Yasiel Puig Not First, Hardly Will Be Last Phenom to Weather Controversy

Yasiel PuigHopefully, Major League Baseball can survive the affront to human decency that is Yasiel Puig.

We kid, of course, but hyperbole and Puig have gone hand in hand ever since the Los Angeles Dodgers phenom burst onto the scene in June. Within two weeks of his major league debut, Puig inspired comparisons to Joe DiMaggio and prompted a heated debate over whether his stellar month deserved an All-Star nod. Now he’s gotten benched, though, and the kid who once represented Everything Good About Baseball has morphed into the personification of Everything Awful in Sports.

The wisdom and usefulness of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly yanking Puig in the fifth inning of Wednesday’s win over the Cubs has been deconstructed elsewhere, so there is no need to dwell on it here. By now, you’re probably fairly convinced that sitting a player with a .963 OPS was either the dumbest baseball move imaginable or a necessary message to send a 22-year-old with many stellar years ahead of him.

Yet what Puig and many of his detractors are failing to recognize is that Puig is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young superstar with million-dollar talent and — to steal Crash Davis’ phrase — a 10-cent head. We’ve seen this story before. We’ll see it again. Puig is a special talent, but he’s not special in and of himself.

If anyone should be excused from this lack of self-awareness, it’s Puig. Rare is the hotshot rookie who understands he’s not the first human being in history to be really, really good at sports. Bryce “Clown Question, Bro” Harper still seems to be figuring it out. Hanley Ramirez, at the ripe old age of 29, has only recently gotten away from his habit of taking one step back for every two steps forward. In Puig’s mind, he actually may be God’s gift to baseball, because from what he’s seen, all the evidence to date backs that up.

The rest of us should know better. As members of the media, we should also be mindful that our righteous indignation is at least a little self-serving. One year after a similarly stunning major league debut, Mike Trout has been pushed off the front page despite another outstanding season. The difference, of course, is that Trout has never yelled at a pitcher or hot-dogged a routine catch in the outfield. He’s not controversial; he’s just damn good, but “just damn good” isn’t sexy or exciting, apparently.

That’s our fault — as reporters, as fans and as armchair managers. Look, Trout isn’t necessarily an inherently better person than Harper or Puig — well, he might be — but his transition into stardom was aided greatly by the presence of Torii Hunter, who watched over the future superstar and showed him the ropes of big league life. To Trout’s credit, he was receptive to Hunter’s advice, but he didn’t just magically appear as a 19-year-old and know how to act like a big leaguer.

Whether such a support system is in place for the Dodgers is debatable. The veterans in their everyday lineup are either notorious for their own past transgressions, like Ramirez, or known for being non-confrontational types, like Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford. If Mattingly were still playing, he’d be the ideal mentor for Puig, but he’s the manager now. Sometimes parishioners stop listening when you put on the preacher’s collar.

Puig’s benching could be the first step toward him figuring it out or it could be the first step toward a Milton Bradley-esque spiral into a deeper world of crazy. But with or without Puig, the game will go on. Puig, as well as his detractors, would do well to remember that.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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