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What we talk about when we talk about Yasiel Puig

Aug 22, 2013, 11:34 AM EDT

After reading one really, really bad Yasiel Puig column and one really, really good one this morning, I stopped to think about what really animates people about this guy. And I decided that, while it isn’t racism as we’ve come to think about it — I don’t for a second think that everyone who gets on Puig’s case is a racist or a bigot — there is certainly a barrier, borne of passive ethnocentrism, at work.

If you go back and look at the commentary about a young Roberto Clemente or, really, almost any other young Latin superstar in baseball history, you see a lot of the same things being said about them that are being said about Puig. Many of the actual words are different — I don’t think anyone these days actually calls them “hot-blooded” or anything — but there is this presumption, it seems, that most young Latin ballplayers are some breed of wild horse that needs to be tamed. Contrast this to young American ballplayers who mess up sometimes and are talked about as if they need to grow up. We assume age-appropriate immaturity in the latter that will inevitably be grown out of and assume culturally-determined otherness in the former that must be beaten out of them via discipline and disapproval.

It’s an unconscious thing, I think, fostered by the cultural differences, even if it isn’t necessarily inspired by them. I mean, take race out of the mix as the reason why someone may be critical of Yasiel Puig. Let’s call it an aversion to his youthful brashness and perceived arrogance. Bryce Harper had a lot of that said about him when he first hit the scene too. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The bold and unorthodox move to bypass the usual rites of passage in high school or college. The taunting of opposing pitchers in the minor leagues. Harper is getting endorsements and kudos all the time now, but a couple of years ago he was spoken of as Everything That Is Wrong With Kids Today.

Except we’ve seen a decided turn in the commentary about Harper since he burst on to the scene. We’ve seen it because writers and observers have gotten to know Harper, his motivations and his back story. The real person behind the image to which many had an initial aversion. We have met his family and know some about his religion. We’ve seen him interact with his teammates and elders in the game like Chipper Jones.  It has allowed us to change our perception about him.

That entire process is much, much harder with Puig. He doesn’t speak our language nor do most of us speak his. Because he’s from Cuba, his background is much harder to know and what we do know of it is told more like a fantastical tale than just a story of a kid growing up. We aren’t as privy to his interactions with elders in the game because we can’t necessarily understand his conversations veteran Latino players. There’s an otherness to his experience and maturation in the game which makes it harder to know him.

The result: stuff like references to him “jetting off to join a South Beach conga line for the winter. Party on!”  The conga is a dance that broke big in the 1930s. Would we have ever assumed a 22 year-old American would “jet off to Peoria, Illinois” to Fox Trot? Of course not. Because we know his culture and don’t make such ham-handed references. And because, before we ever think to, we work to understand him a little bit before we assume he was a monster.

Maybe Puig is the worst. Maybe he’s a jerk who is arrogant and untamed and in need of a good lesson. It’s totally possible. No one saying such things, however, has put forth any evidence justifying such a conclusion. Jimmy Rollins was fined for being late to the ballpark several years ago and I don’t recall anyone writing deep thought pieces about how he needed to be benched. Jeff Francoeur missed plenty of cutoff men when he played for the Braves due to the confidence he had in his arm and he was never pilloried for it.  Just recently, Adam Eaton slid into home when he hit a walkoff homer and no one carried on about it like they have with Puig.

People didn’t because it’s easier to know those players and their motivations. Because they’re easier to talk to after the game. In contrast, it is so very difficult to really get to know Yasiel Puig to see what makes him tick. For that reason people fall back on assumptions and generalities that are rotten with centuries of racial baggage, even if the people making the assumptions are totally unconscious that they’re doing it.

My suggestion: before concluding that Puig is a major problem in need of solving, figure out whether he’s a problem in the first place. That may take a bit longer and may require some extra work — and that, in turn, will keep you from writing a pithy column during a week when Puig is in the news — but it may help stop this dumb cycle of misunderstanding Latin ballplayers for large parts of their career.

  1. cur68 - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    Rational Discourse Apologist!

    • jtorrey13 - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:06 PM

      Darn Craig for advocating thinking before writing. Is he trying to make the rest of us look bad? HOW IS I TO WIN THE INTERNEZ? HOW WILL ALL BELONGS TO ME?

    • Michael - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:28 PM

      The amazing thing here (and in other similar comment threads) is the high thumbs-down ratio.

      I must assume that either:

      1. There are some people heavily in favor of using terms like “hot-blooded Latino” and “conga line”

      or

      2. The kids at 4chan are bored again.

    • apkyletexas - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:34 PM

      What Craig should be talking about is that the dude is falling off a cliff, production-wise:

      First month in the bigs: .436 BA, 1.180 OPS
      Past 28 days: .281 BA, .864 OPS
      Past 14 days: .196 BA, .603 BA

      If you don’t think pitchers have started to figure him out, you are fooling yourself.

