World Series 2017: Yasiel Puig's transformation into a championship player

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – The old, roundish man in the blue jacket stood away from the commotion, his hands in his pockets, his head tilted as though curious. He was waiting for something. Maybe someone. Meantime, Tommy Lasorda posed for pictures and held short conversations. Used to be, he’d punctuate these exchanges by jabbing two bent fingers at about throat level, but not anymore. He kept his hands in his pockets, his head rolled to the side, his eyes following one man from across the room.

In the preceding hours, Yasiel Puig had become what some might call a championship player. As in, “But can you win a championship with him?”, the emphasis on championship, as though that sort of thing is saved for only the very special ones, or at the very least the dependable ones, the ones you knew for sure would show up. There would be 24 others also drenched in the spirits of the night, having won the franchise’s first National League pennant since before a good many of them had been born. Lasorda waited for Puig.

Puig was going to the World Series – as a Los Angeles Dodger, no less – after batting .414 over eight games and reaching base in more than half his plate appearances. He’d walked six times and struck out but three. Between the bat licks and bat flips, between the happy feet that’d overtake him on the inside fastballs, between the singles he’d pimp and the baserunners he’d casually dare, or maybe because of all that, Yasiel Puig had been one of the best players on the field when the games had been reduced to win or lose.

“Hey,” Lasorda was saying, “we owe the fans a championship team. They come out here year after year after year … ”

“Hey,” he was saying, “playing against the Reds was no picnic, you know?”

And always his eyes searched the room.

Five seasons into a career that has strained the patience of his bosses and ensnared the hearts of the 50-some thousand who sing his name each night, Puig’s reputation became that of a cat chasing a laser pointer. It’s there. It’s there. It’s in the plant. Now it’s on the drape. Silly cat. Exhausted, Puig’s bosses sent him to Triple-A last season. They tried to trade him. They took him back to spring training. And, then, plotting for the only outcome they’ve ever wanted, that being a trip to the World Series, they batted him cleanup for the final three games of the National League Championship Series.

Now he stalked the tiny room beneath the old stadium on Chicago’s North Side, a heavy green bottle in each hand, his shoulders rolled forward not like a right fielder, but like a linebacker. Of all the men who’d played at least five games in this postseason, only four – Aaron Judge, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Justin Turner – had bled more pitches per plate appearance than the presumably impulsive Puig.

“I feel so happy,” he said. “The trophy is coming soon.”

He winked.

“This year I came in prepared the best I can to do the best I can,” he said. “And that give me this opportunity to go to the World Series. Now I need to keep going, to keep my eyes on the ball. I do the best I can in the field. All my teammates do something, give something, to the game, to make this happen. It’s not about me. It’s about JT, CT, Bellinger, Dre, Kershaw.”

Turner, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, to name a few.

“It’s everybody,” he said.

At 26 years old, and following five years in which he seemed a watch short of a punctual schedule, Puig seems to have created a new story for himself. Maybe, for the moment, he’s the one with the laser pointer. Maybe he tried harder to fit in. Maybe the other 24 chose to accept him as he is. On the eve of the World Series, it’s all roses and gutty plate appearances.

Yasiel Puig sticks out his tongue after hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs during Game 1 of the NLCS in Los Angeles, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. (AP)

“I don’t think he fully grasped, ‘Hey, be a good teammate,’” said Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations. “What does that mean?”

In time, Friedman offered, “That took hold.”

For a good part of the season they’d batted him seventh or eighth, even ninth in American League parks, his place in the lineup carrying the words they perhaps were tired of repeating. That is, no one is bigger than the team, the message delivered every afternoon, day after day, after week, after month. Then it was time to finish the Chicago Cubs, and in three games as the cleanup hitter he had five hits in 13 at-bats and scored four runs.

“Tommy!” he shouted.

“Come here,” Lasorda said.

Puig came closer. Lasorda began to speak in Spanish. Puig bent over, to bring his ear nearer. When Lasorda was finished, Puig wrapped him in a hug.

“I just told him,” Lasorda said, “you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re now giving the team what you have. You know, sometimes you don’t take it seriously. You put in your best effort.”

Slowly, Lasorda removed his right hand from his coat pocket. He pointed his fingers, throat high.

“He needs guys like me to tell him the truth,” he said, “when he does something wrong. I told him I’m proud of him.”

There, he paused. The party was wrapping up. It’d been a long day. Twenty-nine years is a long time, now here they were again, at long last. Lasorda began to speak, soft this time, so that one would have had to lean in to hear it.

“I’m proud of him.”

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