a Dodgers team poised to win its first World Series in 29 years.

“If you hit, people are yelling your name,” Puig told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times after he helped his team take a 2-0 series lead. “If you strikeout, who’s yelling your name? You need to do something in the game so people can be happy with you.”

That he has. In Game 1, Puig was caught licking his bat during an intense plate appearance against Arizona Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker. He proceeded to rip an RBI double, staking his team to an early 4-0 lead.

The following at-bat, he destroyed a ball down the line, got on his horse – rounding the bases like a man on a mission – and, after diving into third base with a triple, Puig’s tongue wag stole the show.

The fun continued in Game 2, thanks to separate bat flips, on singles, no less.

It hasn’t always been this easy with Puig, whose tenure with the Dodgers almost came to an abrupt end in 2016. Despite hitting .283/.389/.417 in July, the club informed Puig he would either be traded or demoted shortly after the team acquired outfielder Josh Reddick from the Oakland Athletics.

Despite valiant efforts to move the outfielder – who dealt with a hamstring injury for most of the season – the Dodgers didn’t find a taker, leading to his demotion on Aug. 1.

In 19 games in Triple-A, the Cuban outfielder combined to hit .348/.400/.594, a performance that led to manager Dave Roberts meeting with several Dodgers players, asking if they wanted Puig back on the team. The group voted in favor, and Puig returned on Sept. 2, hitting .281/.338/.561 the rest of the way.

2015-16

“We sat down and talked to Yasiel and told him we wanted him to be here, and we felt he could help us win a lot of ballgames,” Turner recounted to Tim Keown of ESPN Magazine this year. “We just wanted him to want to be here and want to do things the right way. To his credit, he has. I don’t think he’s ever felt more a part of the team.”

2017

Entering the year as the Dodgers every day right fielder, Puig has returned to the form many envisioned when he burst onto the scene as a rookie. He set career highs in home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases (15), all while playing 61 of his 152 games batting eighth. He proved his worth as an elite defender, performing to 18 defensive runs saved, second-most in all of baseball among qualified right fielders.

Production aside, Puig exemplifies the type of personality berated by current and former baseball players, who cite his behavior as unsportsmanlike, or a way of showing up his opponents.

Sure, Puig’s temperament has led to dust ups and the occasional benching, but for a sport in desperate need of a boost, the Dodgers outfielder shouldn’t – and likely won’t – alter his approach. As we’ve seen this season, it works, and if baseball has anything to learn it’s this: emotion is never a bad thing.

“I come with my tongue out, I put my hands up, I kiss my hitting coach, something every day, this is the playoffs, everybody is happy to be here,” he said. “I want to play fun.”

So should everyone else.

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