Yasiel Puig feels free on diamond

Yasiel Puig

Dodgers sensation Yasiel Puig splashed down in the big leagues on June 3 one year ago. And for most of that time -- starting with the debate about whether he should've been invited to the All-Star Game just a few weeks into his thunderclap debut -- Puig has easily been the most polarizing and talked-about figure in the game. But now he's really gone and done it.

Anyone still inclined to charitably write off the 23-year-old Cuban defector's flamboyant play to just youthful exuberance, or the idea "he must think that he's still playing somewhere else" -- the backhanded slap veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran leveled at Puig during last season's National League Championship Series -- now has Puig's own words to contend with.

Or, more precisely, Puig's own admission that most of what he does on the field isn't colored by naïveté or chance.

"It's my style. It's the way I've played baseball for a long time. I don't really worry about the other team or what other players think about me, other than our team," Puig told MLB.com the other day, when asked how he would answer his critics. "As far as what other people think, I try to play the game hard and I try to play the game happy. I want to have a good time when I'm playing.

"This is a game of entertainment. I don't play it to offend people. But I do have a good time playing the game of baseball."

Entertainment ... style ... have a good time?

It's a good thing that Puig is up to confronting the debate he has triggered. Because the questions he makes major league baseball confront about itself are fascinating.

What if more baseball players didn't scorn the 'E' word -- entertainment -- and treated the game as a vehicle for personal expression, same as Puig, same as NBA and NFL players do in their sports? How different would baseball look or feel? How much more fun or lively would it be? And why would there be anything "wrong" or heretical about that?

What if it made baseball better? Freer? More f-f-f-f ... fun?

There. Someone said it.

It's worth thinking about when it's a philosophy coming from Puig, one of the more arresting all-around players the game has seen in years. Puig is so powerfully built and astonishingly talented, he makes you think this must have been what watching Mickey Mantle was like during his ascent. The blistering speed. The tape-measure home runs. The defensive gems and cannon arm. The hit-for-average stroke and crazy OPS. (One difference? At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Puig has four inches and 40 pounds on Mantle, who was listed at 5-11, 195 pounds.)

Puig also has this going for him: He's figured out how to counter his opponents' strategy by learning to lay off bad pitches.

"They pitched him like he's going to chase and he's quit chasing," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said about halfway into Puig's streak of reaching base by either a walk, hit, or hit by pitch, which stood at an MLB-best 33 games entering Monday.

"He's made the adjustment. You see it with guys with that kind of talent. It's just a matter of putting the mind to it. Yasiel's smart. He just has to stay under control."

Puig is less than two years removed from Cuba, one of the last closed-border countries on Earth.

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