‘We’re Not Going to Put a Muzzle on Him’: Unchained Yasiel Puig Is Coming for WS

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‘We’re Not Going to Put a Muzzle on Him’: Unchained Yasiel Puig Is Coming for WS
Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig reacts after hitting a three-run home run during the sixth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — Yasiel Puig has never kissed his manager, Dave Roberts. He regularly kisses his hitting coach, Turner Ward. He kissed Atlanta infielder Charlie Culberson on the neck in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.

He kissed off the Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox and everyone else this postseason with a proclamation that the Los Angeles Dodgers definitely are going to win the World Series.

“We’re going for more,” Puig declared after the Dodgers clinched the NL West title. “We’re going to the World Series again, and this time win the World Series 2018.

“The big party is here in Los Angeles.”

Saturday night, he kissed his bat goodbye—again—with another epic flip upon clobbering a three-run, Game 7 homer, the smash that finally pushed the Dodgers past the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-1, and to another World Series. Then he executed several crotch chops as he circled the bases, a throat-slashing gesture upon returning to the dugout and, well, it might take the rest of the weekend to catalogue whatever else.

Yasiel Puig himself is a walking, talking, sparkling party. He always kisses and tells. And though his outsized personality had been louder than his bat so far in this NL Championship Series with Milwaukee, nobody with the Dodgers is worried about it. Sometimes it just takes Puig’s bat a little time to catch up.

Like this postseason, in which he had just one RBI in 10 games and was batting just .235 in the NLCS before roaring back onto center stage, where we so often find him, in Miller Park.

“We’re not going to put a muzzle on him,” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said during a conversation with B/R last week. “That’s what he needs, to have fun. And if that gets him focused and in the right state of mind to do what he needs to do here, that’s great.”

Fair enough. But…have you considered a muzzle, Farhan?

The general manager laughed, hard.

“He’s a beauty,” he said. “He enjoys the spotlight, but he’s also a huge part of why we’re here.”

Without question, the Dodgers are better when Puig is at his bat-flipping, tongue-wagging, convention-disrupting best. When he’s on his game in right field, on meaty fastballs at the plate and on target with his wild antics.

He went 3-for-4 in Game 7, and it is not a coincidence that the Dodgers had their easiest cruise yet against the Brewers. It also is no coincidence that the hits and the gyrations are intertwined, one feeding off the other until Puig busts out of his average-citizen cloak like some kind of hardball Incredible Hulk.

Though Roberts still must manage him the way a parent manages a limits-testing teenager, Puig right now is in a good spot with his organization, his teammates and, especially, Los Angeles fans.

“I play my ball,” Puig told B/R in Milwaukee in a quiet conversation on the eve of the Dodgers’ World Series-punching NLCS. “All the time when I come to the stadium, I try to do the best I can. Sometimes I do different stuff, but when you do the same stuff and somebody throws you out, people think bad things, you know? And then they talk about things people don’t need to talk about.

“But if you are safe in the same situation, people are going, ‘Oh, that’s great! That’s great!’ You’re never going to be 100 percent with everybody. You need to play your ball and be you and play ball the best I can and be fun as a player. That’s made me be here for the sixth time [Puig has played on each of the Dodgers’ six consecutive NL West title teams]. And in the postseason, do the best I can in the field to help my team win.”

Let the kid play. What’s new for fall in the Yasiel Puig line is that following years of turbulence and torturous judging, look who’s actually featured in a brand new postseason promotional video narrated by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Or rather, look whose tongue is featured. Yes, Puig’s oral fixation is now officially sanctioned and endorsed by MLB. (We’ll, um, check on the crotch chops later.) And you bet it makes him proud.

“All the players in that video try to make baseball fun again, or when somebody does something exciting like myself hitting home runs, I flip the bat or run with my tongue out because how many home runs can I do in one season, you know?” Puig said. “That’s an exciting moment for fans.

“Your team loses, you’re 0-for-4, and one time you hit a home run and you’re so excited. I do those things because it makes me play better every time.”

“Even MLB’s Instagram page will post bat flips now,” Milwaukee outfielder Curtis Granderson, a teammate of Puig’s in Los Angeles for two months in 2017 and an MLB International Ambassador, said. “Flips of the week, or whatever it is.

“In one breath it’s, ‘Oh, you can’t do this. Why is he doing it? Respect the game.’ Which one is it? We can’t be on both sides of this thing, you know? You’ve done something well in the game, celebration should be a part of it, being excited should be a part of it. But if you don’t, then you have no emotion. You don’t care.

“Same thing with Puig. He licks his bat, he tongue-wags, he bat-flips, he does a bunch of stuff. Let him do it, you know? I haven’t seen anyone want to issue a fine. He hasn’t done anything that’s quote-unquote illegal. Let him do it.”

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Plus, the Dodgers see a side of him that others don’t. Shortly after Granderson was traded last summer and learning a new team, he and a few friends went for dinner in Los Angeles one evening following a day game.

“We wind up in a spot and Yasiel happens to be there,” Granderson said. “I see him, say hello like I would normally to any other teammate, and he’s with some people.

“Now, it’s real easy to, like normal, just do your thing, eat and on the way out say bye. But he invites us over: ‘Hey, why don’t you guys come hang out with us?’ I was like, ‘Oh, hey, you didn’t have to do that. I appreciate that.'”

