Inside the Dodger Stadium tunnel near the home clubhouse, 8-year-old Sam Russakoff tugged at his blue Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt and waited patiently. Alongside his father, Rich, and close friend Irv Bauman, who brought them to the Dodgers’ second game against the Twins in late July, he stood against the white walls adorned with framed images of Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. They were waiting for Yasiel Puig.
As they bided their time, Rich, donning a classic blue “LA” T-shirt, was trying to conceal the Corey Seager jersey he wore to the game, the one he took off before meeting Puig. When the Dodgers slugger finally emerged, about an hour before first pitch, his broad smile widened as he saw them. They caught up with small talk, as he signed a couple of baseballs and hats. After a few minutes, just before Puig had to leave, Sam pointed to the jersey his father was holding. He wondered if somehow Seager could sign it, since the Dodgers’ phenom shortstop wasn’t there. Without hesitation, Puig grabbed the jersey and raced back into the clubhouse. He’d get Seager to sign it, he promised, and bring it to them after the game.
This wasn’t Puig’s first handoff. He routinely spends his time after batting practice meeting and greeting fans and friends and finds himself signing the gear and memorabilia of his more heralded teammates without hesitation. This is a different Puig than the 22-year-old who burst onto the scene in 2013, an almost-instant superstar. Back then, it was his teammates bringing him jerseys to sign, not the other way around. But in recent years, Puig’s role has become less central; this season, he’s been moved down the batting order, and he remains cornered in right field even though he prefers to play center.
“He’s taken on that position and responded in a positive way,” hitting coach Turner Ward says. “But if you hear the crowd reaction here, it feels like he’s always and still the main guy. He still brings an electricity to a stadium that’s hard to duplicate.”
When he’s on, Puig saunters, chest out, arms wide, every step with conviction. Around the diamond, he appears massive. In person, his brashness turns to kindness, and he shrinks somehow. The wide shoulders slump, not in defeat—more like an invitation. He talks softly and is friendly, shy even. Our interview was conducted largely in Spanish; when Puig speaks to reporters through an interpreter or in brief statements with his much-improved English, he speaks in short, clear bursts. In his native tongue, he is comfortable enough that he tends to ramble, appearing almost disinterested in his own responses.
There’s been nothing quiet about the Dodgers’ incredible season, the rhetoric of which has largely revolved around their young stars and prolific pitching. To the national audience, Seager, 22-year-old home run machine Cody Bellinger, and ace Clayton Kershaw are the faces of a ballclub on a historic run. Puig, now 26, has receded. But even as an ancillary contributor, he has found his place on a team that was, at one point, nearly ready to say goodbye, even when he wasn’t ready to leave. In the span of a year, Puig’s game has dramatically evolved. He’s matured without having to change who he is, and he’s improved in spite of the fact that he is far from the main draw at Dodger Stadium.
“The crowd still gets excited with what I do out on the field,” Puig says. “They’re happy with the plays I make, the home runs, and even all the crazy things I do.”
The hand that spun the black Sharpie into a signature on the top right corner of Richard Manuel Lomeli’s jersey was Yasiel Puig’s. As Puig walked away to take pictures and pose for selfies before the Dodgers faced off against the Padres in mid-August, Lomeli stood on the pristine, golden-brown dirt behind Dodger Stadium’s home plate and reminisced.
“What I like is that he takes the time to appreciate his fans,” Lomeli says. “That’s never changed.”
The 38-year-old Lomeli didn’t have to try hard to recall what Puig’s arrival in 2013 did for the then-underwhelming team and its tepid fan base. He loved it all, and still does to this day, calling Puig one of his favorite players on the team. “He seemed to come up whenever we needed him. It was almost like fate.”
Before Puig’s June 3 debut that year, the Dodgers had lost 10 of their last 16 games. They were nine games below .500 and dead last in the division. Puig’s first week in the majors was preposterous, like a fairy tale told with video game logic. In 19 at-bats, he totaled 10 RBIs and four home runs (two of them game-tying), including a three-run shot and a grand slam. After a month, he was hitting .440, with eight home runs. The Dodgers rallied to 47-47 by the All-Star break and finished the second half 45-23, winning the NL West. The final tally for Puig’s Dodgers: 69-38, by far the best in the majors.
“He did everything for them. He turned it all around, and was the toast of the town,” says Tim Bravo, then the Dodgers’ director of cultural assimilation. “It was like walking around with Elvis everyday.”
