Cuban homecoming stirs emotions for Puig
HAVANA -- Yasiel Puig spent almost the entirety of Tuesday morning with his head buried in his smartphone, his face blank, his eyes fixed and his mouth, remarkably, shut. Then Major League Baseball's charter flight began to descend upon his island, the one that molded a star for another nation to enjoy. And suddenly Puig pressed his forehead against the glass, whispering to his father, Omar, about all of the places he recognized from 20,000 feet.
Puig stepped off the plane, and a smile began to form, his eyes began to water.
Puig boarded the bus, one headed straight for the heart of Cuba, and finally some words spilled out.
"Smell that?" Puig asked, cheerfully. "That's that Cuban aroma!"
MLB -- the U.S., really -- is hopeful that this three-day goodwill trip will help repair decades of discord with Cuba. And perhaps no player embodies aspirations of that pursuit better than Puig, the decorated Dodgers outfielder who was heartily welcomed back less than four years after defecting.
By around 11:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Puig was trading jabs with Antonio Castro, the son of Fidel and a powerful baseball official in his own right, one who didn't display even the slightest hint of embitterment.
By noon, Puig had his arms around his mentor, his longtime baseball coach, his trainer, Juan Arrechavaleta Cardenas, known to Puig merely by the name "Tata." The two hadn't spoken since that time Puig finally, eventfully, left.
"I miss it here," Puig said in Spanish. "I miss a lot of people here."
Puig grew up about 150 miles from the capital of Havana, in the humble coastal city of Cienfuegos, dubbed "La Perla Del Sur" (The Pearl of the South) and known as a hotbed for Major League talent. Puig's father was an engineer in a local sugar-cane factory, and he laughs about never being good enough to play baseball, a reality that also applied to each of his nine brothers.
Puig began to break that mold at age 8, when he caught the attention of Cardenas, at that time his physical-education teacher. Cardenas saw a strong build and boundless energy. He introduced Puig to baseball, made him a catcher, sent him to the local academy at age 12, watched him shine as an outfielder and remained close until Puig successfully defected in the spring of 2012.
"He always stood out," Cardenas said in Spanish. "He was a very hyperactive kid, very playful. And he just had a lot of talent."
Cardenas watches almost every Dodgers game on tape delay and never scoffs at the mannerisms that make Puig such a polarizing figure. The reckless abandon with which he plays -- overthrowing cutoff men, taking unnecessary extra bases and swinging wildly at pitches out of the strike zone -- is the trait Cardenas cherishes most.
"I always pushed him to have that energy, because I like it when my kids play like that," Cardenas said. "It makes him who he is. It doesn't matter what other people say. He needs to be himself on the field."
On this trip, there are fellow Cubans Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Brayan Pena and Jon Jay. There are other Latinos in Venezuelan first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Dominican outfielder Nelson Cruz. And then there's Clayton Kershaw, Puig's Dodgers teammate, the one who allegedly doesn't get along with him.
Less than four weeks ago, Andy Van Slyke, son of current Dodgers center fielder Scott Van Slyke, told a St. Louis radio station that the organization's highest-paid player wanted Puig gone, indirectly implying Kershaw and even hinting as such when his name was dropped.
It's a subject Puig doesn't want to touch, but it's a situation Kershaw may help repair by taking part in this trip.
"I know I'm probably not going to be able to go to Cienfuegos, where he's from," Kershaw said of Puig, "but just being here, seeing the culture and being here, it can only help me understand him a little bit more as a person, and maybe give me a little bit more credibility with him. It's important."
For Puig, this is important.
As domestic-violence allegations hang overhead -- yet another subject Puig won't comment on -- the exuberant 25-year-old is hoping to find peace in a return to the land that once gave him such agitation. He wants to see old friends. He wants to impact local kids. Puig wants to give back to a nation that, in its own weird way, helped launch him.
It's the kind of trip worth ignoring your smartphone over.
"I'm very emotional about going back to my country, to spend some time with the kids over there," Puig said. "It's going to feel very good."