So Granderson and his group joined Puig’s group. Puig introduced them all, and even though Puig’s group had finished their meals, they all hung out while Granderson’s group ate theirs.

Puig and Ward have become close enough that their families sometimes hang out. Puig loves to play video games with Ward’s youngest son, Olin, who turns 14 this month. The Wards have socialized at Puig’s house. Yasiel has invited them all to Dave & Buster’s, just like regular, non-tongue-wagging folk.

“It’s awesome,” Ward says.

Mostly, the Dodgers are amused by Puig’s outrageousness. His comic relief and goofy sideshows can break tension and bring smiles. Especially, says outfielder Cody Bellinger, when he does something on the field in the heat of a game.

“It reminds you to have fun because of what he’s doing,” Bellinger says.

“And like families, there’s always some turmoil,” noted Ward, who, clearly, as the recipient of so many Puig kisses, has a special relationship with the slugger. “We’re pretty hard on each other too. I expect a lot out of him. My expectations are no greater than what his are. We’re trying to both get better at what we do. He doesn’t hold back, and I don’t hold back either.”

Specifically, Ward says, there are occasions when maybe the hitting coach doesn’t think Puig is as prepared as he could be, and there are occasions when Puig doesn’t like what Ward has to say. Behind the scenes, this is also where Roberts comes in. In a way, the manager is an extension of Puig’s mother, who tells him, “Listen to people; they want to help you.”

“I can’t make him try to be Justin Turner or Chase Utley, but what I can do is make sure he prepares and he’s accountable for his actions and his teammates,” Roberts said. “So we’ve had some difficult conversations. But I do believe that he trusts that I have his best interest, our team’s best interest [at heart].”

No question, Puig doesn’t always like what he hears from Roberts.

“I don’t know,” Puig said. “He’s doing his thing. I’m doing my thing. He’s the manager. I can’t tell him who to play or not. But sometimes I want to play, and he don’t want to play me, and I can’t do nothing about that but some and help my team in the sixth or seventh inning pinch-hitting. Everybody on this team is important to go win.

“Now I don’t worry about anything he do. This is the playoffs; if he puts me in the lineup, I’m going to be happy and play. If he don’t put me in the lineup, I need to go out when he wants to help my team win. That’s the reason we’re here. No matter what he do, no matter what happens, I don’t want to be mad with him.

“He’s the manager and we are the players, and we’re here to win, not do what people want. We’re here only to win, and that’s it. And we’re going to do it right now. Win.”

Puig did not start Games 1 and 5 of the NLCS in Roberts’ platoon-heavy rotation but was in the lineup for the other five games. When he is in right field, things do become “funnier,” Bellinger said, noting how they’ll goof around throwing the ball between innings by sometimes running football-like routes.

Also, the center fielder added, “Balls in the right-center gap I’m more attentive to when he’s in there. I don’t want to get run over.”

Because of multiple incidents at his home this summer—robberies and attempted robberies—the club, according to sources, has quietly taken security measures to ensure his safety, as you would expect. With Puig, always, there is some kind of drama. The trick is ensuring the light moments, and his overall production, eclipse the hiccups.

He’s just a fun, energetic guy to have in the clubhouse, and over the course of a 162-game season, you need guys like that just to lift the energy of the room,” Zaidi said. “People on the outside, and certainly people on other teams, don’t necessarily see that side of him, how he can lift up the spirits of the guys in our locker room on those days when the energy is dragging a little bit. That’s where we have an even greater appreciation for him than what he does on the field.”

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Saturday night was Puig at his best. The three-run homer came in the sixth, right after Chris Taylor spectacularly robbed Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich of a potential game-tying extra base hit in left field. Puig’s blast not only energized the Dodgers, but it also sucked the air right out of the 44,097 packing Miller Park.

“Huge hit,” Taylor said. “It just broke the game open right there. The bullpen was able to come in with a comfortable four-run lead. I can’t stress enough how big of a home run that was.”

“He’s one of those guys who says a lot, but when he backs it up, it’s hard to say anything about it,” said rookie phenom Walker Buehler, who held the Brewers to one run in 4.2 innings. “And he backed it up today.”

As he raged in the clubhouse Game 7 champagne celebration, this time, for one night, Puig opted to confine his outrageousness there. He would offer no sexy sound bites.

“No questions today,” he announced. “No questions.”

So the public must wait for his thoughts on facing the Boston Red Sox next week as the Dodgers again try to win their first World Series title since 1988. For now, no more predictions.

“You have to say the right things, you know?” he told B/R last week. “We’re ready to win. We have a big population. We have a good team. Every day we play is an important day for us.”

Every day seems increasingly important, and who can tell what’s next? Perhaps even the construction of a kissing booth for the guy if he can launch a few more key jacks. Ward knows, a few more smooches and his poor wife, Donna, is going to be jealous soon.

“That’s funny, because there was a stretch there where I got more [kisses] from him because my wife was out of town,” Ward acknowledged.

Hmmm…is Puig concerned about the possibility of a hitting coach’s jealous wife?

“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “Everything’s good.”

When Yasiel does Yasiel, more often than not, it usually is. Let the kid play, and the kisses—and wins—will follow.

           

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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