When Bravo met Puig in 2012 outside the Dodgers’ spring training facility after Puig had made it over to the United States following a harrowing journey from Cuba, Bravo thought he could be a football player. Bravo—whose primary job was teaching special education at a high school in New Mexico—was assigned to shadow Puig and keep him out of trouble. What he quickly realized was that between those broad shoulders, there was a 21-year-old boy unaware of his new home, foreign to the culture that surrounded him, and unprepared for even the most basic tasks expected of a working, professional adult, let alone a ballplayer.
“I was teaching this kid how to drive and how to go to Walmart and buy food and pay bills,” Bravo says. “We did everything together. When he lifted, I lifted. When he trained, I trained. When he ate, I ate. The only thing we didn’t do was sleep together.”
From the moment they met, Bravo was afraid the money—more than $300,000 more a month than Puig reportedly made in Cuba—would adversely affect the Dodgers’ new outfielder. Sometimes—like when Puig bought a Rolls-Royce, or nearly purchased a helicopter just to avoid L.A. traffic—it did. But Bravo persisted. He prepared Puig for life in America as much as he could. For a time, it worked. “While I was there, we never got in trouble,” Bravo says proudly, saying he was not with Puig when the ballplayer was charged with reckless driving in April 2013 and December 2013.
Over the first year of his major league career, Bravo’s relationship with Puig became crucial. Whether it was saying no to a late-night outing or another hour of games at a Phoenix-area Dave & Buster’s, Bravo was often Puig’s conscience. Bravo became one of the few people who had his ear, one of the only ones who could rival him in a shouting match and not stand down.
“At first, anytime we’d do something, he would argue,” Bravo says. “Then he started listening to what I was telling him to do. I would say, ‘Listen. Listen, mijo! We need to do this! OK, this is what we need to do!’ And there got to a point where he would just sit there and say, ‘OK, teacher. OK, let’s do it.’”
Puig’s notoriety wasn’t confined to Los Angeles. On his first road trip with the team that season, the Dodgers made a three-game stop in Pittsburgh. Before one game, Puig wanted to walk to PNC Park from his hotel in the city across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Bravo did a double take.
“Mijo, are you sure?” he asked.
Puig insisted. “Yeah, I wanna walk today.”
“It was like he was the Pied Piper,” Bravo laughs. “There were people following us, and I was walking backwards so the people wouldn’t get to him. It was crazy, but he loved it.”
By the time he returned to L.A., Puig was the main draw at Chavez Ravine. That year, Puig finished second to José Fernández in NL Rookie of the Year voting, while placing 15th in NL MVP voting despite missing the first 55 games of the season.
At a Lakers home game against the Atlanta Hawks during the offseason following his rookie rise, it was evident Puig’s celebrity had transcended baseball. “You walk into the arena, what you heard was, ‘Puig! Puig! Puig!’” says Irv Bauman, whom Puig met at the Lakers opener that season and remains a close friend. “Everyone spotted him. It was like, ‘Hey, this is not a Laker game anymore. This is a Puig game.’”
In the span of a half-season, Puig had risen from Cuban defector to Angeleno cult hero, and there seemed to be nothing that could stop him from eventually ascending to franchise player. Not yet.
It’s a summer night in late July, and a video lights up the stadium Jumbotron. The segment is a Jr. Dodger Interview between a young girl and shortstop Chris Taylor. Her question is simple, but it stumps Taylor for a moment. “Who is the most interesting player on the team?”
Taylor takes a few seconds to think. “You know who’s pretty interesting?” he says. “Yasiel Puig. He’s an interesting guy. He’s not from here, he’s from Cuba, and he’s himself all the time.”
As early as last season, that statement would have felt coded; a description that said little, but was loaded with subtext. Puig’s individuality was what made him, to some, troublesome. It’s what made him a locker room enigma and the source of controversy, even as he showed potential on the field.
“Nobody knows how good he can be,” Dodgers outfielder Kike Hernández says in Spanish. “It all depends on him, on his discipline and his work. This year, it’s going really well, but still, this is not the best he can play. He can be even better, so much better still.”
After splitting from the Dodgers in 2013 due to a contractual dispute, Bravo attended spring training in 2014 at Puig's request. Starting with the regular season, Puig didn't have the "No" man he needed off the field. Trouble began to find him more often. Puig’s declining play also made him susceptible to a new kind of doubt. In his first two seasons, there were temper issues, the speeding ticket in Tennessee, the bar fight that MLB investigated, the late arrival to Opening Day, and the conflicts with his teammates. The most notable of which were the incident with Zack Greinke, who threw Puig’s suitcase off the team bus after Puig refused to close the luggage bay, and rumors late in 2015 that Clayton Kershaw was done with Puig and wanted him to be traded.
