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Dodgers' Yasiel Puig took long road to become overnight sensation

In just four games, Yasiel Puig has energized Dodgers and their fans. But while he's made baseball look easy, getting from Cuba to big leagues was anything but.

June 07, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez

Then he saw Puig hit. "I've never seen the ball come off somebody's bat like that," Fryer says. He was also impressed with the mechanics of Puig's swing, leading him to believe Puig would be able to hit a top-level breaking ball.

Fryer still had reservations. Baseballs traveled farther at Mexico City's high elevation.

"You have to put your instincts on the line there," Fryer says.

The Dodgers asked themselves, would a player of Puig's caliber be available to them in the 2013 draft? The answer was no. White and Fryer were also buoyed by how quickly other Cuban league stars such Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman had transitioned to American baseball.

The Dodgers had less than a week to work out a deal, and not much to go on. They knew Cespedes, who was older and more established than Puig, had signed a four-year, $36-million deal with Oakland. They also knew Jorge Soler, a year younger and less polished than Puig, had received $30 million over nine years from the Chicago Cubs.

What other teams might bid for Puig was unknown. So, as they had with their purchase of the Dodgers, ownership went bigger than ever, offering a record contract for a Cuban amateur.

Fryer called Puig's signing "as unique an experience that any scout has ever been involved in."

People involved in the situation insinuate — without explanation — that someone other than Puig and his agent decided which team won out. Says Fryer: "There's a lot of things I don't want to get into; how we had to find the real decision-maker."

Last summer, Puig was playing at the Dodgers' spring-training facility in Arizona. Between the Arizona rookie league and Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, he batted .354 in 23 games.

Becoming acclimated to American culture, both on and off the field, was the greater challenge. The Dodgers assigned Spanish-speaking executives to aid Puig in his transition, but word quickly spread that he didn't always hustle and that he was disobedient.

"There are unwritten rules that apply here that don't apply in Cuba," Torres recalls telling Puig.

Puig's English teacher and chaperon, Tim Bravo, thought Puig was misunderstood. He saw a different side of the ballplayer.

When Bravo's 6-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, Puig offered to pay for the treatment.

"I love him like a son," Bravo says of Puig.

Puig was scheduled to play last fall in an Arizona league that is a finishing school for baseball's top prospects. After he developed a staph infection in his elbow that required surgery, he instead played winter ball in Puerto Rico — and batted only .232.

Between the unflattering reports about his temperament and his disappointing winter season, the Dodgers didn't know what to expect when he reported to spring training in Arizona.

He arrived with Eddie Oropesa, a former major league pitcher the Dodgers hired to help Puig acclimate.

Puig was not only well-behaved in the clubhouse, he exceeded even the most optimistic of on-field projections. His .517 average led the Cactus League and his all-around game wowed teammates and rivals.

Kemp, the Dodgers' star center fielder, compared Puig as an athlete to Bo Jackson, who played both professional baseball and football. Cespedes predicted Puig could do better than he had in 2012, when he was the runner-up in American League rookie-of-the-year voting.

But there was nothing Puig could do to make the Dodgers' opening-day roster. In Kemp, Crawford and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers had three former All-Star outfielders who were earning a combined $53.5 million per season. Puig was sent to the Dodgers' double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"It really came down to him having to play the game," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. "He needed repetition, game repetition, situational repetition."

In Tennessee, Puig sulked. He butted heads with coaches. He was arrested for driving 97 mph in a 50-mph zone. His behavior was enough of a concern that longtime coach Manny Mota, a mentor to many of the organization's Latin American players, was asked to speak with him.

Puig never stopped hitting, though, and his attitude improved. So, on Monday, with the Dodgers in last place and Kemp and Crawford out with injuries, he was called up to the major leagues.

Again, the Dodgers didn't know what to expect. While Puig's physical capabilities were never in doubt, his minor league experience in America was limited to 262 plate appearances over 63 games.

When Angels star Mike Trout made his major league debut in 2011, he had played in 249 minor league games. Trout played in 14 major league games, hit .163, and was sent back to the minors before being recalled late in the season. He spent the early part of last season in the minor leagues, too, before being called up in late April and becoming the American League rookie of the year.

With Puig nearing the completion of his first week in the major leagues, questions remain.

Considering how little he has played over the last two years, will his body and mind wear down as the season progresses? How will he adjust to different pitchers and different strategies? When failure inevitably strikes, as it does for everyone in baseball, how will he react?

"This isn't the end of the story," Colletti said. "This is the beginning . . ."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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