The following is excerpted from The Big Chair, by Ned Colletti. This book is a baseball lover’s dream, and chronicles many of the times inside the Dodgers front office during Colletti’s reign as general manager. This is an excerpt from the chapter titled ‘The Wild Horse’ and details the early days of Yasiel Puig. The book is available now on Amazon.
Baseball America called it a “puzzling deal”. A front-office executive called it “crazy”.
“I don’t know what’s going on in Dodger land,” he was quoted as saying. “They must have seen something”.
We had, indeed, seen something. We had seen Yasiel Puig – the Wild Horse, as the great Vin Scully would nickname him.
Well, I hadn’t seen him yet, but three very good evaluators had laid eyes on him – Logan White, Paul Fryer, and Mike Brito had seen Puig in Mexico and were convinced he was worth the $42 million his handlers wanted even though Puig hadn’t played organized baseball in more than a year.
“What are the Dodgers thinking?” Baseball America reporter Ben Badler wrote. “Those who have seen Puig seem lukewarm on his talent. He has good bat speed and generates plus raw power, but scouts have expressed concerns about his hitting approach.”
That worrisome hitting approach did surface, when he didn’t adjust to great pitching after a couple of seasons. But the opening act was stellar. Puig produced a .305 batting average, a .502 slugging percentage, and an .888 OPS (on-base plus slugging) during his first two seasons in the majors, before injuries derailed him in 2015. Among National League players who appeared in at least 250 games during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, only Andrew McCutchen had a higher batting average and slugging percentage. And McCutchen won the NL MVP in 2013 and finished third in 2014.
Getting the Dodgers deeply involved once again in the international talent market had been a priority of mine for years. The Dodgers were forerunners, along with Toronto, in scouting and signing players from Latin America. L.A. greats Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Raul Mondesi, Jose Vizcaino, and Pedro Astacio were just a very few who came from the Dominican Republic.
In 1982, my first year in baseball, the percentage of Latin American players in the minor leagues was approximately 7 percent; in 2015, the percentage was close to 40 percent.
By the time I was named GM of the Dodgers, a prominent key to organizational success lay in the international market, especially if teams drafted late in the first round. But for most of the McCourt years, the priority was helping the big-league club with a trade to buy for today at a cost in the future. The July 2 signing date for international players was just in front of the trading deadling and that worked to our disadvantage. Many of my conversations with my ownership put me in an either/or position – either spend money to help the big club and make us better now, or invest in the international market and risk losing at the big-league level. There wasn’t enough money to win now and build for the future.
We needed a fireworks display to show we were back in business. And Yasiel Puig was a powder keg waiting to explode.
I sent White, Fryer, and Brito, who signed legendary Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela out of Mexico in 1979, to Mexico City to watch Puig work out. How Puig got to Mexico from Cuba is a story worthy of a book or two. Much has been written about it. The best I’ve seen was an article by Scott Eden in ESPN the Magazine in April 2014. Titled “No One Walks Off the Island,” the lengthy, seven-chapter saga captured in fascinating detail how Puig failed numerous times to defect only to finally be spirited away in harrowing style by a group of armed men with ties to organized crime.
According to news reports, in March 2015, a forty-one-year-old Miami businessman, Gilberto Sanchez, was sentenced to one month in prison and five months’ house arrest for his involvement in part of Puig’s journey. Suarez had been paid $2.5. million to drive Puig from Mexico City to the U.S. border after Puig worked out in Mexico. I knew nothing about how Puig got from Cuba to Mexico or how he eventually got from Mexico City to the States. All I knew was his handlers said he was as good as (Jorge) Soler or better and they were willing to showcase him for us, and I knew, most important, that Major League Baseball had pronounced him eligible to be signed.
The first time I laid eyes on Puig was August 9, 2012, in Arizona. The Arizona Rookie League Dodgers were playing their counterparts from the Angels in Tempe. Puig went 1-for-3 with a triple, two runs scored, two runs batted in, a walk, and a strikeout-all in 110-degree heat. You could tell the tools were off the chart. The mannerisms were different. The excitement was different. Even his attitude was different. It was almost like you could hear him thinking: What am I doing here? I’m the best player on the field.
