Is Yasiel Puig Ready to Lead?

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Yasiel Puig is about to embark on his third -- and perhaps most important -- season as a Los Angeles Dodger, so is he ready to take the reins of the franchise?

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Tommy Lasorda sits in a golf cart, one leg hanging out, off the seat, as he surveys the Camelback Ranch practice field. Players young and old come by and pay their respects. In English and in Spanish, Lasorda barks from his perch, talking to anyone who will listen.

For Dodgers, young and old, it’s a morning ritual: Say hello to Tommy. Pay respect to the Godfather.

“Respetarme,” Lasorda says, to any itinerant young Latin players. Pay your respects. With a laugh and a smile, they all do. The story of the day is about how Lasorda’s relationship with Sparky Anderson deteriorated during the battles his Dodgers had with Anderson’s Reds in the 1970s. Lasorda’s wife Jo had bought a red rain coat, he says, the day before he came out and publicly stated that he hated red. Couldn’t stand it. That’s how much he hated the Reds. “I said I hate the Reds, and I hate the [expletive deleted] color red.”

“He was talking about all the red stuff today, how his wife got a red dress, and the same day, he starts talking about how he can’t stand red, he hates red, and that red dress was never worn,” says Jimmy Rollins, who’s had to get rid of all the red in his wardrobe since coming over from the Philadelphia Phillies.

He, too, knows to pay his respects to Lasorda, even though, as a young buck growing up in Oakland, Calif., Rollins says, “he broke my heart,” when the Dodgers beat the Oakland Athletics in the 1988 World Series.

One of the most animated – and eager – displays of respect comes from one of the more animated members of the Dodgers -- Yasiel Puig. Puig – seen as too cavalier by some of the more old school crowd, and dubbed the ‘Wild Horse,’ by Vin Scully -- is a polarizing figure. Lasorda jabs at Puig by asking him about his new car, and how fast he drove to camp that morning. “It goes very slow,” Puig says. Lasorda nods. “Bueno.”

There’s a sense, now, among those in the clubhouse, that Puig – while he hasn’t mellowed out, per se – is at the very least growing up. He understands what he means to this team.

“I don’t think he’s ever questioned that,” says Rollins. “From what I see and what I’ve heard, he’s asserting himself in more of a team role, as opposed to just, ’66, Yasiel Puig,’ and that’s good for everybody. Even more so, it’s good for him, to get the guys on your team to like you and respect you, and the upside will follow. That’s the way it is, and the organization will see it, that they can build around you as a person, not just as a talent.”

One of the first days that Rollins was in Dodgers camp, he found himself alone in the clubhouse, along with Puig and Puig’s cousin.

“Yasiel, the first day in, before we started, I spent two hours just talking to him, trying to get to learn him, who he is, what makes him go,” Rollins says. “I talked to him a little bit about hitting, and about what he does. Right now, the way the camp is, his group follows my group, so we’re always going to be right there in my same circle.”

Rollins is in a peculiar position – one he’s not used to after spending 15 years in Philadelphia.

“Being in Philly for so long, I know, when new guys came in, I felt that as a veteran player, I’d have to go say something to them, and I’m a veteran player, but I’m the new guy, so I’m kind of in a weird spot,” he says. “So, you know what, I’m still a veteran, they know who I am, so I still go say hello. It’s different, because that was a club that I was on, that I helped build, so I’m coming into somebody else’s territory.”

So, he went to the big dog in the yard, and started sniffing around.

“It was maybe just he, myself, his cousin and maybe one or two other guys. I felt it was the perfect opportunity,” says Rollins. “Nobody around. No cameras, no nothing, just go talk to him and get to him one-on-one. That’s when you find out about guys – who they are, if they’re really a good guy, or if they’re not a good guy, you will find out, really quick.”

So, just who is Yasiel Puig? Just a big kid, to Rollins. None of the contemptuous swagger ascribed to him by others. Just a big kid.

“Coming in, just as a competitor, you admire him, but you learn not to like anybody, so I was glad not to like him,” says Rollins. “Once the trade happened, it was like, ‘I get to see what this guy really is like,’ and man, he’s nothing like you would think he was like, playing against him, which is good.

“That’s how you want the other side to look at you. You’re not supposed to like him. He does a very good job making the other side not like him. But, being on the inside, being an insider now, this dude is a big old kid. He’s a big boy. He’s a big boy.”

To see Puig in his skivvies in the locker room, it’s hard not to imagine that he could jump squat a car. Big is right. Raised in the United States, he may have become an outside linebacker. But, instead, the Cuban defector is the centerpiece of one of the more storied franchises in baseball, gracing the cover of a video game.

“I just walked over to him, and we just started talking. Two hours later, it was like, ‘OK, I gotta go now. My wife’s probably like, ‘Where ya at? You said you were done! I want to go run. The babies are crying. Come and get them off my hands,’’” Rollins says. “It just lasted. I went over to go talk to him, and two hours later, I’m looking at the clock, like, you can’t make that happen. You can’t force two hours. It was a good thing. I’m happy I did it. I was going to do that, anyway, with a number of guys on the team, but he just happened to be here, by himself, with his cousin, who acted as the interpreter. There were no other guys around, and it was just a great opportunity, so I took advantage of it.”

At the start of last year, Puig was late showing up for the Dodgers’ home opener. He was benched. That, though, was before Rollins got here. He’s not about to scold the talented young outfielder for something he wasn’t present for. As far as Rollins is concerned, Puig gets the benefit of the doubt, until he doesn’t deserve it. So far, Puig has had perfect attendance.

“You’ve got to let him be late, first,” says Rollins. “You can’t just say he’s going to be late. You’ve got to let that happen, and when it does, that’s when you address it.”

So, was Puig picking up what Rollins was laying down in their chat? Is he really starting to mature?

“Welp, when we talked for two hours, he did, for sure,” says Rollins. “We had a good conversation. It’s just learning. I don’t come here with any judgments, because I don’t have the right to. I don’t have the experience to, which is good. I get to come in, with a clean slate, and find out who he is, for myself.”

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