A Lesson in History: Mickey Mantle and Yasiel Puig

The Process for Drafting, Signing and Developing Talent Must Be Fair, Efficient and Consistent

Imagine the difficulties of being crowned the next Hall of Famer being given the number 6 to follow Joe DiMaggio (5), Lou Gehrig (4), and Babe Ruth (3), only to be sent down to the minors.  When he came back, he was given the number 7.  He career was never the same.

Imagine all of that, but add to it that you are a Cuban National who barely speaks English, a teenager, and were just handed millions of dollars in a new and free country. Is this really the best situation for a young ballplayer to learn American Baseball and culture? It is no excuse for bad actions and attitude, but this is like handing candy to a young child and saying well we hope he does not get cavities.

In a 2014 ESPN the Magazine story by Scott Eden entitled “No One Walks Off The Island,” Eden describes in detail how “Two years ago, Yasiel Puig fled Cuba in the hands of black-market smugglers. This is the story of how the cost of the defection journey – in money and human lives – shadows him still.” Highly encouraged reading if you want to understand the process.

It was only until this season (2016) that teams were required to have Spanish translators and not that such action would be the answer to all of the problems, as these young ballplayers need leaders, coaches, mentors, and their families.

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Moreover, Major League Baseball could take it a step further this offseason as we enter another collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiation with the 2012-2016 CBA expiring:

“For one, having streamlined rules will end the black market for acquiring talent as teams would be forced to draft or sign talent through a dedicated and fair system adding further parity to the league. It would get rid of buscones and their use of muscle, money, and threats in getting players smuggled into Mexico or another country to eventually land in the United States on a visa where they can sign and play for a Major League team. Lastly, it would be the next logical step in the graduation of the game in the international market.

Imagine drafting Japanese, Korean, Venezuelan, Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican amateurs in the same round, at the same time, and subject to the same rules. Imagine drafting international free agents in one simplified posting system. Brilliant, safe, exciting, and a fair playing field. Baseball will finally be able to highlight the international game that it is. Couple this with the World Baseball Classic and it is further highlight of the beautiful game of baseball.”

Like any regulation and legislation, however, you need the enforcement and support systems in place to back it up for the benefit of the team and the player. For example, Mantle was “[u]sed to having a strong father figure in his life [and after his father passed when Mantle was just 21 years-old], Mantle looked to Stengel:”

“The problem with Stengel as a parental figure was that he had never been one, and did not really see himself as one. Stengel’s self-image was that of a teacher, someone who took young players and taught them how to play the game . . .

In refusing to be like a true father and limiting his parental attentions to the ballpark, Stengel failed to hold up his end of the bargain [for Mantle who played his heart] out for him. I think this is particularly true in relation to alcohol, an area where . . . Mantle emulated Stengel without having Stengel’s tolerance. It was a failure that lead to [Mantle’s untimely death].

Stengel had a permissive attitude towards his players’ consumption of alcohol. In this, he showed his age. In Stengel’s youth, and for a considerable time afterwards, players that did not drink were thought to lack manhood. “They say some of my stars drink whiskey,” Stengel said, “but I have found that the ones who drink milkshakes don’t win many ballgames.” Of clean-cut Bobby Richardson, he said, “Look at him. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t stay out late, and he still can’t hit .250.”

In the end, we are all responsible for our own actions.  Puig for his.  Mantle for his.  Mattingly, Roberts, and Stengel for theirs. By the way, these YouTube clips of Casey Stengel are terrific, here and here.

We do need to realize that the current system is broken and needs to change. There may be many different reasons, but why is that we never hear of baseball players of Asian-decent having a tough time transitioning into Major League Baseball?

There is an argument for better structure and transition when going from Japan to the United States versus Cuba to the United States. That being said, there have been countless successful Caribbean and Latin American baseball players who have become successes in America, but we need to recognize the difficulty in the journey of Spanish-speaking baseball players and how we can make this process more fair, efficient, and consistent.

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You gotta have heart . . .

“With all of the injuries, coupled with the deteriorating legs, no doubt I could have called in sick and stayed away from the ballpark. Yet somehow I’d get myself up one more time, and still another, thinking that by some miracle, it would all come back. No more hurting, no more wobbly knees, no sore shoulders, no aches and pains anywhere. Foolish, but that’s how it was.” –Mickey Mantle, from his autobiography

You know the difference between the Hall of Fame and what could have been? Consistency in performance and that comes from quality of character, a passion to want to do better, and an opportunity. Talent comes and goes, it was what you do with your talent that matters.

In an article by Derek Jeter that appeared in The Players’ Tribune on August 3, 2016, Jeter wrote this about Ichiro Suzuki and consistency as he approached (and now broke the 3,000 hit mark):

“Most of all, I’ve admired Ichiro because he’s a model of consistency. In my mind, the most underrated characteristic for anyone is consistency. It’s something that gets overlooked until it’s gone. I think baseball was always more than just a game to him. This was what he was born to do. And most impressive of all, the guy’s 42 years old and I can’t remember him ever being on the disabled list. He has taken great care of himself. He seems to approach baseball like a craft that can never be perfected. I don’t think he has a concept of “time off” from the game. It’s his life’s work. That starts with working hard all the time, even when no one’s looking.”

The burden is on Puig to make the most of his second chance.  Arguably, Yasiel Puig will now receive the proper training, humility, and coaching he would have received if the Dodgers did not rush him through the farm system. Will he do it? Time will tell, but it is and will be a team effort by him and his coaches, mentors, and family.

Humility has a funny way of bringing you back to center to focus on what is important and what needs to be done to accomplish goals you set out to do years prior. Puig once played in the streets of Cienfuegos, Cuba with a milk carton glove, rubber band baseballs, and a wooden broom stick. Maybe the changing of Puig’s number to 46 from 66, like Mantle once did, and losing his name on the back of his away jersey, brings him back a few steps to eventually push through again.

Sunday, however, was Yasiel Puig’s first Triple-A baseball game, which says something about the quickness and lack of thoughtfulness in rushing his progression and exposure. Puig’s “demotion” to Triple-A is an opportunity for Puig to prove himself and for the Dodgers to learn a few lessons themselves from the “Old Perfessor.”

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