The Tao of Yasiel Puig: The Reds' New Star Riffs on Bat Flips, Life and His Rocky End With the Dodgers
The outfit is wrong. Standing in the kitchen of his house in Encino, Calif., on a late January morning, Yasiel Puig looks down at his wardrobe and sees a problem. His t-shirt is blue; so are his athletic shorts. (No word on his underwear.) This won’t do, he decides. He retreats to his second-floor bedroom, then returns a while later covered in red: a Hugo Boss polo shirt the color of a Maraschino cherry, leather sneakers brighter than a stop sign, and a backwards baseball cap bearing his personal logo. (He goes with blue jeans, though, because even Yasiel Puig isn’t brash enough to wear red denim.)
Why the sartorial change of heart? He owes it to the gleaming Lamborghini Huracán Spyder sitting in his driveway, provided to him by a local company called Syndicate Enterprises that rents exotic cars and whose co-owner is a friend. But since his temporary new ride is as blue as the waters off the Bahamas, Puig wants to stand out against the Lambo’s paint job. As such, blue is out, and red is in—and not for the first time this winter, either.
A month earlier, Puig got the phone call he’d been expecting for a while. Along with Matt Kemp and Alex Wood, he was traded from the Dodgers to the Reds, ending a productive yet bumpy six-year tenure in Los Angeles that saw Puig become synonymous with the franchise and made him a nationwide phenomenon. The Dodgers had gambled $42 million on the talented but unrefined outfielder from Cienfuegos, Cuba in 2012 in a move that paid off handsomely for both parties. But it was time to wave goodbye to Dodger blue, and say hello to Cincinnati crimson.
“Blue for my people in Los Angeles, red for the fans in Cincinnati,” Puig says as he heads upstairs to swap out his shirt and pants, adding, “God bless America.”
Why not praise his second home? Since arriving, Puig has become a multi-millionaire and built a family with his girlfriend, Andrea. He’s one of the league’s most recognizable faces and public performers, equally adept at smashing fastballs as he is goofing around on Instagram. (Within a span of a couple of weeks stretching from January into February, his 865,000 followers could watch him race golf carts in Hawaii, dance in his car as he drove around Miami, throw axes in Los Angeles, and take a tour of snowy Cincinnati.) He is the turbocharged embodiment of the game’s next generation, gleefully thumbing his nose at the sport’s decades of stuffy tradition through his boisterous style of play.
Yet the Yasiel Puig Story, as full of fun as it’s been, remains frustratingly incomplete. He’s struggled to match the hype of his thrilling 2013 arrival that launched him into superstardom. He’s clashed repeatedly with managers, coaches and teammates over the years and earned scorn—often unfairly, sometimes deservedly—over his behavior on and off the field. His time in Los Angeles featured six straight division titles and back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2017 and ‘18, yet a championship eluded both him and a team that hasn’t captured one since two years before he was born. “It’s nice, but we haven’t won,” the 28-year-old Puig says in Spanish of his frequent trips to the postseason. “The only thing we're getting is one more month instead of being on vacation. It’s as if you did nothing.” And for as much as he loves Los Angeles, he’s bitter about parting with his old team.
“It’s their problem,” Puig says of the Dodgers’ decision to move him. “I don't know what they did with that trade, because they didn't get anyone who could help them the way I could. But that's business.”
With that business comes the closing of one chapter and the beginning of the next. But as Puig sheds blue for red and, to paraphrase Bill Belichick, moves on to Cincinnati, can he stay and grow in baseball’s spotlight as he leaves Los Angeles behind?
Newly outfitted in the right color, Puig ambles outside to pose with the Lamborghini. He sits in the driver seat, Cuban reggaeton blasting from the speakers, with a radiant smile as a photographer snaps away. He’s not the only one getting some quality motorist time in: His youngest son, Damian, scoots around in a small motorized SUV, weaving his way through the half-dozen people in attendance.
It’s a quiet Saturday in southern California, but the day promises to be busy. He’s got a sports car to show off online, a birthday party to help organize with Andrea for Damian and older brother Daniel, a youth baseball team to visit in nearby San Fernando as part of his charitable foundation, and a workout to fit in there somewhere with agent Danny Horwits, who is also the president of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. Puig also offers a half-joking suggestion to crash the Dodgers’ FanFest, taking place that day at Dodger Stadium.