Puig’s relationship with then-manager Don Mattingly was also strained. (Mattingly did not make himself available for comment.) When Bravo was Puig’s shadow, he became the intermediary who communicated messages between Puig and Mattingly. During that time, it worked, according to Bravo. Everything was civil. But after Mattingly was let go at the end of the 2015 season, Puig told Bauman how he really felt. “‘No bueno,’ he told me of Mattingly,” Bauman says. “I asked why. He said, ‘I didn’t trust him.’”
The tenor of Puig’s relationship with Dave Roberts was different. When they met for dinner at a restaurant in Arizona following a spring training game in 2016, Puig had just come off a season marred by hamstring injuries, a season when his behavior overshadowed anything he did on the diamond. But Roberts wanted to get off on the right foot with his entire coaching staff in attendance. It worked. Puig immediately felt the connection. “He’s a good guy,” Puig told Bauman after the dinner. “I think he has my back.”
Roberts had Puig’s back, but in 2016, another hamstring injury and a steep offensive decline in play led the new manager and the organization to make a tough decision. Puig had returned from the DL and shown flashes of his old self, so the Dodgers decided to test the market and make him available at the trade deadline. By that time, he’d made L.A. his home. He didn’t want to leave and had never considered it a possibility. Bauman recalls Puig only ever talking about one other team he would ever play for if he had to leave L.A., one with a storied baseball history that could rival and even surpass the Dodgers’ own: the Yankees.
Puig was never traded. His day of reckoning came on August 2 of last season. The Dodgers, after failing to move him at the non-waiver deadline amid a hamstring injury, lack of fitness, and inconsistent work ethic, sent him down to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City. The rumors of Puig’s eventual divorce from the team that brought him into the league were as close as they had ever been to becoming reality. He was on the verge of being released.
Bravo knew that sending him to a different city would reset the cycle that so many Latino players must endure: from getting acclimated to a new city’s culture and its people, to figuring out basic tasks like navigation and food. What had finally become a constant in Puig’s volatile early life would be taken from him if he were displaced. So when Puig called from Oklahoma City, Bravo, as he had done so many times before, confronted him. “I told him, ‘You need to go down there and you need to show them that you’re a good person,’” Bravo says. “‘Show them that you can walk the good path, and perform, and get back up here.’”
Reports later surfaced that the Dodgers were wary of letting go of Puig for fear that he would return to his best self elsewhere and come back to haunt them. Even at his rock bottom, L.A. could still see his potential. And in OKC, Puig began realizing it. By the end of August, Puig had hit four home runs, driven in 12 runs, and put up a near-1.000 OPS in 19 games. The Dodgers, who had placed him on revocable waivers, revoked the Milwaukee Brewers’ claim on him. On September 2, he returned to the big leagues. Upon arriving back in L.A., one of Puig’s first moves was to privately meet with Kershaw in the clubhouse to make amends. According to those close to Puig, the two have an improved working relationship now.
“It's a relationship founded on respect,” longtime Dodgers coach Manny Mota says in Spanish. “He’s now trying to treat everyone well and adjust to everyone’s different personalities. He’s trying to get along with everyone.”
Maritza Valdes Gonzalez is fighting sleep. It’s almost midnight on the East Coast, and she’s trying to stay awake inside her Miami home. That she’s even up this late is rare, but so is what her son’s team has been doing. On this particular night, the Dodgers are down 2-1 in the seventh inning to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and with former Dodger Zack Greinke pitching a strong outing, it looks like their 80th win of the season may have to wait another day. Maritza considers surrendering to her tired eyes, but suddenly the screen in front of her flickers with hope. In two at-bats, Joc Pederson ties the game with a double, and her son quickly drives him in with a single that helps the Dodgers take the lead. Kenley Jansen secures the victory two innings later with a save. By now it’s 1 a.m. in Miami. Maritza doesn’t get to see this often.
“I usually only get to watch about two innings,” she says of the late starting times, in Spanish. She makes sure to let Puig know when she’ll be able to watch only a portion of the game. “Even if I want to stay up, I fall asleep. Tiredness gets me.” She pauses. “The thing is, right now, they’re really good.”
