Yasiel Puig Valdes was born on December 7, 1990, in Cienfuegos, Cuba. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Yasiel was followed by a younger sister, born in 1996.
Yasiel grew up in Cienfuegos, a seaport city of over 150,000 on the southern coast of Cuba. The city’s team, the Elefantes, fascinated Yasiel as a boy. He was too young to see the legendary Pedro Jose Rodriguez, the country’s top slugger in the 1970s and 1980s. However, he rooted for Pedro Jr., who also starred for the team. As Yasiel grew to tower over the other boys he faced on the baseball diamond, all he wanted to do was play ball for his hometown team.
Among the sports heroes Yasiel heard about as a boy were Negro League superstar Cristobal Torriente and Jose Azcue, a catcher who played in the majors during the 1960s. He also learned about athletes defecting to the U.S. after the city’s best soccer player, Yordany Alvarez, bolted with several of his teammates during an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa.
In 2008, at age 17, Yasiel made Cuba’s junior national baseball team. His first international exposure came in Edmonton that summer, during the World Junior Championships. After edging Mexico in the quarterfinals, Cuba lost to South Korea in the semis and had to settle for a bronze medal. Yasiel was electric during the competition, in the field and at the plate. That earned him a spot on the Cienfuegos Elefantes of the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s version of the major leagues.
Among his teammates were veteran pitchers Norberto Gonzalez, Yosvani Perez and Adiel Palma, plus Jose Abreu, a home run-hitting first baseman. Yasiel batted .276 in his first season, with five home runs. The following season, Yasiel exploded with 17 homers and a .330 average in 327 at-bats.
During the summer of 2011, at the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands, the baseball world got a jolt when Yasiel and a pitcher, Gerardo Concepcion, had attempted to defect. Concepcion made it to the U.S. safety and ultimately signed with the Chicago Cubs. Yasiel was not as fortunate. He was caught and then punished by being kicked off the national team and suspended from Serie Nacional play. At least, that was the cover story—some of Yasiel’s teammates claimed that he had tried to shoplift some sneakers from a store in Rotterdam and was actually being disciplined by the club for that.
Whatever the real story, being banned from the game he loved convinced Yasiel at this point to do whatever was necessary to make it to America. In the ensuing months, he boarded refugee boats from Cuba a number of times, including three from the same village. Each time, Cuban authorities detected the attempt and turned him back. A local policeman begged him to leave from some other place—he was getting in trouble.
In April— along with a dozen or so young men and women—Yasiel boarded an escape boat run by two Americans. Their goal was to reach Haiti. A few hours into the journey, the boat was stopped by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. After determining there were no drugs aboard, the passengers were taken aboard the cutter and processed. Yasiel stood out from the rest, and soon word spread among the Coasties that a ballplayer was on board. The boat’s interpreter, Carlos Torres, punched his name into a search engine and found a story that compared him to Yoenis Cespedes, the mercurial outfielder of the Oakland A’s.
Yasiel struck up a friendship with Torres, hoping to avoid be repatriated to Cuba, as was normal procedure in these cases. There was some suggestion that the interpeter might become Yasiel’s agent if he figured out a way to get him to the U.S. But there would be no bending of the rules. As the refugees were handed back to Cuban authorities, Torres asked if he would ever see Yasiel again. He just smiled.
ON THE RISE
That June, Yasiel finally won his freedom. He landed in Mexico—no one would say where, when or how—and began his baseball career. There was some suggestion that he was ferried to Cancun by members of a drug cartel, which expected to get a cut of his first big-league contract. Jaime Torres, an agent revered for his work with Cuban ballplayers, negotiated Yasiel’s release and then got to work on his first contract.
Torres was the same agent who landed Jose Contreras a $36 million deal with the New York Yankees in 2002. To better that contract for Yasiel, Torres had to move quickly, because Major League Baseball was due to pass a rule limiting the salaries and bonuses paid to young “international” players at $5 million. First Torres established residency in Mexico for Yasiel, and then invited scouts down to watch him hit in Mexico City.
Initially, Yasiel fell short of expectations. He hadn’t played in a year and was out of shape. The Dodgers weren’t scared off, however. Six days after the workout—and four days short of the MLB deadline—they inked Yasiel to a $42 million deal overseven seasons. They started him off with their rookie-level club in Arizona, and he proceeded to club four homers and bat .400 in less than two weeks. Yasiel’s next stop was Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he played the season’s final 14 games and hit .327.
A staph infection in Yasiel’s elbow prevented him from participating in fall league play; when he recovered the Dodgers encouraged him to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. For all his gaudy stats, Yasiel’s baserunning was shaky, his fielding and throwing lacked maturity, and he sometimes didn’t seem to be taking practice seriously. The team felt another year in the minors might be enough to get him into the big-league lineup sometime in 2014.
Yasiel had more ambitious plans. In the spring of 2013, enemy pitchers could not get him out. He batter better than .500 in Grapefruit League play with power, prompting some to predict he would break camp with the Dodgers. However, a high-priced outfield of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier made this scenario unlikely.
Yasiel was assigned to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class-AA Southern League. Manager Jody Reed and his staff worked to burnish some of the rough edges off his game, while Yasiel continued to scorch the ball. He was knocking in a run a game and batting .300 with power.
