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Sports column by Karl Lindholm: Béisbol Paradiso produces another big-time talent

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Posted on June 20, 2013 |
By Karl Lindholm



The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, like Mickey Mantle or Bo Jackson, the players he is being compared to. That’s pretty good company.

He can also be compared to the great Negro League Hall of Famers, Oscar Charleston, perhaps, or even more precisely his countrymen, Cristóbal Torriente, “The Cuban Strongboy,” or “El Inmortal” Martin Dihigo.

Meet Yasiel Puig (yah-zeal pweeg).

Puig successfully defected last year from Cuba to Mexico, where he performed for major league scouts. He took batting practice, ran the bases, and made some throws. On that alone, the Dodgers held their breath and signed him up for seven years and $42 million.

Sportswriter Phil Elderkin observed, “The Dodgers didn’t scout him. They got him out of Central Casting.”

He played 23 games in the minors last year, in Arizona and Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.), batting a combined .354, which earned him a spot on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster and an invitation to Spring Training this year. He batted .517 this spring, but was sent down to Double A Chattanooga for seasoning anyway.

Injuries to outfielders Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp hastened Puig’s call-up after fewer than 40 games in Chattanooga (eight homers, 37 RBI, 13 steals). In the majors, he is batting .479 with four homers and 10 RBI. His on-base percentage is .500 and his slugging percentage is .771. He has eight multi-hit games in his first 13. For the uninitiated statistically, that’s very good indeed.

Just 22 years old (OK, maybe he’s 24), he has played in the big leagues for only two weeks, but there are already calls for him to be named to the National League All-Star team. He has earned the nickname the “Cuban Missile” (when he comes up, opposing pitchers face their own Cuban Missile crisis).

There’s a new rock band in L.A. called “Puig Destroyers.” Their first song is an acoustic number called, “One Man, Five Tools.”

Yasiel is the personification of the so-called Five-Tool Player, who runs, throws, plays defense, hits for average, and hits for power. The “Whole Toolshed” is the way another sportswriter describes him.

He runs like the wind and has a cannon for an arm. The Dodgers have him playing center and right field and batting lead-off, though at 6’3”, 245 pounds, he’s the size of an NFL running back.

In his first major league game, on June 3, he singled his first time up, then got another hit in the sixth inning. The most impressive part of his debut, however, was a ninth-inning laser of a throw to first after making a tough catch on the warning track, doubling off a Padre runner and preserving a 2-1 Dodger win.

The next night, he hit two home runs and knocked in five runners to lead the Dodgers to a 9-7 victory. He went hitless in game three, but hit a grand slam in a 5-0 Dodger win against the Braves in his next game.

On June 11 (his eighth game), he inspired a wild beanball melee, after he was hit in the face in the sixth inning by a 92-mph fastball by Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy. The Dodgers rallied around their new star: six players were ejected (including Puig), fines and suspensions ensued.

Two weeks is not a long time, true enough. It’s early. Puig may be a shooting star whose bright light is quickly extinguished, but it looks like he has the goods to last.

He is the latest in a long line of Cubans who have played in the American major leagues, 171 in all.

Some of the most dynamic young players in the game today have made the difficult journey here from the tiny baseball-obsessed island just 90 miles off the Florida coast: Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman (25), Oakland’s Yoenis Céspedes (27), and the Red Sox’ José Iglesias (23), for example.

The history of baseball in Cuba is rich and fascinating. Many Cubans believe that the game itself was first played on their island eons ago by native Cubans, a bat, ball, and base game called Batos.

We know for sure that baseball was played formally in Cuba as early as the 1870s. In the early 20th century, American teams and players were already heading for Cuba for fast competition in the winter months.

Cuba was considered a béisbol paradiso.

When the game was segregated in the U.S., white and black players played in the Cuban winter league against one another and on the same teams. In the summer months, Cuban players came to the U.S.: approximately 200 Cubans of color competed in the Negro leagues; 41 Cubans of European descent played in the white majors.

Most baseball experts believe there are a number of players today on the Cuban national team who would star in the big leagues in the U.S.

We may never see them play, or will have to catch them on rare occasions in international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic, played every other year, unless political circumstances change greatly in Cuba.

As for now, we will enjoy watching Yasiel Puig, the latest star from béisbol paradiso.

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., teaches “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro Leagues” in the American Studies Program at Middlebury College.

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