From nearly 3,000 miles away, Maritza notices the changes in her son as vividly as she is experiencing the Dodgers’ unprecedented run. For her, the redemption Puig is engineering is far more fulfilling after what happened last season. As Puig reckoned with his demotion, he turned to his mother.
“This is hard,” Puig would say of his situation. “This doesn’t look like L.A.” The sadness and disappointment Puig felt was palpable in his texts and their weekly phone calls. Maritza was hearing more from her son than ever. “It was hard for him, but it was also a lesson,” Maritza says. “It made him reflect. It made him become more mature, too.”
The sudden turnaround this season, and Puig’s new role on the team he never wanted to leave, has made Maritza feel vindicated. She still remembers what Puig did to get to this place.
“This year, this offseason, he focused on preparing physically,” Maritza says. In 2014 Puig, who spends his downtime in Miami with his mother, reportedly showed up to spring training about 20 pounds heavier. Heading into last season there were questions about his fitness. This offseason was different.
“His food intake went down, and even with me, we used to argue about it, he used to tell me, at first, ‘Mami, that’s not enough food!’ But he adopted a discipline with his diet.” Puig’s weakness was simple: rice and beans. Maritza wanted to take it away, and did at first, but Puig was stubborn. So, they compromised. Now, Puig gets rice only. Maritza figured it was a fair deal. “He helped himself. Who else but him, to have that desire to get better?”
Maritza has learned a lot about baseball since she arrived in the United States, a short time after Puig did, and she’s not shy about providing him with pointers. When they text and call each other, she reminds him to study opposing pitchers, just like they study him. She orders him to watch film, at home and at the stadium. “He’s focused,” she says.
Puig’s coaches concur. “He’s learned, over time, to apply control and restraint to himself. To not get bothered by or affected by what happens on the diamond,” Mota says. Ward believes Puig coasted through his first three years on sheer talent, but the league quickly caught up. That’s when he started faltering and flailing; the swing that once made him a star was becoming a game-to-game indictment of how far he had fallen, how predictable he had gotten. His batting average from his first two years in the league had declined by 50 points, his on-base-percentage 64 points, and his slugging percentage by 66 points. And his troubles at the plate exacerbated the problems his bat and glove could not control.
“Now, he’s understanding the pitchers that he’s facing,” Ward says. “He always knows who it is. He understands how to attack that guy, and that’s made him a far better hitter at the plate.”
With his contract nearing completion in 2019 and a growing family now with him, Puig’s game has improved, even as his priorities have changed. His decision-making and outlook on life is starting to follow suit.
“He is still like a kid, but he’s not a kid anymore, now he has two kids.” Maritza says, laughing. She’s referring to Puig’s two sons, Daniel and Diego. A third, with his girlfriend Andrea de la Torre, is on the way. “Well, he’s still my kid. He’ll always be my kid.”
Turner Ward was the one who planted the first kiss. Inside the Dodgers clubhouse one day this season, Ward noticed Puig was having a rough day, so he put Puig in a loose headlock and kissed him right on the cheek.
“That was a big part of trying to establish and create with him a connection and a trust,” Ward says. “Telling him, ‘Every day is going to be what you make it. We don’t always have good days, but at least I’m going to have a good attitude as I’m going about the day.’"
After Bravo’s departure from the Dodgers, Ward, aided by Mota, began working on his relationship with Puig in spring training before last season. There, Mota would act as the interpreter, not just the translator for the two, as Ward sought to become Puig’s confidant. Ward wanted Puig to call him out on anything he didn’t agree with. In turn, Puig had to be comfortable with Ward calling him out, too. Things didn’t work right away.
“Last year, just from a work standpoint, if things were going good, he would tend to stop doing the work, he was hoping to kind of glide through it a little bit,” Ward says. “And then once he started doing bad again, he’d get back in. This year, he’s working every single day.”
Come for the Yasiel Puig home run.— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) August 5, 2017
Stay for the Turner Ward kiss. pic.twitter.com/KIr7zUcxsy
Puig's most remarkable improvement has come in the area in which he struggled most profoundly: patience. He’s increased his BB/K ratio from 0.32 last year to 0.66 this season. Of the 189 batters with at least 300 plate appearances both this year and last, only five have improved by a greater margin than Puig. Ignore all intentional walks and Puig still has the 14th-best improvement among the 189-person sample. In August alone, Puig walked 20 times—a career high.
“He doesn’t give a shit about the fact that he’s batting eighth,” Bauman says. “He just wants to play, and now, he doesn’t feel the terrible pressure to be the no. 1 player on the team. He’s one of the team.”
