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Puig has all the tools but needs to tighten screws

October 23, 2013|CHRIS ERSKINE
  • Yasiel Puig, left, is the new Kobe Bryant  brilliant, vainglorious, petulant and so much more.
Yasiel Puig, left, is the new Kobe Bryant brilliant, vainglorious, petulant… (Harry How / Getty Images;…)

These days, athletes become emblems of their adoptive cities the way cigar-chomping pols and gangsters once did. Big Papi is Boston; Derek Jeter is still New York. Michael Jordan was Chicago, or Chicago was Jordan. Before that Butkus and Ditka. St. Louis, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith.

So now L.A. has this blingy Puig character, as in Captain Queeg -- long "e," longer swing. Someone alert the chamber of commerce about this one.

It's time to move on, to basketball and the Ice Capades, but let us first complete this postmortem on Yasiel Puig's inaugural season, acknowledging that the Dodgers' right fielder has become the Fresh Prince of L.A., replacing Kobe probably.

Friday night in St. Louis, Puig threw for 300 yards, the first Dodgers right fielder ever to do so. These weren't West Coast darts either, they were big looping aimless things, higher than that arch, one of them. Hail Marys? Hail yes. Any higher and the Air Force scrambles fighter jets.

So, yes, Puig is the new Kobe -- brilliant, vainglorious, petulant and a bunch of other words I probably flubbed on my SAT. And, occasionally, our own Cuban missile crisis.

He's a specimen, though, on that everybody agrees. The whole chassis reminds many of Jackson -- Bo, not Michael.

And if Juan Uribe looks like two pieces of a plow horse cobbled together, Puig appears to be reverse engineered. As if Mattel made this action figure, then God followed:

* Shoulders wide as a rowboat.

* Legs like truck pistons.

* Reflexes of a McCulloch chain saw.

On the basepaths, he's almost feline, leaning into turns as would a cheetah.

Then there's that swing, dripping with machismo and a touch of voodoo. No masterpiece. On inside stuff, it can be downright twerky. When Miley Cyrus moves like that, it's another national scandal.

As a result, not everyone is sold on Puig, particularly broadcaster Rick Monday, who criticized him several times during the St. Louis series for sulking after fielding blunders or strikeouts, at which he's becoming pretty adept.

Former general manager Fred Claire, who has seen a few phenoms in his day, compares Puig to Raul Mondesi, in terms of power, speed and throwing ability -- and raw potential.

"When I look at Puig and see what transpired, I think of three words that Joey Amalfitano used to use: 'Respect the game.'

"He's a gift," Claire says of Puig. "But when you're a rookie and you stare down the umpire or celebrate a home run that's not a home run, you're not respecting the game."

That stompy Brahma bull demeanor doesn't play well either with Joe Torre, who as director of MLB etiquette is apparently upset that Puig has been giving umps the stink eye -- as if anybody ever went to a game to cheer an umpire.

Such theatrics also bring to mind Jackson -- Reggie, not Bo. Baseball has always had a subversive heart. Besides, blind obedience to authority is an even more dangerous trend, especially if the authority is blind too.

And there is a hubris to Puig, an exuberance and fire that if you quell too much, what do you have -- J.D. Drew?

Here's the main question: Can one town handle two Kobes? Does it want to, even if they are offset by such choirboy standouts as Chris Paul and Mike Trout?

Not making excuses for the guy, Puig needs to flat-out grow up a little. He needs to control his impulses, if nothing else and learn the value of a cutoff man, a fine baseball tradition and one of the easier nuances of the game -- many 9-year-olds do it.

"It really has to do with how you approach the game -- in good times, in bad times -- because if you do, you will be rewarded with so much more," Claire says.

That, or Puig risks becoming another Mondesi -- a five-tool wunderkind with the snack bar brain. Can you name the teams Ra-ooooo-oool ended up playing for? Almost easier, the teams he didn't?

Look, at least we're talking skill sets and temperaments, not lab tests and Ryan Braun. How refreshing is that for baseball?

And only 125 shopping days till spring.


Twitter: @erskinetimes

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