Yasiel Puig is the best thing to happen to baseball since Cracker Jacks. The Cuban import has 7 home runs, 12 multi-hit games, 14 runs batted in and a 1.169 OPS in just 21 career games. In little under a month, Puig has gone from relative anonymity to transcendent superstar, all without piecing together more than a few words in English.
It seems each day that the Elias Sports Bureau finds a new way to quantify his greatness. Yet, his terrifying numbers do not fully explain his cultural impact. Puig Mania is more than his opposite field power. He is more than his rocket arm. Puig's story, at its core, is rooted in its element of surprise. Sports journalism in America is all about sensationalizing stories. Quick to build up teams and players before they truly deserve the accolades.
Some stories live up to the hype, others fall flat and are quickly forgotten. LeBron James was a sought after recruit in eighth grade, five years before his professional debut. In the 2003 NBA Draft, a young Serbian center by the name of Darko Milicic was hyped along with James and Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony. James and Anthony have become perennial All-Stars while Milicic has faded into relative obscurity. The point is, Americans love to know what's coming next, whether it's sports, music, politics or entertainment. Which is why Puig's abrupt arrival is all the more shocking.
The Dodgers have long been an organization open to acquiring foreign players. In fact, this year's team features a much ballyhooed Korean import, Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu has performed quite well for a rookie, posting a 2.85 ERA in his first 15 starts with a 6-3 record. Ryu hails from a foreign country, requires a translator and has exceeded early expectations, yet the young 26-year old left hander hasn't come close to matching Puig's level of notoriety. The reason for this may simply be that Korean baseball is more publicized than Cuban baseball.
In an era of 24/7 sports coverage, YouTube highlight reels and a willingness to over-expose amateur athletes, sports have lost their mythical roots. There is something to be said for hearing about an event, as opposed to seeing it. When you hear about a 450 foot home run, your imagination kicks in. When you see one on TV, it's broken down by commentators, shown over-and-over again in super slo-mo and boiled down to a boring statistic. In fact, instant replay has mistakenly conveyed to fans that these feats are easily accomplished. The speed of the game is lost. The lightning-quick reaction time triggered by instinct and natural ability is marginalized.
Puig didn't have a YouTube highlight reel coming out of Cuba with 10 million views. His top search result is a grainy compilation of hits that has barely exceeded 50,000 views. Dwyane Wade's son, Zaire, already has an impressive YouTube highlight reel with 30 times more views (1.5mm) and he's in fifth grade. Because of Puig's inauspicious beginnings, we had zero expectations. We didn't have time to break down his swing and nitpick his batting stance. This makes his record breaking start all the more captivating. It's strange to think that a country just 90 miles away could be shrouded in such mystery. Cuban players like Orlando "El Duque" Hernández, Jose Canseco, and Aroldis Chapman all came to the states with an air of mystery surrounding them. Information about them was anecdotal, in some cases, even their age. Incomplete records, language barriers and second-hand information has a way of tantalizing the public. Mystery is a rare commodity.
This is what separates Puig's amazing story from that of a LeBron James or Sydney Crosby. Our generation prides itself on being informed. Rarely does a sports story sneak up on us like this. A tip of the cap to Puig for coming out of left (right) field and reminding us that we haven't yet seen it all.