Facing friends, now foes: Puig warmly received

Slugger eager for games vs. L.A, but firmly part of Reds community

March 14th, 2019

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For most established players, the Spring Training schedule is nothing more than a collection of squares. The colored ones mean you get to stay home, the white ones mean you might have to board a bus and the opponent is inconsequential.

But for in his first spring camp with the Cincinnati Reds, two dates on the spring schedule were mentally circled from the start – March 14 at the Dodgers and March 15 vs. the Dodgers. His old team. His friends and, yes, his foes. He wanted those games. No backfields, no down days, no light work. Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play.

“He mentioned it a couple weeks ago, actually,” manager David Bell said with a chuckle.

So there was Puig in the starting lineup Thursday at Camelback Ranch, against his old mates. As is always the case, the results were inconsequential, but we’ll nonetheless note here that Puig went 1-for-3 in a 3-3 tie. He’s expected to be back in the lineup against the Dodgers on Friday night at Goodyear Ballpark. And then on April 15 -- yes, he knew the date by heart -- at Dodger Stadium, in the season proper.

“I don’t need to show nothing to the Dodgers,” said Puig, who was warmly received by the Camelback crowd. “When I face the Dodgers, I go in only having fun and trying to do the best I can. I’m practicing with my new team, and I want to do the best I can this season to show that I can do a lot of good things when I play free and am having fun on the field and don’t have nobody telling me things that I need to do. That’s what I want to do with this team now.”

In that answer, you get a sense of what it meant to Puig to be traded, to start anew with a squad that has distinctly different competitive circumstances -- contention as a goal, rather than an established fact -- than he has been accustomed to and no past interpersonal baggage brought to the table. What Puig does with this opportunity is ultimately up to him and his abilities, and it will have a major bearing on how he fares in free agency next winter.

What we know, for now, is that Puig has not come into his new situation timidly. He has embraced the Reds’ colors and community, and he plans to bring the same good work his Wild Horse Foundation did in Los Angeles -- refurbishing fields and establishing meal programs for needy kids -- to Cincy. His foundation’s baseball team -- the so-called “66ers” (named for Puig’s uniform number) -- will be visiting him at Reds camp on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, in the Reds’ clubhouse, Puig, with no decibel meter necessary to verify this statement, is the loudest man in the room, joking and jawing and jabbering with his new mates. He commands that room, plain and simple.

“I like to be myself,” he said. “Sometimes, on my old team, I couldn’t be myself.”

It is an unavoidable byproduct of clubhouse culture that such a personality is going to simultaneously be viewed as great and grating. Puig’s style is not for everybody, as we learned in L.A., where he exacerbated the issue by showing up late to the ballpark a time or three. Puig’s home has changed, but his bottom line is unaffected. You can rest fairly well assured that some deeper meaning will be attached to Puig’s play by a scribe or inside “source” at some point this season. If Puig plays well and the Reds benefit, his bat-licking, finger-wagging penchant for playfulness will be hyped as the jolt the Reds needed. If neither he nor the Reds deliver, he’s a distraction.

Your performance nudges the narrative, same as it ever was.

The narratives don’t and won’t matter as much as the results, and the Reds’ results are even more difficult to project than most teams. They’ve rewritten their outfield and rotation, and it remains to be seen if turnover leads to turnaround.

“Nobody expects nothing from Cincinnati,” Puig said. “But we’re going to be there. Everybody’s going to see Cincinnati playing good and playing better than the last few years. And later, people can talk. I like when nobody expects nothing from nobody and later we come in and people start to see us [differently].”

On an individual level, Puig has the same opportunity. With the Dodgers, he was a “Wild Horse” corralled by injury, before settling into a reverse-splits role in which he didn’t live up to his superstar status but remained a productive player. He’s 28 now, and so it’s not inconceivable that he still has a superstar season in him, particularly with money on the line. Whether he admits it or not, he has something to prove -- to his new team and to his old one. If Puig delivers, he won’t just command a room but a city.

“If you play good, you’re going to own any town,” he said. “The Dodgers, Cincinnati, wherever you play, if you do your job, you can make it.”