MAKING HIS MARK
As luck would have it, the injury bug bit all three LA outfielders in June. Under great pressure from their fans, Yasiel was recalled to help save what was starting to look like a lost season. He got to work right away. In his first big-league game, against the San Diego Padres, Yasiel led off the first inning with a line single to center off Eric Stults. He singled again in the 6th inning. The game ended on a long fly to right by slugger Kyle Blanks, which Yasiel pulled down on the warning track. Seeing Chris Denorfia playing it halfway between first and second, Yasiel threw a bullet to double him up before he could scurry back to the bag. The play preserved a 2–1 victory, brought the Dodger Stadium crowd to its feet, and lit a fire under Yasiel’s teammates.
For an encore, Yasiel clubbed a pair of homers and a double the next night against the Padres to power LA to another victory. The first round-tripper was a three-run job off Clayton Richard to dead center. The second was a laser to right off Tyson Ross with a man on. It not only demonstrated Yasiel’s immense strength. It also provided the Dodgers with their 8th and 9th runs in a 9–7 win.
In LA’s next series, against the Atlanta Braves, Yasiel continued to add to his legend. Tim Hudson and Zack Greinke had been locked in a pitching duel for seven innings when Yasiel came to the plate against reliever Cory Gearrin with the bases jammed. He launched an opposite field bomb to ice a 5–0 win.
The next day, Yasiel yanked a Paul Maholm pitch deep into the left field stands during the sixth inning to tie the game. When he came up again in the eighth, the Braves just walked him. The Dodgers went on to win in 10 innings. Only one other player in history (Mike Jacobs) had amassed four homers in his first five games. Yasiel’s first week in the majors ended with back-to-back three-hit games, raising his average to an even .500.
In Greinke’s next start, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he got into bean-ball war with Ian Kennedy. As LA’s newly crowned phenom, Yasiel knew he’d probably have to take one for the team. But Kennedy went upstairs with his purpose pitch and smashed Yasiel in the face. He survived the direct hit but was later thrown out of the game when he joined in a brawl that almost spilled into the stands.
Yasiel’s teammates seemed just as intent on keeping him out of trouble as they did on taking swings at the D-Backs. They yelled “Not you! Not you!” as they ignored Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who was wading into the melée. Afterward, Arizona manager Kirk Gibson claimed that Kennedy’s hadn't meant to hit Yasiel—the rookie tended to lean over the plate, he explained, and the pitch just got away.
With his meteoric start, Yasiel made baseball relevant in LA at a time when fans were staying away in droves. More important, the Dodgers were getting healthy and had reclaimed their winning attitude. As the All-Star break approached, the team was back in the hunt in the Natonal League West.
In 26 June games, Yasiel hit .436 with a .713 slugging average. He was named NL Rookie of the Month and NL Player of the Month. Those gawdy numbers earned him consideration for the NL All-Star team. In a vote for the final rsoter spot, Yasiel was edged by Freddie Freeman of the Braves.
Perhaps inevitably, Yasiel cooled off in the second half. He belted three homers in July and three more in August before producing a six-home run outburst in September to finish with 19. He kept his batting average over .300, concluding the year with a .319 mark in 104 games. He added 21 doubles, 66 runs, 42 RBIs, and slugged .534, which was 17 points behind league leader Paul Goldschmidt. Yasiel came in second behind Jose Fernandez of the Marlins in the Rookie of the Year voting. He was also 15th in the NL MVP balloting.
The hits kept coming for the rookie in the postseason, as the Dodgers defeated the Braves in the Division Series. Yasiel went 8-for-17 and scored five runs in four games. In the NLCS, the Dodgers came up short against the Cardinals as another rookie—pitcher Michael Wacha—stole the spotlight. Yasiel tallied just five hits and struck out 10 times in the six-game loss to St. Louis.
As the 2014 season began, the Dodgers were prohibitive favorites to win the pennant. Manager Don Mattingly had four star-caliber outfielders again, with Yasiel, Crawford, Ethier and Matt Kemp. Finding playing time for Yasiel turned out to be less of a challenge that Mattiingly anticipated, as Crawford and Kemp limped through long stretches of the season and Ethier never got untracked. Fortunately for the Dodgers, their second-year star picked up where he’d left off. Yasiel hit over .300 and slugged over .500, and was voted the starting right fielder on the All-Star squad.
Heading into the final two months of the 2014 season, Yasiel ranked among the league leaders in batting, on-base percentage, triples, total bases and extra-base hits. He lined three triples in a July game to match a team record set in 1901. More important, the Dodgers had the most wins in the NL and led the West by five games. With another postseason appearance in the cards, Yasiel has an opportunity to leave his imprint on the game and provide his fans with more indelible memories.
YASIEL THE PLAYER
The rawness of Yasiel’s game is apparent after watching him for just a few innings—as is his immense natural talent. He has great speed and enormous power to all fields, he’s aggressive on defense, and attacks the baseball when it is in the strike zone. That being said, his actual batting stroke is smooth and controlled. Other than being a bit more selective at the plate and more judicious on the base paths, there is very little about his offensive game that requires coaching or significant improvement.
Yasiel plays with incredible energy and emotion. His all-out style has had a great impact on his teammates and fans. That suggests that he may develop into an excellent on-field leader. Off the field, he is still learning the ropes in terms of being an American sports celebrity. A pair of speeding tickets during his first off-season were headline-makers in Southern California. The adjustment period for Cuban refugees in the majors can be long and bumpy. Yasiel’s early success and his dynamic personality suggest that he’ll have little problem making the transition. The fact that his parent’s and sister have been allowed to join him in the U.S. will only make life in the majors easier.
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