Outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Facebook/Los Angeles Dodgers)
The MLB offseason provides teams, players, and fans with enough time away from baseball to let the emotions of a 162-game season subside and turn the page to a new year.
Not for folks in Arizona.
Doug Franz of KTAR radio in Phoenix (the flagship station of the Arizona Diamondbacks) continues to dwell on “Poolgate,” and prior to Wednesday’s Cactus League opener between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, called for the Diamondbacks to hit Dodgers’ flamboyant outfielder Yasiel Puig with a pitch. Although Puig has done nothing to the Diamondbacks or the state of Arizona by any measure, Puig continues to be the target of their vitriol.
Franz was entirely clear in his intentions when he said, “It’s time for the Dodgers to pay their debt. Plunk Puig!” KTAR subsequently took a poll—not explicitly related to Franz’s comments—asking listeners to chime in on which Dodger they wanted to see get plunked. To no one’s surprise, the winner was Puig. Franz did add that he didn’t want to see Puig get hit in the head and that he didn’t advocate violence.
Puig’s antics last season, his rookie season, rubbed players from many teams the wrong way. Former Reds closer Danny Graves, for example, was one of many who voiced their displeasure with Puig after Puig unnecessarily slid into home plate following his walk-off home run in extra innings against the Reds.
Although it can be argued that Franz’s comments had a lighthearted, playful tone and may not have the intended malice behind them as many might think, it’s clear that many people in Arizona are still sour about 2013. And even if Franz is no more than a shock jock looking for a topic to talk about on an uneventful day in Phoenix sports, it’s clear by the response of many Arizonans that Franz’s rhetoric is a reflection of their feelings.
It is highly unlikely that the Diamondbacks will adhere to the demands of Franz and his listeners, considering that these are the two favorites to win the NL West this season. What isn’t likely, however, is that teams around the league will simply get used to Puig’s antics and not react to his “showmanship.” That will actually be one of the more compelling storylines in 2014, not only in the NL West, but in all of baseball.
What Puig has unintentionally done is set off a baseball debate seemingly as old as the game itself. Whether it’s in baseball’s inner circles, on sports talk radio, television, or even social media, Puig has set off a debate on how we think a young player should handle himself at the Major League level, whether “showmanship” is a good or bad thing for the game, and what is the proper form of retaliation in 2104 for a young player who does not adhere to baseball’s vague unwritten rules.
Part of Puig’s charm is that he plays in such an uninhibited way, with the pure joy of a wide-eyed child, eternally grateful for his blessings. He is prone to knee-jerk reactions of buoyancy and excitement, not narcissism and showmanship–as he’s often depicted. His Instagram account is filled with videos of him excited to be in Atlanta on a Tuesday, ecstatic to be playing a game of FIFA 2014 on XBox with his cousin, or poking fun at his developing English skills. Whatever the picture or video may be, the underlying theme with Puig is that he doesn’t take life as seriously as most people and that he has an unending gratitude to be in the position he’s in. And it’s that difference between Puig’s actual intentions and the way he is wrongfully perceived to be that has made him so polarizing. That is what has caused a chasm that manifests itself on the field, usually by eliciting some sort of reaction from opponents.
The key to the tug-of-war between the two baseball schools of thought is the context of the issues we’re dealing with in 2014. Concussions, gay rights, bullying, and other issues regarding the well-being of players are all at the forefront of the sports landscape today. Not only that, but with the ever-increasing popularity of other sports and as baseball playoff ratings dwindle every year, the voice those who argue that baseball’s reluctance to adapt to is slowly dooming the sport has never had more traction.
Although it seems like baseball culture and gay rights are two unrelated topics in sports that never intersect, the recent acceptance of gay players into the NFL, NBA, and MLS point to a sports world that welcomes and embraces new ideas at the expense of a long-established status quo. By no means am I suggesting the two topics rival each other in terms of significance. But there are periods in history that are more welcoming to new ideas than other periods, regardless of the magnitude and significance of those ideas, and this is undoubtedly one of those moments.
Even if Puig does manage to help change the culture of baseball with his play and his antics, the significance of his contributions wouldn’t end there. If players like Puig continue to be successful, traditional baseball culture would give way to a culture that embraces personalities of all kinds, which could then usher in an era of baseball superstars, much like the NBA and NFL.
To say that the lack of superstars is the lone contributing factor to baseball’s decline in popularity would be misinformed and narrow-minded. But the importance of identifiable faces, heroes, and even villains in sports is much more important than baseball purists care to admit. That could be something Puig could change.
The 2014 season could be a big one for the Dodgers, as they are one of the favorites to win the World Series. If they do win it all, it will be the first World Series for the Dodgers since 1988, which would obviously be a big accomplishment. But more importantly and in the big picture, it will be players like Puig that will determine how many people will even be watching.