After hitting for most of the season in the bottom of the lineup, Roberts announced three weeks ago that he would move Puig up to sixth in the batting order for the foreseeable future. Puig walked twice in his first game in that slot against the White Sox. Patience is also leading to more power. It took just 103 games this season for Puig to surpass his career high in home runs. He’s now at 24, and is returning the favor to Ward, kissing him on the cheek every time he goes yard or gets a timely hit. The kiss has become a physical manifestation of Puig not just thanking Ward for getting him back to this level, but also of Puig buying into what the Dodgers are selling.
“He's not trying to help out his personal gain anymore,” Mota says. “He knows now that there’s so many ways in which he can help this team. Running, throwing, and playing defense, aside from his hitting. He’s now trying to add anything that will be beneficial to this team.”
.@YasielPuig’s got sticky fingers out there. pic.twitter.com/F2Vfu0cl8Z— MLB (@MLB) August 27, 2017
“You could argue that this is his most productive season, and right now, I don't think there is a dispute,” Roberts—who has repeatedly made the case for Puig to win a Gold Glove this year—said following a game earlier this season. “He’s having fun, and he’s a nice piece of this puzzle.”
Three miles East of Dodger Stadium in mid-August, Yasiel Puig was being questioned. At Gates Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, Puig found himself underneath the shade of a large tree surrounded by a small contingent of curious boys and girls. Some of their questions were simple. Why did you decide to play baseball, and why do you like it? What other sports did you play? Others slightly more interesting. How much were your shoes? Why don’t they call you the king of baseball? How many scores do you have this season?
“Like, RBIs or scores?” Puig asked, visibly enjoying the attention.
“No, scores,” the young boy replied.
Puig is confounded, but replies with his runs total, “50-something, 56.”
Today, Puig was at Gates. The day before, he had traveled to Esperanza Elementary School nearby. Puig and his Wild Horse Foundation visited two of the four schools they had planned to donate school supplies and sports gear to as part of their local outreach. Earlier this year, the foundation, named after Puig’s Vin Scully–given nickname, raised more than $200,000 at a celebrity poker tournament at Dodger Stadium. Most of the proceeds went toward the children in Puig’s home country.
“When I was a kid in Cuba, I never had all the gear to play baseball, never had enough of the things needed to go to school,” Puig says. “But life spun me around, and now, thank God, my financial state is good, my health is good, everything is good. So I’d like to give kids and families there who don’t have the same possibility to have the things they need to go to school, or to have the things they need to go play sports. It gives them opportunity, too.”
“He loves kids,” Mota says. “But that foundation, it’s been an even bigger help for him. It’s helped him care for other people and mature.”
Later that same day, Puig wasn’t giving. He was taking. One, two, three balls outside the strike zone. After five pitches from White Sox right-hander Jake Petricka, Puig’s patience resulted in a full count with two men on the corners, one out, and the Dodgers down a run in the bottom of the ninth. The following pitch was off-speed and away—the type of pitch that haunted Puig as recently as last season and baited him into countless strikeouts. This time, it barely grazed off his hickory bat as he tumbled onto the ground following the hack. Naturally, Puig picked up the ball and bit it with his teeth. “I thought it was manzana,” he jokingly tweeted after the game.
One pitch later, a 95 mph fastball low in the zone, he hit the ball square on its core, sending it at 104 mph out to the left-center field gap. Both runners scored, the Dodgers had their 38th comeback win of the season, and suddenly Puig was in a giving mood again. This time, it was a declaration made sensible by the sheer fact that the Dodgers, now winners of 92 in 138 games, have been simply unstoppable this season, even if only Puig would be comfortable enough to proclaim it to the home crowd in a moment of absolute euphoria.
“I’ll see you in the World Series!”
#PuigYourHero! Win number 8⃣5⃣ for the @Dodgers comes via their 10th #walkoff of the season. pic.twitter.com/s2jytycIF4— MLB (@MLB) August 17, 2017
For a brief moment, Puig was the center of attention once again. But he was still himself. Compelling, magnetic, irreverent, and in the middle of a scorching hot ballclub. Yet like that first week he dazzled L.A., Puig was here not because of his antics, but because of the very thing that led him to that Dodgers Stadium batter’s box in the first place: his talent, the only immutable thing in his life. Maybe now he’s only just starting to really show it off.
“Yasiel is like a diamond in the rough,” says Mota. “You keep cleaning it and shining it, but it’s still not as bright and pristine as it could be.”