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Puig has potential to become Cuba's finest

NEW YORK -- When they lived in Brooklyn, the Dodgers changed society forever by breaking the color barrier in 1947 with Jackie Robinson's bold and courageous breakthrough, courtesy of Branch Rickey. A strong case can be made that Robinson was the most influential athlete in the nation's history -- and perhaps the greatest as well.

If that was a tough act to follow, the organization was up to it. The Dodgers in 1952 signed Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente, who would go on to be the greatest Latino ballplayer ever. Unfortunately for Dodgers fans, it happened in Pittsburgh with the Pirates after the Dodgers were unable to protect the brilliant young outfielder under the restrictive roster rules of the day.

Breaking Brooklyn hearts and moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers remained at the forefront of integrating the game internationally, focusing on pitchers.

Chan Ho Park became the first Korean to excel in the Major Leagues. Hideo Nomo remains the most successful Japanese pitcher to perform on the big stage. Fernando Valenzuela brought Mexico to the sport in ways that had been unimagined.

The remarkable legacy continues for the original America's Team. Now gracing the Dodgers' lineup is the breathtaking Yasiel Puig, the Cuban outfielder for whom the Big Dodger in the Sky seemingly has drawn no earthly limits.

At the risk of jumping the starter's gun, Puig has the tools to become the greatest Major Leaguer his homeland has produced. As he alighted in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for a postponed game that will be made up in a day-night doubleheader on Wednesday, Puig is in the middle of a start with few precedents in the game's history.

The early impression is that even though he can't possibly sustain it, this is no illusion. Puig's .479 batting average and .771 slugging percentage through 13 games look to be as real as the astonishingly strong and accurate arm that evoked instant memories of the great Clemente.

"Dodger fans should be excited," manager Don Mattingly said in his return to the neighborhood he graced in the 1980s as a Yankees first baseman of the highest order. "Obviously, Yasiel is a guy who can do so many things. He's an exciting player: speed, power, plays with an energy. A guy who's a tremendous athlete."

Puig's debut ended with a throw from the right-field warning track at Dodger Stadium to first for a double play that will stand up as one of the plays of the season.

He hit four homers in his first five games, including a grand slam, then showed maturity as a hitter by not falling into the trap of trying to hit everything 500 feet. Lashing line drives to all fields, he has kept his average in the range of the best kid in your neighborhood Little League.

Arriving at the new Yankee Stadium, Puig was as excited as any rookie ought to be visiting the sport's cathedral for the first time.

Seated at his locker, looking like an NFL running back in repose, Puig suddenly bolted to his feet and sprinted through the clubhouse toward a destination unknown.

You just don't see that kind of spontaneity from players who have been around. It was a vivid reminder of how young Puig is and a demonstration of the youthful energy that drives him on the field.

The first thing you notice about Puig is that he plays with no fear. He trusts his multiple talents implicitly and occasionally will make a mistake born of desire. But Mattingly would rather have that than a guy playing too cautiously.

"He's got good aptitude for the game," veteran coach Davey Lopes said. "There might have been a time [in Cuba] when he could do whatever he wanted on the field, but there are limits here. For example, trying to stretch a double into a triple with nobody out -- you can't do that. But those are things he has to learn, and will learn.

"He's still figuring out what he can and can't do in terms of game situations. All young players go through that. He's learning -- and he'll get better quicker as he does."

Puig's background is coming out in bits and pieces. In interviews he expresses an appreciation and respect for the game but is not as expansive and colorful verbally as, say, Torii Hunter. How could he be?

"I love to play here in New York, [against] one of the best teams in the history of baseball," Puig said through interpreter Eddie Oropesa. "I like some of the players here, too."

Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers after defecting to Mexico, follows the performances of fellow Cubans Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes through the newspapers and is "so happy" with their success.

Asked if he hopes to see the doors for Cubans swing wide open someday, as they did with for Latin American ballplayers, Puig was enthusiastic.

"When I lived in Cuba," he said, "I followed other [Cuban] players here. I know a lot of people have followed me. I hope someday Cubans will be open to play the best baseball in the world here."

In the meantime, the Dodgers' latest discovery of almost mystical proportions will continue to learn on the job -- and dazzle fans with an uncommon blend of talent, desire and charisma.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for
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