      • Michael - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        Fooling yourself…or knowledgeable regarding sample size.

      • cur68 - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:44 PM

        He’s had a fast start due to pitchers challenging him over his first month with fastballs. See that last two weeks? They don’t challenge him now. Its off speed and breaking stuff and he needs to adjust. They pitch him carefully. My suspicion is that his last 28 day BA & OPS is probably about where he’ll stick now that they’re pitching him like a big leaguer instead of some rube kid from Cuba. He’ll grow as a hitter and I think we’ll see his BA/OPS climb back up as he gets more selective of all that careful pitching. Smacking Curve Balls, 101 is the lesson he needs here.

      • ilovegspot - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        apk needs to get a life instead of following this kid so closley. What a loser.

      • apkyletexas - Aug 22, 2013 at 2:25 PM

        I may be a loser, but at least my screen name is not “ilovegspot”

  2. chacochicken - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    Well, on a near completely unrelated note, I think he looks a lot like Sopwith the Camel from the Muppet Show. What can be more American than that?

    • chacochicken - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:52 AM

      http://images-mediawiki-sites.thefullwiki.org/08/4/0/5/1401920116355591.jpg

      Tell me I’m wrong.

      • allmyteamsareterrible - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:17 PM

        He definitely does, not sure what everyone is bent out of shape about. He, without a doubt, looks like that camel.

      • chacochicken - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:32 PM

        Thank you, the rest of you can go to hell.

  3. lew24 - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    Craig, you pretty much said everything I was thinking.

  4. jm91rs - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    Even the articles about why the negativity is bad are getting annoying now. Maybe we can all just sit back and enjoy a good ball player?

    • Francisco (FC) - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:08 PM

      But make sure you add a squeeze of lemon.

  5. perryt200 - Aug 22, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    the nail that sticks up gets hammered.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:16 PM

      If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      • Old Gator - Aug 22, 2013 at 2:34 PM

        If you push something hard enough, it will fall over.

      • jtorrey13 - Aug 22, 2013 at 3:03 PM

        Don’t cry over spilt milk.

      • dcarroll73 - Aug 22, 2013 at 9:20 PM

        OldGator, “Kid, you’re a wizard whoever you are.”

  6. natslady - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    One of your better articles, Craig. I also remember that it was fine, even admired, for Matt Harvey to party all over NY, but Puig is “out of control.”

    • fanofevilempire - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      Harvey was partying all over NY, I haven’t seen him here in Brooklyn, maybe
      he will show up on Eastern Pkwy. for the West Indian Parade/Carnival.

      • bombscarejr - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:55 PM

        With the PO- leece there, it’s off the hook!

  7. dannymac17 - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    Okay, I am a long time Dodgers fan, and I like this kid, but holy hell how many articles this week? You could seriously write the mans memoirs into being Encyclopedia Britannica thickness with these posts lol.

    • nategearhart - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:10 PM

      Before Puig it was Harper, before Harper it was Strasburg…players that are new and good and interesting are always going to get a lot written about them, it’s just the way it goes.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      It is better than reading about Joe Tacopina. I am angry that that name now occupies some of my valuable limited mental real estate.

    • bh192012 - Aug 22, 2013 at 4:38 PM

      And that’s the beauty of it. The reason why we’re not all complaining about Francouer is that we’re too busy constantly talking about Puig. If the media puts out 1000 articles on Puig every week, some are going to be negative. We didn’t stop complaining about Harper because we understand him now, the media is just bored with his story.

  8. losangelesfan - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    All I know is he infused a moribund Dodger team with something they’ve rarely had as of late, drive and enthusiasm.

    As for his relationship with the press, I’ll quote ‘Bill Lee’ written by the great Warren Zevon;

    ‘You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
    Man, that’s hard to do
    And if you don’t, they’ll screw you
    And if you do, they’ll screw you, too’

    • Old Gator - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      And once Warren Zevon writes about you, you stay written about.

      • Gamera the Brave - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:12 PM

        You suggesting that Puig will turn into “Mr. Bad Example”?

      • thumper001 - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:19 PM

        Even the ones who weren’t even born at the time he wrote about them, LOL.

        “Send lawyers, guns and money
        The shit has hit the fan”

        You mean stuff like that? A somewhat notorious modern baseball player, who shall remain unnamed (cough****isn’t it obvious?***cough), is an anachronistic drop dead fit for that little ditty. LOL.

