The Cincinnati Reds tore into the brown cardboard boxes like children into Easter baskets.
A shipment of Nerf Rival Guns, machine gun-looking things capable of shooting little foam balls up to 70 mph, had just arrived. It was all of, oh, about two seconds before Yasiel Puig had one in his hands and began roaming the clubhouse, picking off teammates.
Bang! Scooter Gennett was hit.
Uproarious laughter filled the air.
Blam! Vladimir Gutierrez, one of Puig’s Cuban countrymen, was nailed.
The unsuspecting Gutierrez, pegged from behind as he sat at his locker, wheeled and looked—what the hell?—as Puig, wearing a custom spring jersey with his nickname, “Wild Horse,” above the No. 66 across his back, moved onward.
In the moment, it was difficult to tell which was the Reds’ best new toy: the Rival Guns, or Puig himself. The smart money was on Puig, who makes his first return to Dodger Stadium this week, the pasture where the love affair between the Wild Horse and his fans first blossomed.
Dick Williams, the Reds’ president of baseball operations, says he was “overwhelmed” by how quickly Puig connected with Cincinnati fans after the Dec. 21 trade that brought Puig, outfielder Matt Kemp, left-hander Alex Wood, catcher-infielder Kyle Farmer and cash to Cincinnati in exchange for right-hander Homer Bailey and two minor league prospects.
“He was immediately out there on social media, wearing all the Reds gear,” Williams says. “It was fun because that has to happen organically. You can’t ask for that. But you would love for a well-known player to be that excited about coming here. The fans were like, whoa, hey, he likes us. And it made us all feel good about our organization.”
Then Puig blew through town in late January and they felt even better.
“It ended up being on the day of the polar vortex, which was sort of a metaphor for him coming to this town,” Williams says. “Schools are all off, and here he is bouncing around town, meeting the mayor, going to the youth academy, going to the stadium, making sales calls. People were like, what is going on here? It was really a fun day that I think kind of set the whole Puig-Mania going in our city.”
Yasiel Puig @YasielPuig
Happy Birthday to Cincinnati Mayor @JohnCranley! Thank you for welcoming me to the city! 🎉🎂 https://t.co/bzlcP2D87e
Inside Cincinnati’s clubhouse, the thrill continues.
“He’s brought a sense of excitement,” reliever Amir Garrett says. “At any moment, he does whatever he feels.”
If two sentences could ever encapsulate the Puig experience, it is those. The first, brimming with optimism and a sense of wonder. The second, filled with what could be interpreted as a sense of dread and caution. It’s a dynamic the Dodgers dealt with since his major league arrival in 2013 and the Reds must try to balance now.
The two sides of Puig have remained at odds throughout his career. Early this spring, Puig told reporters that the Reds will be getting an energized player because, for the first time in his career, he will become a free agent after the season.
“The last couple years,” Puig said during the first week of spring training, “I didn’t work hard because I still have a contract to go. Now I think I’ll work hard more than any year in my life.”
In Los Angeles, you could feel the eye rolls.
Did the Dodgers notice that the former All-Star “didn’t work hard”?
“At times,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. “And he actually said it at times with us, and we tried to deter him from that thinking.”
Though he signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with Los Angeles in 2012 after his defection from Cuba, the closer Puig moved toward free agency, the more he talked about a future payday.
“And our message was, we’re always trying to work in the moment,” Roberts says. “Now. And helping us win right now.
“But those are his thoughts, and those are his words.”
Words and actions that ultimately sealed his fate in Los Angeles, though the club is choosing its words very carefully.
“From our standpoint we wish Yasiel nothing but the best,” Los Angeles president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman says.
“He’s been a big part of the success we’ve had here in the last few years. We’re not going to jump into the fray with some of the comments he’s made. They’re a curious choice of words.”