There’s stuff to do around the house, too. At one point late in the morning, a contractor shows up to assess damage done to the stairs inside by a falling safe. Last September, while Puig and his family were at a game, three men tried to rob his house—the fourth time in the last two years someone’s broken into his residence. They found a huge safe in the bedroom, but since it weighs hundreds of pounds, the would-be burglars decided to push it down the two flights of stairs, where it took chunks out of the wood steps and marble floor. The thieves made it as far as just outside the front door with their prize before the police showed up. Once Puig returned home, he, Horwits and a friend attempted to get the safe back into the house. The three were able to move it a grand total of five or so feet before giving up and leaving it in the entryway, where it remains, dented and scratched but still shut.
It’s a house in flux, and the schedule is further complicated by an upcoming trip to Cincinnati, where Puig is due to meet the mayor and find a house for the upcoming season. As the time draws near to head to San Fernando, Puig hops in his Lamborghini and drives off.
Twenty minutes later, Puig makes his way through Pioneer Park to a small and dusty field, where two-dozen kids are taking batting practice and doing infield drills. Amid the persistent soft ping of aluminum bats, Puig walks around and films himself on Instagram talking about the team. The 66ers—named for his uniform number—are supported through his Wild Horse Foundation, which he created in 2016 and is named after the moniker given to Puig by longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully during his rookie season. The charity is also refurbishing the field and setting up after-school and meal programs through a community center; the plan is to do something similar in Cincinnati.
The team is mostly a mix of Mexican and Central American kids, all 11 or 12 years old. After a half hour or so, they gather around the pitcher’s mound, where Puig tells them in English to practice hard, listen to their parents and coaches, and do well in school. “Do it for Mr. Puig,” he says. After that comes a group photo with the whole team, hugs and high-fives with the players, and individual photos with each one (and the occasional coach).
Puig’s softest spot is for children, and he rarely if ever turns them away when they ask for an autograph or selfie. Neither Lisette Carnet, who’s the head of the foundation, nor Horwits can recall seeing him say no to a child, and throughout the afternoon, he never does. As Puig watches the 66ers, parents shepherd their children his way. As they stand there, often mute and too shy to make eye contact, Puig jokes with them and signs whatever they want.
Ask him about his childhood in Cienfuegos, however, and Puig is reticent to talk. He started playing baseball when he was six years old, he claims, learning on his own and using handmade bats from a family friend. Another friend told Puig he had talent and took him to one of the country’s state-sponsored sports schools, where he joined the baseball team as a catcher before moving to the outfield.
Ironically, baseball—practically the state religion of Cuba—wasn’t Puig’s passion: He liked soccer and it remains what he prefers to watch on TV (he’s a Real Madrid fan) and play in video games (he only uses Real Madrid in FIFA). “I don't like watching baseball, unless it's the World Baseball Classic or the World Series,” he says. “If I'm not playing in it, I don't want to watch it.” He would love to play in the WBC, though he’s skeptical Cuba will let its defected major leaguers join the team any time soon. “We might go to the moon before that happens,” he jokes.
Beyond that, Puig’s comments on Cuba are sparse and vague. Asked when he first decided he wanted to leave, he responds, “The first time I tried it.” Several attempts failed, including one in 2011 that earned him a season-long suspension from Cuba’s national league. His successful defection to Mexico, which came in June 2012, is a horror story featuring kidnapping, extortion involving a Mexican drug cartel, and the kinds of shady characters too dangerous for a Quentin Tarantino movie. (Unsurprisingly, Puig is strongly supportive of the new arrangement between MLB and Cuba that would allow players to come to the United States legally—one currently imperiled by the truculence of President Donald Trump’s administration toward Cuba’s Communist government.)
A week after his perilous defection, Puig held a multi-day showcase for interested MLB teams in Mexico City. He was out of shape, hadn’t played competitively in a year, and only took batting practice. Nonetheless, the Dodgers signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract—a price that left rival evaluators stunned. Puig says that he knew little at the time about the team that had made him rich, claiming that he recognized only the Yankees and, because of their proximity to Cuba, the Marlins.