        “I was gambling in Havana
        I took a little risk
        Send lawyers, guns and money
        They’ll get me out of this, hyeah”

        It all depends on what your definition of “a little” is, don’t it? But if you need lawyers, guns, and money, well, then, the shit has definitely hit the fan. And a little is a lot. Definitely. So cover all those bases; “We can do this right. Or we can do this wrong. And if all else fails, bribe them all!”. Send lawyers, guns, and money…

        Ah-ooooooooh!

        Warren Zevon is one of the people whom I truly miss, he could say more in a few words than most manage to spew out in a lifetime. LOL.

  9. rickdobrydney - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    This will ALL stop once pitchers figure him out and he loses about 100 points on his batting average.

    • yahmule - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:13 PM

      Yawn.

    • ilovegspot - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:18 PM

      apk needs to get a life instead of following this kid so closley. What a loser.

    • ilovegspot - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:20 PM

      jealous troll. keep following Puig.

  10. bombscarejr - Aug 22, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Yeah. What is this BS? Go back to your Ivory Tower to pontificate with George Will and other baseball “theorists.” I wanna video of you throwing a baseball. NOW.

    I got more hate to spread so hide.

    (Darn u for making me think)

  11. El Bravo - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I thought all of this was obvious. I appreciate it put down in writing so eloquently nonetheless.

  12. ilovegspot - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    Hes made it farther than you or anyone else on here as made it in life.

    If we had a more interesting life, we wouldn’t be on this site reading (and commenting) on an insignificant story about his.

    We’re all less successful in our chosen ventures than Puig has been so far. It’s a virtual fact.

  13. pftisahalftruth - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    Well, now there is a 2nd bad article about Puig in a day.

  14. yahmule - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    Craig, I agree with almost everything here, except that people making assumptions based on racial generalities do so totally unconsciously, or that this kind of ignorance is much of excuse.

  15. aceshigh11 - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    Who does this dark-skinned Commie think he is, coming over here with his sombreros, bullet belt, hot peppers, hot blood, and love of our white women??

  16. kash71 - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    Hey guys we need to up our page views on HBT.

    Time for another Puig article….

    • yahmule - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:42 PM

      I can take it if you can.

  17. yahmule - Aug 22, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    And Yasiel smashes one off the very top of the wall in dead center field for a double.

  18. offseasonblues - Aug 22, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    I haven’t paid much attention to Puig yet, but am about to spend three games watching him – assuming he isn’t benched for something or other, and assuming I can stay awake, stupid west coast start times, grumble.

    Reading this post, I couldn’t help but think of Iglesias and how quickly he learned English and what a great impression that made. It may even have saved him some media negativity when he struggled on offense.

    Puig’s offense will buy him a pass on a lot of stuff, but I think all non-English speaking players would be well served by removing the “non-”

  19. spankygreen - Aug 22, 2013 at 2:38 PM

    Damn, there is a decent, honest, research before you write journalist out there. Go ahead CC, you big ole player you…..lol

    Good article………………..

  20. Old Gator - Aug 22, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    Poor Puig. It’s like he’s got all these hipshooting spawrtsrighters firing at his feet demanding “Why don’t you dance,” wishing he would go take a bath in acid, and all he wants to do is tell the women on South Beach he’s trying to get to the game on time while Donny Baseball just wishes he’d sit in the locker room reading Popular Mechanics or something because everything he does wrong gets stuck to him and we’re left to wonder what we talk about when we talk about Puig.

  21. yahmule - Aug 22, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    Cishek nails Puig with a pitch up and in and Yasiel very calmly heads down to first base. No posturing and certainly no rubbing the spot where he got hit.

  22. mogogo1 - Aug 22, 2013 at 3:44 PM

    “It’s an unconscious thing….”
    _____________________________

    I thinks its very much a conscious thing, at least in some cases. Two things going on here:
    1. If he speaks fluent English and doesn’t totally stick his foot in his mouth in every interview, there isn’t half as much criticism of him.

    2. There’s also a heavy dose of commentators who want to get their criticism in now so they can look smart when he inevitably hits a dry streak.

  23. geodude11 - Aug 22, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    I read the title and thought, “Who could be that stupid?” Then realized, oh a journalist. That fits. Nothing to report, make up some BS, enough of thug ball. Who’s leading the Barclay’s tourney?

  24. kruegere - Aug 22, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    I’d speculate that its not as much racism/ethnocentrism…and probably more sour grapes. The Dodgers are awesome. They have an exciting rookie player, they have the best pitcher, they’re on a crazy tear, and they have tons of cash.

    Channel all that toward one polarizing figure, done. Puig-drama is explained. I guess it helps that his skin is dark…but I don’t think thats the primary driver for the hate.

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