Cuban Yasiel Puig has electrified the Dodgers, and their fanbase, hitting… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
One swing of the bat and more than 44,000 fans in Dodger Stadium erupted. As the ball sailed over the right-field fence — with the bases loaded — even Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully was at a loss.
"I don't believe it!" he exclaimed to television viewers. "A grand-slam home run!"
On the Dodgers radio broadcast, veteran announcer Charley Steiner shouted, "This doesn't happen even in Hollywood!"
As the stadium shook with emotion and Dodgers in the dugout exchanged high-fives and hugs, a chiseled 6-foot-3, 245-pound ballplayer circled the bases.
Yasiel Puig was in his fourth major league game.
The 22-year-old defector from Cuba had already hit three home runs and driven in nine runs. With his power, speed on the bases and cannon arm from right field, he had single-handedly energized frustrated fans who were fed up with their heavily paid, lightly producing last-place ballclub.
Even to the untrained eye, Puig looks noticeably stronger and faster than everyone else on the field. Whether swinging a bat, running or throwing, everything he does is an explosion of controlled violence — the equivalent of a championship boxer's best punch.
"This cat's a different animal," is how Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly explains it.
A little more than a year ago Puig was stewing in his parents' home in the coastal town of Cienfuegos, upset at being suspended from Cuba's top baseball league for attempting to flee the country. Since then, he has embarked on a whirlwind odyssey in which he has been transformed. Once exiled from baseball, he's now a multimillionaire; once virtually unknown, he's now an overnight sensation.
"Everything is different," Puig says in Spanish.
The consensus in baseball was that the Dodgers grossly overpaid when they signed Puig to a seven-year, $42-million contract last June. Skeptics noted there was little known about him and not much of a track record against tough competition.
Opinions about him remain varied. Though Puig was the best player in all of spring training this year according to one National League scout, a well-read list of the game's top 100 prospects excluded him.
Even Dodgers officials were cautious. They downplayed the significance of his promotion to the major leagues, which happened only because outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford sustained injuries.
Puig is an unlikely baseball phenom. His parents are engineers who hoped their son would attend college as they did. But once Puig started playing baseball at 9, he says, he never considered anything else as a career.
At 17, Puig played for a Cuban junior national team at a tournament in Canada. He made his debut in Cuba's top league later that year, in the 2008-09 season. He played two seasons in the league, which remains off-limits to major league scouts because of the United States' embargo of Cuba.
"Everyone in the world dreams of playing here in the United States," Puig says.
Like many Cuban athletes who have left their homeland, Puig declines to answer questions about his escape from the island, or how he landed on the shores of Cancun, Mexico, last spring.
Around that time, Puig's agent, Miami-based lawyer Jaime Torres, said he received a phone call from someone claiming to be close to the ballplayer. Torres had a long history of representing Cuban exiles in the major leagues, and he knew that the first order of business was to establish Puig as a resident of Mexico. Doing so allowed Puig to sign with a major league team without violating the terms of the U.S.-Cuba embargo.
Next, Torres arranged for Puig to work out in front of scouts. There was a firm deadline to sign him: July 2 — the day new rules for signing international players would go into effect. Until then, teams were permitted to pay foreign prospects as much as they wanted. But under a new agreement between the leagues and the players' union, teams could not spend a total of more than $2.9 million each year on international signings.
Dodgers scouting director Logan White and scout Mike Brito rushed down to Mexico, along with representatives from a few other teams. They didn't see much — just three batting practice sessions.
Even so, White was convinced the Dodgers should sign him. The team had money. Months earlier, the Dodgers had been purchased for a record $2.15 billion, and the new owners were willing to dig deeper into their pockets. Team President Stan Kasten, a longtime baseball executive, was already on record saying the club needed to restock a depleted farm system.
Paul Fryer, a high-level scout, was dispatched to Mexico City to watch the final two of Puig's workouts. Fryer has a knack for projecting how a player in an overseas or college league would transition to pro ball in the U.S. However, in other instances he always had the benefit of watching a player perform in games.
The first thing Fryer noted about Puig: "He's pretty much a specimen, physically," he recalls.