Puig’s first stop in the United States was rookie league in Arizona. There, he met Tim Bravo, a New Mexico-based coach who worked for the Dodgers as their director of cultural assimilation. Bravo had been given a simple yet gargantuan task: Teach Puig everything he could about his new home—except, somehow, American history. “He knew the presidents, the government,” Bravo says. “He could tell you dates. He’s very intelligent.”
For the next few months, the pair was inseparable. Puig and Bravo—whom Puig called “Teacher”—slept in the same apartment, ate together, worked out together, traveled to the ballpark together and hung out afterward. Every day after training, Puig returned home for English lessons. The two made Denny’s a regular haunt, where Puig would inhale orders of steak and eggs with milkshakes, and blew off steam at the local Dave & Buster’s. Whether Bravo was teaching Puig how to drive or walking him around Wal-Mart, he tried his best to get the young ballplayer acclimated to life in America. Puig did so with gusto.
“He’s full of life, all the time,” Bravo says. “It was never hard to get him to go anywhere.”
Despite his long layoff, Puig dominated the minors and reached Los Angeles a year after signing his contract, then hit four homers in his first week and .436 that first month. Overnight, he was a sensation—a highlight-show staple, fan favorite and human GIF. The Dodgers, who were 23–32 when he was called up on June 3, went 69–38 from there—a 104-win pace over a full season—en route to their first NL West title in four years. At the center was Puig, whose bat flips, bazooka throws from rightfield and gallops around the bases were a shot of adrenaline for fans and team alike.
“It was like walking around with Elvis,” Bravo says. “We couldn’t go anywhere without him getting mobbed.” During a series in Pittsburgh, he recalls Puig deciding to walk from the team hotel across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC Park—a popular path for fans heading to the game. “I had to walk backwards because he was just getting mugged,” Bravo says.
As brilliant as the start to Puig’s career was, the game discovered his weaknesses. Despite earning All-Star honors in 2014, injuries cost him chunks of the '15 and '16 seasons. His gaudy 145 OPS+ in 2014 dipped to a pedestrian 110 the next year and sunk to a mediocre 98 the year after that.
Even more concerning was Puig’s chronic tardiness, squabbles with teammates, and poor offseason conditioning. On the field, he played like a man unhinged, blowing through stop signs from his third-base coach, swinging at everything within his zip code, and airmailing throws. “He was not the best team player at that time,” says Turner Ward, who took over as the Dodgers’ hitting coach before the 2016 season. “Yasiel could come off very selfish.” Trade rumors became constant, and after the July 31 deadline in ’16, Los Angeles sent a scuffling Puig down to Triple A, where he spent all of August before returning to the majors.
After the demotion, Puig helped the Dodgers win pennants in 2017 and '18. He also developed a kinship with Ward, often spending several innings with him in the dugout during games discussing not only baseball but also life and how the former affected the latter. “This game can beat you up so much,” Ward says. “It stretches you, and each time you’re stretched, you’re able to handle a little bit more.” Their relationship, though occasionally testy, was warm. Puig would plant kisses on his coach after hitting home runs. Away from the stadium, he’d join Ward’s family on trips to (where else) Dave & Buster’s. “He’s just a big kid,” he says. “I love him just the way he is.”
Although Puig hit 23 homers and posted a 120 OPS+ in 2018, the trade talk never ceased. Several reports had him headed to Washington at midseason in exchange for Bryce Harper, and Horwits knew that the Dodgers were reaching out to teams that offseason to gauge interest. A few days before Christmas, Puig was lounging by the pool of his offseason home in Miami when Horwits called. He was headed to Cincinnati.
That same day, Ward—who’d left the Dodgers in November to join the Reds—reached out to his once and future charge to see how he was handling the news. “I thought maybe there’d be a little disappointment, because any time a player’s with an organization for a long time, you feel like you’re never going to leave it,” he says. Instead, Puig’s first words to him were, “We’re going to have fun.”
“He keeps saying he likes red,” says Reds manager David Bell about his new outfielder. “I think that’s code for he likes it here.”