And he was better than everyone around him that day. But he still had to play. He still had to get in baseball shape, because he hadn’t played in an organized game in more than fourteen months.
Baseball is a tough game. It’s not like hockey or football or a contact sport of that nature, but there are still a lot of different things your body needs to be prepared to do. So we knew we had to bring Puig along physically. At the same time, we had people who were helping him transition to this country. We tried to teach him about customs, language, eating properly and many other real-life concerns that most people take for granted. We knew he was proud and had a carefree personality at that point in time – and he would confirm that more than a few times in the coming years.
The three of us were in Donnie’s office less than three minutes when Puig walked in with bench coach Tim Wallach. I could see Puig was somewhere between sad and furious. He sat down in Donnie’s chair – not for any malicious or disrespectful reason. There just weren’t any other seats available. Corrales was in the lone chair and Rags and I were on the only couch – a couch that, to this day, holds nothing but bad memories for me. And little did I know, weeks later, I’d be here again, at one of the lowest points in my career.
As soon as he sat down, Puig started in. “I was disrespected by the maanger. I’m always disrespected by the manager. He wants me to go out there and play defense, but he won’t let me hit.”
Without any background, this wasn’t making any sense to me. It was a rant that really didn’t add up and I was about to ask Puig what he was talking about when Mattingly walked in. The game had just ended. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person as furious as Donnie was at that moment.
Donnie saw Puig sitting in his chair and almost ripped off his own jersey in rage. He pointed a jagged finger at Puig. “You motherfucker. I’m so tired of your shit!” he screamed. “You think you run this fucking team. You’re a motherfucker!”
Those aren’t words you should use with anyone, but they were particularly cutting to someone like Puig, who came from a little different culture where the f-word and your mother are never to be used together. The vulgarity is a real flash point.
I remember thinking that these two giant men were going to go after eachother right there on top of me. They were really going to go. I had Pat Corrales to my right. Pat was a tough man who was in his early seventies. On the other side of me was Ragazzo, who was tough as nails but was clearly out of his weight class in this fight. And there’s me, all five feet, eight inches of me, stuck helplessly between two professional athletes who were foaming at the mouth to get after each other. Not a good moment.
To Yasiel’s credit, he calmed down. He actually teared up, quieted the storm, got out of the manager’s chair, and left the room, tears flowing.
As soon as he left, Donnie went off on him. How selfish he is. How he doesn’t pay attention. How he messes up in the outfield. A litany of sins and perceived slights.
As long as I have known Donnie, he has been one of the most dignified, thoughtful people I know in baseball. It was painful to see him go through this confrontation. I don’t know anyone in the game who doesn’t think of Donnie and think of the quality of respect when they hear his name.
But instances like this show the passion and the conflicts that develop between competitive adults earning a living at the highest level, with the brightest spotlight on them every day. It is part of the road that needs to be traversed during a baseball season that puts grown men – regarded as the best in the world at what they do – in the same room from Valentine’s Day to October 1 or later.
It will be interesting to see how Puig’s career turns out. He goes all-out about eighteen hours a day – on the field and off. We’ll see if it takes its toll. I’ve drawn the analogy many times: If a young person grew up in Los Angeles as a Dodgers fan and was a good high-school player – good enough to go to UCLA or Cal State Fullerton or Loyal Marymount or USC – and that player was drafted in the first round and signed at twenty-one and within a year was in the big leagues, like Puig, took the city by storm, took the league by storm, and was in the spotlight every day, that person would very likely have a challenging time adjusting as well. In this situation, add the fact that Puig came from a totally different environment, a vastly different world, and in some ways it’s amazing he handled it as well as he did, even with the slip-ups.
This really was an incredible chapter. It was tough to pick out the key parts and not include the entire text within this excerpt. From reading this book, you’ll get to know the inner-most thoughts of the Dodgers former general manager as if you were sitting next to him on a barstool. In reading the chapter about Puig, you may gain a greater understanding of some of the things we still see at the present day. This would include the benching, lapses in mental play, and being let go by his agency representation.
This book is an easy read and a page turner in every sense of the word. I would recommend it as a must-read for any Dodgers fan. Realistically though, any baseball fan will say they enjoyed it after completing it.
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