For weeks, I said Yasiel Puig belonged in the All-Star Game.
I thought it would be great for fans, to see the game's newest phenomenon on a worldwide stage. I thought it would be a boon for Major League Baseball, to seize upon Puig's marketing potential just as his popularity is cresting. Moreover, I thought Puig could help the National League win and earn home-field advantage in the World Series.
But Puig isn't going to the All-Star Game. (At least, he almost certainly isn't.) Fans chose Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, not Puig, through the Final Vote on MLB.com. Unless Bruce Bochy picks Puig to replace a fan-elected starter or one of his manager's selections, Puig will need a ticket if he wants to watch the Midsummer Classic Tuesday at Citi Field in New York (All-Star Game on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Despite my initial support for Puig, I've come to believe this is for the best.
Frankly, the electorate might have done a tremendous favor for Puig and his Los Angeles Dodgers. He's cooled a little lately -- 15 strikeouts and one home run in nine July games -- but this isn't about a statistical regression to the mean. On a much more basic level, I have doubts about Puig's readiness to handle the expectations and responsibilities that would await him in New York.
Before going further, I should make clear that I've never met Puig. I've never tried to interview him. I've never watched him play in person. So, like you, my opinion of him has been shaped by what I see and read. And the recent coverage has been less flattering than one might expect for a player hitting .394.
Veteran Dodgers beat reporter Ken Gurnick wrote recently on MLB.com that Puig "has refused virtually all interview requests." During a series in Phoenix, Puig ignored retired five-time All-Star Luis Gonzalez when Gonzalez attempted to engage him in friendly conversation about their shared Cuban heritage, according to Dan Bickley of azcentral.com. In a recent story on FOXSportsArizona.com, Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero said Puig is "creating a bad reputation throughout the league," and Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy said Puig plays with "arrogance."
None of that makes Puig a bad guy. It does, however, suggest that he's struggling with the interpersonal aspect of playing baseball, in this country, under the spotlight that follows his current level of performance. Given the state of U.S.-Cuban relations, Puig is not the first major leaguer to have an easier time adjusting competitively than culturally after his defection. But his apparent disinterest in the non-playing aspect of the job is mildly concerning.
No one should demand that Puig enter the quotability Hall of Fame as a rookie. However, regular cooperation with the press -- as a means of promoting the sport -- should come standard with a $42 million contract.
If Puig were the 25th man on the Dodgers' roster, this would be a non-story. But the reality is that he's not the 25th man on the Dodgers' roster. In some respects, he's the first. Despite not debuting until June 3, he has the top-selling jersey of any player on the team this year. In fact, he has the 10th most popular jersey in the majors -- just behind Mike Trout and ahead of reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
Marketing executives -- with MLB, with the Dodgers, with potential endorsement partners -- salivate over that sort of instant star power. For a sport that lacks a superstar persona on the level of LeBron James, this is "New Face of the Game" territory. So if he had been named to the All-Star team, Puig would sit at a table during All-Star Media Day . . . and . . . uh . . . decline comment?
In a Spanish interview with MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez, Puig said, "I'm not bad, I just don't like the press and I don't like the fame." Puig is entitled to feel that way. If we in the media wanted to be liked, we would have chosen another vocation. But if Puig can't get along with the fourth estate when he's hitting .394, when, exactly, can we get on his good side?
Some will say the language barrier is to blame. That is a factor, but only to a point. Puig has an interpreter, as is common with players from Cuba, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. If he wanted to engage more with other players, fans and media, he would put in the effort. And at some point, if he is to maximize his earning and endorsement potential, he will need to do it.
In the age of social media, sports icons are increasingly relatable. LeBron's image has evolved over the past several years, humanizing him to many casual fans and expanding his popularity. Part-time Blue Jays infielder Munenori Kawasaki became an overnight sensation in Toronto after an exuberant, endearing postgame interview in which he earnestly showcased his limited (but expanding) command of English. The clip has been viewed on YouTube more than 2 million times.
LeBron James and Munenori Kawasaki have almost nothing in common athletically, except that they are making genuine attempts to relate to the public. Eventually, Puig must do the same. And here's hoping that happens well before the first of what should be many All-Star appearances.