Puig was arguably the biggest piece that Cincinnati acquired during its busiest winter in a decade. A regular bottom-feeder in the NL Central, the Reds added Puig along with Kemp, Wood, and starters Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark in a bid for instant playoff contention. Puig and Cinncinnati may be a long way from the Dodgers’ perennial division favorite status, but if nothing else, it should mean more at-bats. In Los Angeles, Puig’s playing time was tied to platoons; in Cincinnati, he’ll be the regular rightfielder. And he’s already made a fan of the Reds’ most important player.
“Watching him work, he’s an absolute freak of nature in the best kind of way,” says Joey Votto. “He’s got star personality. He’s must-see TV, and I cannot wait to play with him and learn from him.”
If the Reds make the playoffs—no easy task for a squad that has lost at least 94 games for four consecutive seasons—then Puig will have likely played a large part. It would also set him up well for his first foray into free agency this winter, ahead of his age-29 season. He says he hasn’t thought about that yet, focused instead on this year, but it will be interesting to see how he’s received amid a market that’s been frozen solid two years running. A consistent Yasiel Puig who compiles numbers reminiscent of his rookie season should thaw it out. Ward believes that production is within reach. “I told him for three years, there’s an MVP in there just waiting to happen,” he says.
But a Yasiel Puig resembling the inconsistent, undisciplined and volatile version of 2015 and ‘16 will find minimal interest. Part and parcel of Puig is his personality—ebullient, loud, and sometimes abrasive. “Yasiel’s got a big heart, and he loves baseball,” says Alex Wood. “Sometimes his enthusiasm will get the best of him, but he plays hard, and he’s a great player.” Says Ward: “Him being him and doing what he does, if people don’t like that, that’s their problem.”
One man’s wild horse, though, can be another’s ill-tempered bronco, kicking out blindly and stomping on everything. Lapses in fundamentals and ill-timed celebrations won’t endear him to many clubs. Nor will grousing about playing time, as he did during the end of his tenure in Los Angeles.
The chaotic exuberance that makes Puig such an electric player can make him an exasperating teammate in the highly regimented world of baseball; to be himself without pissing people off is a tricky task. That delicate balance is hard to achieve and may be purely theoretical: Over six years, the Dodgers never quite found that sweet spot where Puig’s talent co-existed harmoniously with his rambunctious energy. Now that challenge belongs to the Reds, who have willingly signed up for the full and unfiltered Yasiel Puig Experience. “We want him to be who he is,” Bell says. “We have no concerns.”
When asked about his style of play, Puig is defiant. He won’t change who he is, he says, because that’s what’s made him successful. The problem, Puig argues, is that players and pundits are too eager to take offense.
“Here, you can’t flip your bat because people get upset,” he says. “Those are just things of the moment that happen because of the joy, because you can't hit a home run every day. If you could hit a home run every day, it wouldn't be good to bat flip. But you can't hit four home runs every day.”
It’s part of what makes the WBC so appealing to Puig: It’s a version of the sport unencumbered by stodgy American views on how the game should be played. It’s like the frenetic and emotional baseball he played in Cuba. Here, he says, “They play very slow.”
“People think everything is an insult, but it's just because of the emotion of the moment,” Puig says. For proof of how those feelings can burst out as celebration and not disrespect, look to his towering home run in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the World Series against Boston. With the Dodgers leading, 1–0, and two men on, Puig took an Eduardo Rodriguez fastball down the heart of the plate and launched it far into the leftfield stands. As the ball soared into the night, so did Puig’s bat (and Rodriguez’s glove, angrily hurled into the mound), as he joyously threw his arms above his head while Dodger Stadium erupted behind him.
It should have been that night’s dagger and Puig’s defining moment as a Dodger. “The whole world thinks the game's won,” Puig says. “And we lost.” The Red Sox rallied against a weary Dodgers bullpen to claim Game 4 before finishing Los Angeles off the next day.
To Puig, Boston’s win was easy to explain: Manager Alex Cora did everything right. “Boston went ahead [in Game 5] and bet everything they had because they wanted to win,” Puig says. “So instead of bringing in [Craig] Kimbrel, they brought in Chris Sale to close the game, because Sale is a great pitcher, one of the best there is. To get two or three runs in an inning against him is impossible.… That’s why they're champions.
“We couldn't do the same,” he adds. “We didn't bring in our best pitchers, and when we had our best in, we took them out, or we left them in too long. That's why we lost.”