That Puig was notoriously late at times for meetings, stretching and other club activities in Los Angeles is no secret. That he was often on cruise control in conditioning drills and did not listen to coaches was evident to his teammates. That he would publicly admit to a lack of effort while discussing his future is only the latest Puig head-scratcher.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
“Let’s put it this way: If he even halfway gave a shit, he would still be with the Dodgers,” one source familiar with the club’s thinking says.
By the end of his run there, the Wild Horse’s outsized energy—good and bad—pretty much left everyone exhausted in his wake.
“No comment,” Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen says of Puig’s admission. “That’s his decision. He’s my boy, I love him, but I’m done talking about Puig. He’s not here anymore. I talk to him every day on the phone.”
The trick for Puig in Cincinnati, of course, will be to leave the Reds and their fans wanting more. Doing so will be his first step toward free agent riches…or, possibly, toward enticing the team into extending his contract. His bat should rake in the Great American Ballpark bandbox.
But can he remain focused enough to put together the type of season they waited for through six summers in Los Angeles?
Following his rookie campaign in 2013, Puig finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting and 15th in NL MVP voting. Over the past two postseasons, Puig hit .292, the fourth-highest batting average among the 28 players who recorded at least 50 at-bats, and his 18 RBI tied for second-most.
And since his June 3, 2013, debut, Puig ranked 22nd in MLB slugging percentage (.478) and 32nd in on-base percentage (.353) entering this season.
Yet, there’s the other side, too: In Game 3 of last fall’s Division Series with Atlanta, the Dodgers were less-than-pleased when Puig was thrown out at second base attempting a steal with just one out and a three-run lead in the sixth inning. Running on his own, Puig later received a stern talking-to from his manager. In Game 1 of the World Series, Puig tried to throw out Mookie Betts at the plate from right field but missed the cutoff man—as he frequently does—and Betts was safe. Then there are his various other transgressions, including occasional tardiness. The Dodgers memorably benched him for their 2014 home opener when he arrived late to the stadium.
His outsized emotions have historically been difficult for him, and his team, to control. Cincinnati got a taste of that in its brawl with Pittsburgh earlier this month. Joey Votto practically had to go WWE and wrestle his teammate away from trouble—but Puig still got away. The league subsequently handed him a two-game suspension.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Still, there is so much to like, including, at times, his flamboyant ways. Like other spring traditions—first robin, first crocus—Puig’s firsts in Cincinnati were enthusiastically logged: first bat lick, first hip-shaking shimmy on second base after a booming double…
“I told him maybe people under 18 are going to need to sign waivers to see him play,” Gennett says, laughing. “It’s just what he does, man. It’s fun.”
Gennett also made Puig a delicious offer.
“I told him we’d make him some Show Bats, the bat company I’m with, and we can put some chocolate finish on it so maybe when he licks it, it will taste good,” the second baseman jokes.
Some wonder whether anything outside of Hollywood will satisfy the palate of a slugger who craves attention the way an Instagram celebrity does. Puig shoots down that theory, saying he came to this country to play baseball and as long as he is doing that and having fun, it doesn’t matter where he plays.
“It’s not about the city, it’s about me,” he says. “I bring the city on fire, bring the fans to the stadium every day and the stadium in Los Angeles [was] a party all the time with 45,000 people coming to see Puig, what’s Puig going to do in the game, and it’s going to be the same in Cincinnati.”
Puig feeds off of his fan club just as the fans feed off of him. Though, at 28, if he continues to cut corners in his work, his skills may rapidly diminish. One talent evaluator says that his arm, once an 80 on the scouts’ grading scale (which runs from 20 to 80), is now a 70 or 65 and will continue to deteriorate because he doesn’t work on his throwing and, at some point, will no longer be an asset.
“Fans love the way I play, appreciate my crazy stuff in the game, lick the bat, running all the time, throw people out when all the other fielders can’t throw somebody out like [I do],” Puig says. “Sometimes when I throw somebody out I say, ‘Damn, how can I do that?’ That’s the way I play. I like to have fun every day in the game and that’s the reason the fans love that from myself.”
