Puig spends day off at camp for kids with cancer

August 21st, 2019

NEW YORK -- said Monday’s off-day changed his life.

The Indians outfielder took advantage of his first free day in three weeks to rent a helicopter that would fly him to visit Camp Simcha in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It is the only kosher overnight summer camp for children and teens with cancer, and it hosts children battling other diseases, most of which are terminal.

“It’s a little bit sad to see young kids that have been sick from a young age, like 7-14 years old,” Puig said. “But when you see them smile and them hanging out and jumping to the music, you forget and everyone forgets that the kids are sick.

“I never expected it to be this way. I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to visit sick kids. It’s gonna be more slowed down, sitting in the room, explaining about life, keep going, fight.' I only said like two or three words because these kids never stopped. They were excited.”

So how did Puig, a Cuba native, get involved with a Jewish organization? That tie dates back to the outfielder’s first year in the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2013. He attended a Lakers game and was introduced to a man named Irv Bauman, who quickly became one of his best friends. The two text nearly every day and Bauman’s grandson, who was helping out with the camp, requested that his grandfather ask a favor of the Major Leaguer.

“My grandson actually asked me if it would be possible if Yasiel would possibly make a visit to the camp, and the kids would just go crazy if they saw him,” Bauman said. “We’ll ask him to do it on Monday on his off-day. Immediately, he says, ‘Of course, I’ll do it.’ … He doesn’t really know a lot about the Jewish heritage. From being with me, he’s learning about kosher, religion, the songs he sang to them yesterday about thanking God for all the wonderful things that happen in life. He was so into it, it was amazing. It’s hard to describe how into it he was.”

Puig took a 45-minute helicopter ride to the camp and placed a fake tiger head over his bright-red hair, like a mascot, to hide his identity. When he walked into the room full of children, he removed the mask and everyone went crazy.

“That’s pretty amazing because when I was a little kid, I dreamed that somebody famous or somebody from any sport would come to me and say hi or pass time with me and show me around any sport and share moments with me,” Puig said. “I never had that opportunity when I was in Cuba, and that’s the reason I love to give that opportunity to kids and I love to give back to the community, because I know there’s a lot of kids who have talent for baseball or for any sport and I love being around kids. That makes my days better every day.”

Puig joined the kids on the dance floor, he crowd surfed throughout the room, he received a tour of the campgrounds, made candles, played catch and paid a visit to the infirmary to sit with a child who was too sick to participate in the group activities.

Yasiel Puig surfed the crowd at Camp Simcha during his off-day visit to the Catskills retreat.Mauricio Gonzalez/MLB

“There was a kid who was sick and sat down and [Puig] said, ‘What are you doing?’ and the kid said, ‘I’m reading a book. I’m trying to find Waldo,’” Bauman said. “So he sat with the kid for 15 minutes and said, ‘Let’s find him together!’ and they went through the book and found him. The kid was like beaming. You have no idea.”

The Tribe slugger spent four hours at the campsite, struggling to convince himself to get back to the city to prepare for Tuesday’s game. He entered the day expecting to give kids advice on how to stay strong through difficult times, but it was Puig who left feeling inspired.

“[A boy] started talking about baseball, saying, ‘I love the way you play. Keep going, fight,’” Puig said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m the one coming here to tell you to keep fighting and everything will be fine, and you’re the one telling me to keep going, fight and work hard' -- and that made my day.”

The minute that he left, Puig began asking how soon they could return to visit with the kids. He wanted to make an impact, moving others to take advantage of their free time to visit with children in need. Although he may not know whether he’s influenced others to follow in his footsteps, he now knows his actions have been noticed throughout the world.

“I received messages from a mother that said, ‘Mr. Bauman, I have to thank you. I have not seen my son smile like that since he was born,’” Bauman said. “I was almost crying, I got so emotional myself. ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for these children with his visit today.’ I received messages all the way from Australia and Israel with videos of it all. It’s such a sensation.”