The name of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who pulled starter Rich Hill after 6 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 4, goes unmentioned, but it’s clear that his moves displeased Puig. Nor does he have anything to say about Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, but Puig’s feelings toward him are rather obvious. Asked whether he talked to Friedman after the trade, he simply rolls his eyes, to Horwits’ visible discomfort. (“I’ve told you, never burn a bridge,” he tells Puig afterward, to which Puig responds, “There’s 29 other teams!”)
What Puig finds hard to understand is why, despite being so close to the top of the mountain several times, the Dodgers never did more to reach the summit. “From what I've seen the last few years, we've been right there, but we haven't gotten anybody good,” he says. He can’t make sense of the trade that sent him to Cincinnati, which rid the Dodgers of him, Kemp and Wood (and the combined $36 million or so owed to them this season) in exchange for broken-down starter Homer Bailey, who Los Angeles released shortly after the deal was completed. Why trade a productive hitter for nothing, he wonders? Why make the team worse?
“Now I have to do my part to show that they made a mistake,” Puig says. “I'll show them what I could have done for them if they'd kept me.”
It should come as no surprise that Puig knows the dates of the Reds’ only trip to Los Angeles this season off the top of his head: April 15, 16 and 17. But having those days circled in bright red on his mental calendar isn’t simply about getting the opportunity to show the Dodgers what they gave away. It’s also about being there for the fans who supported him, he says, through thick and thin, who showed him love and cheered on his bat flips and tongue wags, embracing the man who branded himself on social media as #PuigYourFriend. “They were full of joy and liked my style of play,” he says. “Now to see their reaction after I was traded, they felt hurt.”
Fans in Los Angeles have stuck with him, Puig says. In the days after the trade happened, he would see messages or photos on Instagram and Twitter of Dodgers fans proudly sporting a PUIG 66 Reds jersey or shirt. (At the time, even Puig didn’t have any Reds gear. “I was still going to workouts in Miami with Dodgers stuff,” he says. “My friends are like, 'Take that off,' and I'm like, 'It's all I have!’”) The reaction from Reds fans has been similar, he says, even if the atmosphere won’t be the same as Los Angeles. “I know that the stadium [in Cincinnati] won't be like the one here, with 30 or 40 or 50,000 people every day,” he says. “But as long as we play well and give the city a good show, the fans will be there.”
There will always be those who hate Puig, regardless of how close he hews to the unwritten rules. “If he’s kicking your butt, you’re not going to like it,” Ward says. But for all the traditionalists whom he makes see red, there are plenty of fans that adore his panache. Over lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in San Fernando, local city councilman Robert Gonzales watches as Puig devours a burrito with a side of rice and beans, a plate of shrimp and nopales, a tamale (or two), and a Michelada the size of a birdbath along with a pink lemonade.“I have a friend in Cincinnati,” Gonzales says. “He told me, ‘Baseball is not exciting, but Puig is.’”
As Puig exits the baseball field in Pioneer Park, there’s one more thing to do before lunch. A few hundred feet away, members of a local nonprofit organization called TreePeople are planting new trees, and they’ve invited Puig to help them place a sapling in the soil.
In a corner of the park along with a dozen or so volunteers and a small gaggle of fans, Puig receives a crash course in horticulture. First, the tree is placed in a freshly dug hole in the ground and held upright, so that the roots go in the right way. Next, dirt is piled into the hole and massaged into the roots, to help them attach and grow. More dirt is added to stabilize the tree, with Puig wielding a shovel and scooping some on.
Finally, the tree is set, and the volunteers, Puig included, form a circle around it. It’s their custom to name a tree after it’s been planted, in order to establish it as a living being, one with a personality all its own. Puig is asked to do the honors, and after some thought, he lands on “Wild Horse.” “Welcome, Wild Horse,” the volunteers say in unison, and after a group photo and some selfies, Puig zooms away in his blue Lamborghini.
If all goes well and the weather and soil are good, then in a few years, the tree that Puig helped plant—Cercis canadensis, otherwise known as the Eastern redbud—will blossom, reaching up to 30 feet in height. In time, it will mature, and eventually, it will flower. And the leaves that will sprout from its branches will be most fitting for the next step in Yasiel Puig’s career and life. As one of the volunteers tells him, one day, Wild Horse will produce “a beautiful red bloom.”