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, one of Puig’s first tweets as a Red this spring did not go unnoticed. A picture of him fielding a fly ball with the caption “Work hard in silence. Let success make the noise #theprocess #newyear” also clearly showed the outline of…a cell phone in his back pocket.
Yasiel Puig @YasielPuig
Work hard in silence , Let success make the noise … #theprocess #baseball #challenge #newyear #2019 #mlb https://t.co/16OoUil0PF
The conduit between Puig and so much else—success, his new team, his future—is a familiar, comforting face. New Cincinnati hitting coach Turner Ward was with Puig for three seasons in Los Angeles (2016-18) after spending eight managing and coaching in Arizona’s organization. He has developed a trust and friendship that few others have been able to establish with Puig.
“He’s got such a big heart,” Ward says. “I don’t think a lot of people get to see that. They just see the stuff he does. Shoot, I’ve eaten dinner with his family, I’ve been to his house, he’s been to Dave and Buster’s with my family. He is family. Families don’t always have to be all smooth, and when it’s not you’ve gotta be able to get over it.”
Ward has worked with both “#PuigYourFriend” and with “#PuigSoFrustrating” and knows it takes a mix of patience, understanding, hugs and tough love. Sometimes all at once.
“If all the other teams in the league hate him, that’s good,” Ward says. “We just don’t want to be haters on our own team. He can frustrate the other side. I’ve been on the other side [as an assistant hitting coach] with the Diamondbacks. I’ve never misunderstood what he’s doing. It’s never to show anybody up. It’s always to celebrate. He is a very joyful, exciting, celebrating person. That’s the culture. That’s what he brings into every place.”
It’s why Ward continues to allow Puig to plant a big kiss on his cheek upon the slugger’s return to the dugout following a home run, a ritual that started two summers ago when Puig reached 20 home runs in a season for the first time.
“If you would have asked me five years ago, 10 years ago, especially 30 years ago if I’d ever let a player kiss me in the middle of a ballgame, I would have told you ‘I’ll be on my deathbed,'” Ward says. “Again, it’s a celebration, a celebration of hard work.”
“This game is hard. We should celebrate. I want to do a lot of celebrating with a lot of guys this year. Because I know how hard it is. To celebrate those moments is just as important as it is when we encourage during the down times.”
Among those who will be first to put on their dancing shoes if Puig is the spark Ward believes he can be will be the beleaguered Reds pitchers, who have finished in the bottom four of the NL in ERA in each of the past four seasons, including 14th last year and dead-last in 2017. Not only should Puig help the Reds outscore foes, but their pitchers no longer have to face him. Combined, Puig has scalded them for a .328 batting average and 1.038 OPS, including four homers and seven RBI, in 65 plate appearances.
“He’s got that contagious energy,” says reliever Jared Hughes, well aware that Puig is 4-for-6 with two homers and three RBI against him.
“He’s so positive. He shows up, he’s smiling all the time, having a great time. This is a game after all. Right? You shouldn’t stress situations. We’re trying to win, but it’s a game, it’s fun and he reminds everyone of that. During season when you hit a good streak and start winning, it becomes contagious and he’s the type of guy who will help us continue our winning streaks.”
Already this season, the Reds have drawn their largest- and smallest-ever regular-season crowds to Great American Ballpark (44,049 and 7,799, respectively). As is the case with Puig, the best scenario will be to avoid the extremes and find a productive comfort zone somewhere in between.
Not only Puig’s production, but his work ethic, will be a determining factor.
“I said that, but that’s not the reason I want to go hard this year,” Puig says of his now-infamous early-spring comments.
“[It is] because I am given another opportunity being around a new team and real nice teammates and the first time I got here, everybody respect me and give me a lot of love. And I want to give it back to my teammates, and that’s the reason I say this year coming in I will work harder than any other year.”
As the Dodgers will be the first to tell you, they wish their former outfielder well. But you’ll excuse them if they don’t believe it until they see it.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.