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Why Baseball Needs More Yasiel Puig, Not Less

All the bat flips. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/MARK J. TERRILL)
All the bat flips. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/MARK J. TERRILL)

In what can only be described as a mild baseball tragedy, the Yasiel Puig bat-flip era is over. The electric Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder who burst onto the scene two seasons ago and often celebrates home runs — and sometimes, not-home runs — with a casual flip of the bat toward his own dugout has been worn down by the critics, those who see such a mild celebration as a grave insult to the sport’s illustrious and never-tarnished history.

“I want to show American baseball that I’m not disrespecting the game,” Puig explained to the Los Angeles Times after not sending a bat through flight after hitting his second home run of the season this week.

Puig, a Cuban immigrant, is one of the game’s best and most exciting young players, but his bat flips and other aspects of his game (and yes, some mistakes) have made him a lightning rod over his first two seasons. Now, he has vowed to change, despite the fact that his flip seemed in mid-season form just a few weeks ago, and the future of baseball has been undoubtedly spared.

This is sad and almost hilarious, not just because there is absolutely no reason for Puig to feel this way (can you really “show up” a pitcher any more than you already did by rocketing one of his pitches 500 feet into the night sky?), but because of the context in which it is happening. As a new baseball season dawns, it is impossible to ignore the pleading for new superstars in the wake of the retirement of The Last Great Superstar, for new players to emerge to make baseball popular again, especially among young people, especially among young people of color.

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It is of course unfair to put the future of the game on Puig or any other player, and whether a “cool” player like him could actually address those problems is unknown, but he, his bat flips, and his never-know-what-he’ll-do approach to baseball have nevertheless given the game exactly what it seems to be looking for: a potential superstar who plays the game like it is a game, who approaches every at-bat and every fly ball and every next base and every throw back into the infield with the enthusiasm of someone who just discovered that he could hit a ball 450 feet, throw a guy out from the right field corner, or score from second on a routine ground ball.

To Puig, it seems, each instance is a new challenge; when he passes, and sometimes even when he doesn’t, it generates raw emotion not altogether unlike the reaction video games and other basic American luxuries have elicited too. This is all new to him, and it seems very fun. And why shouldn’t it be? This is the way every kid plays the game in the backyard; Puig plays this way on the biggest stages possible. He is having fun, and what is baseball for if not fun?

“It’s my style. It’s the way I’ve played baseball for a long time. I don’t really worry about the other team or what other players think about me, other than our team,” Puig told MLB.com last year. “As far as what other people think, I try to play the game hard and I try to play the game happy. I want to have a good time when I’m playing. This is a game of entertainment. I don’t play it to offend people. But I do have a good time playing the game of baseball.”

This, it seems, would be a refreshing attitude in a sports world where superstars are so often criticized for putting money and the business of the game first, and in a sport where a player like Puig might be part of the remedy for the illnesses that drive so much of the conversation. Yes, there are parts of his game Puig needs to fix or at least control, but his approach to playing it and his penchant for twirling his bat is hardly one of them.

That is worth celebrating; instead, the complaints from players, some columnists, and fans has made Puig feel as if it requires change. It’s no wonder: his mistakes have been scrutinized more heavily than those of his fellow players, his mere presence has been treated as putting the Dodgers’ title hopes in jeopardy, his accomplishments diminished because he’s decided to enjoy them. It’s almost depressing to think watching Puig flip his bat on an apparent playoff home run, realize it isn’t going to make it, and leg out an easy triple anyway could cause anything but pure joy and amazement.

CREDIT: Youtube
CREDIT: Youtube

And some feel exactly that! But the voices of those who don’t, namely the columnists and players who just wish Puig and others like him would “respect the game,” are quite obviously deafening.

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Perhaps, though, this is no surprise in another context in which Puig exists. The “respect the game” phenomenon, as Will Leitch noted Wednesday, seems more common now, growing in a way that has largely coincided with the increase in the number of ballplayers from Latin America. The game today features more players from Latin, Carribean, and South American countries than ever before, and they have brought with them flair and flamboyance typical of the game in their homes. Puig and others, like Carlos Gomez, play the game with the type pure emotion and uninhibited effort — and yes, both the celebratory outbursts and mistakes that come along with that — that have earned other players plaudits for their hustle. The “respect the game” attitude has led to criticism of other, non-Latin players too, but it’s hard to deny that who is playing this way is different, and whether consciously or not, that maybe that has drawn a different sort of reaction from plenty of players and sportswriters.

Again, this is a shame, because this merging of different personalities and cultures that results in a more diverse game should be something the sport not only welcomes but actively promotes. Instead, too many want to ask guys like Puig to be players they aren’t, to rob them of the very features, the unabashed joy that manifests itself in passion, emotion, and risk-taking that leads to moments of brilliance or spectacular failure, that makes them what they are. Baseball, especially the way Puig plays it, is not boring. This type of demand for needless conformity to a “right way to play,” however, most certainly is.