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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Yasiel Puig is making a speedy recovery

The team's young outfielder apologizes for his recent ticket in Florida and says it won't happen again. He is trying to connect with the community in Los Angeles.

January 31, 2014|Bill Plaschke
  • Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig checks his phone while attending a Lakers-Pacers game at Staples Center last week.
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig checks his phone while attending a Lakers-Pacers… (Michael Nelson / EPA )

Yasiel Puig moved smoothly among the cooks and bakers of Homeboy Industries, purposefully gliding through the crowded kitchens as if taking that wide turn around first base.

He autographed a worker's shirt sleeve directly above her tattoos, adding his own indelible ink. He pulled a plastic hair net over the eyes of another worker, laughing while posing for a photo.

He used his giant hands to deftly dunk a roll into a bowl of freshly made guacamole while raving about its delights to two blushing young women. He unfurled his delightful energy by taking a bite of vanilla cake and impulsively shouting to two beaming guys to send some over to the stadium during the season.

On a Friday afternoon among the former gang members and ex-convicts who are bravely rebuilding their lives in Father Gregory Boyle's civic institution, a city's newest star was touching a city's heart.

And then, suddenly, Puig put down a fruit-covered pastry, walked over to me, and apologized to that city.

"I'm here to say I'm sorry to all of Los Angeles, to all the children who look up to me, to everyone who has supported me," he said through an interpreter. "I'm so grateful for everyone's love, I'm so sorry to let them down, and it will never happen again."

It was Puig's first sign of public remorse since December's infamous speeding ticket, which he was issued upon his arrest for driving 110 mph in a 70-mph zone on a Florida highway. The precocious 23-year-old outfielder, who had been given a similar ticket less than a year earlier, had yet to indicate that he truly understood the foolishness of his increasingly reckless actions and the effect they had on his teammates and fans.

Finally, on Friday, while wearing his No. 66 jersey in a place where lots of folks get fresh starts, he did exactly that.

As leadoff hits goes, it was a pretty good one.

"I'm sorry I hurt my teammates, I'm sorry I hurt all the kids who looked up to me, and I will tell them that," he said. "I want to tell all those kids that they should not do what I did, they should not speed."

Puig spoke to me during the team's goodwill caravan throughout the city Friday, and said he would apologize again, directly to his fans, during Saturday's Dodger Stadium FanFest.

"I'm so happy that everyone supports me, I am so grateful for their love," Puig said. "I want to tell you, the cop was only doing his job."

The job was captured on a police video that was both startling and sad. It was startling to hear the policeman loudly scold Puig for driving at that speed with his mother in the car. It was sad to see Puig emerge from his white Mercedes in pink shorts, placed in handcuffs, and then led back to the squad car while begging the officer not to take him to jail.

Though the reckless driving charges were dropped this week — just as similar charges were dropped after last spring's incident in Tennessee — the images of an out-of-control Dodgers kid remained.

It seems Puig is finally aware of that image and trying to reshape it before a second season carves it in cement. He says he has already made one big change.

"The year has already started out good because I've stopped driving," Puig said.

Ariel Nuñez, one of his friends, flew to Miami immediately after the incident to take the wheel.

"He knows he made a mistake, he was so sad and upset, that's why he wanted to come back to Los Angeles and show kids that he's not like that," Nuñez said.

Puig is trying to connect with the community through more than just words. Twice this winter he brought a group of youth league baseball players to Dodger Stadium to play catch and eat Dodger Dogs. He met the group when he was driving home from the stadium after an off-season workout. He saw them playing in a field, pulled to the side of the road, and joined them. He has taken other groups of kids to Lakers games and video arcades.

"He sees kids, he goes crazy for them, I know that," Nuñez said. "He is adapting to the environment, he's learning how everything works, he knows has to be an example for those kids."

Perhaps Homeboy Industries was the perfect place for such an apology because one of its mottoes — "Querer es poder" — is translated as where there's a will, there's a way.

"We love the Dodgers here, and I would never speak to how the Dodgers should handle any of their players," Boyle said Friday. "But what we say is here, you have to want it. When someone's desire meets service and hope, it all connects."

For now, anyway, it seems that Puig wants it, and is willing to drop last summer's rebel-without-a conscience attitude to become a stronger and more stable part of the team and community. The Dodgers, who have no choice but to ride with him, can only hope.

Of course, he's still one of those kids, as evidenced by his first prediction of the 2014 season.

"I know what I'm going to wear on opening day for all my fans," he said with a grin. "Pink shorts."

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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