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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Yasiel Puig earns the role of villain from opponents

The hot young Dodgers outfielder and hitter feels the hate in Arizona. Manager Don Mattingly sees the young player straddling the line between attitude and arrogance.

July 10, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Yasiel Puig has playing inspired baseball since his major league debut, hitting .397 with eight home runs and 19 RBI, but is he becoming a villain?
Yasiel Puig has playing inspired baseball since his major league debut,… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)

PHOENIX — Just when the baseball world thought it had seen everything that Yasiel Puig could become, the Dodgers phenom has added yet another tool.

It's not as overwhelming as his bat, or as strong as his arm, but it can be just as powerful — or powerfully destructive — as both.

The hot young outfielder and hitter is also now officially a villain.

It happened this week in Arizona, where the charging Dodgers swept through the first-place Diamondbacks against a backdrop of boos, accusations and rips.

It wasn't Arizona hating on Los Angeles. It was Arizona hating on Puig.

It was folks in both the Chase Field stands and home dugout jeering the Dodgers' 22-year-old magician for what they considered needless sleights of hand and crass tricks.

They hated the way he tossed his bat after even the mildest of hits. They hated how he growled at the pitcher even after walks. They hated how seemingly every bit of hustle was accompanied by a glare.

"He plays with a lot of arrogance," said Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy.

They hated on him even though he had had no homers, no extra-base hits and no RBIs in the series. They hated on him because it's become obvious in the last 35 games that Puig is about a lot more than numbers.

The kid is about an unbridled swagger that hasn't been seen around the Dodgers since Manny Ramirez, the kind of swagger that enrages fans and distracts opponents. It is an attitude jolt that, if backed by good play, can turn a complacent club into champions. It is also an attitude jolt that can tear that same club apart.

The Dodgers, for now, are publicly looking on the bright side.

"I don't mind a guy playing with a little attitude, honestly,'' said Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly before his team's 7-5 victory over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday to complete a three-game sweep. ''I played with Rickey Henderson, he was a guy who irritated a lot of people, but he was a pretty good player."

Mattingly, however, knows there's a line that kids should not cross, lines that separate villains from fools. Like everyone else on the Dodgers, they are holding their breath that Puig can successfully straddle that line.

The Diamondbacks and their fans are already convinced he has crossed it. The crowds here spoke with boos every time Puig came near a ball or a bat. The players openly acknowledged it in the clubhouse, expressing feelings that are surely shared throughout the league, because very few baseball players ever speak alone.

"If he's my teammate, I'm probably trying to help him not be hated in the major leagues…that's where he's going right now, creating a bad reputation throughout the league," said Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero.

Montero was talking about, among other things, a play Tuesday night in which Puig foolishly tried to race home from first on a dropped fly ball in center field.

He was easily thrown out, but not before he hit Montero with a forearm shiver and then glared at him as he left the field.

"Does he have talent? Of course," said Montero. "It'd be really bad if he wasted it doing the stupid things he's doing.''

The Diamondbacks were also angry at Puig for a perceived snub of one of the franchise's legendary heroes, Luis Gonzalez.

Before the series opener Monday, Gonzalez approached Puig behind the batting cage to introduce himself and talk about their shared Cuban roots.

Puig had apparently never heard of Gonzalez, and paid him little attention until Dodgers coach Mark McGwire explained Gonzalez's game-winning hit in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and his significance to the organization.

Gonzalez then went on the local radio ripping Puig for showing bad manners, which is, face it, a little silly considering Puig has only been in the big leagues 35 days and can't be expected to know about players who starred when he was a child in information-controlled Cuba.

But that is what happens when you are a villain. Every move is scrutinized. Every action can be a distraction.

"You don't want him to be a distraction, and he doesn't want to be a distraction,'' said Mattingly. "If there's anything that is a behavior that you would watch out for, I think we'd talk about it."

They will probably have a talk this weekend after Puig pulled a rather villainous move in the outfield.

When running down a double into the right-center field gap by Paul Goldschmidt in the fifth inning Wednesday night, he stuck out his glove in ordering chasing center fielder Andre Ethier to halt.

When is the last time you have seen such a bold public move by one teammate against another?

The Dodgers would rather have Puig make the throw, but do they really want him showing up the steady Ethier to do it? Wouldn't the smart Ethier have relented anyway?

It didn't help that, an inning later, Puig dropped a line drive by Chad Pennington for an error.

"But he's a 22-year-old who loves playing ... playing with a flair.... I don't want to take that aggressiveness away from him," said Mattingly.

Puig also has a defender in Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson, who sees a little of himself as a young player.

"He's kicking everybody's butt, some people are jealous and pop off on him," Gibson said. "I think the way he plays is awesome."

Awesome or overboard, Puig's style of play has now become so noticeable, it is in the heads of opposing players and fans. After these recent years of Dodgers invisibility, that's probably not a bad place to be.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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