Tribe learning to love Puig, on and off field

Teammates Reyes, Lindor, Santana among newfound fans

August 26th, 2019

There’s no need to explain to how his teammate is perceived around the league; Reyes is aware that a segment of the baseball world finds Puig’s tongue-wagging, bat-licking antics anywhere between off-putting and obnoxious.

“A lot of people might say, ‘That guy is a clown. Why does he do that?’ Things like that,” Reyes said in Spanish.

Reyes would know because that is precisely how he felt while playing against Puig a year ago, when the former was a rookie with the Padres and the latter was employed by the Dodgers.

During the offseason, Los Angeles traded Puig to the Reds, who flipped him to the Indians at the Trade Deadline in a three-team blockbuster that also sent Reyes from San Diego to Cleveland.

From dying his hair red to waving to the Twins’ outfield while running the bases to mimicking the unconventional batting crouch of a Venezuelan Little Leaguer, Puig has remained very much on-brand with his new team. And now that they share a clubhouse, in about three weeks, he’s managed to change Reyes’ perspective.

“Those who don’t know him, who haven’t spent time with him, don’t know and think differently,” Reyes said. “But coming here and having him as a teammate and seeing the kind of guy he is, he changed my mind completely.

“He’s someone who enjoys his game. The way he plays, that’s who he is. He shows the public and his teammates and his opponents who he is. He isn’t trying to be something different.”

First baseman , the leader of the Indians’ clubhouse, also speaks of newfound appreciation for Puig, admitting that he was initially concerned about the arrival of the enigmatic slugger. Santana says that manager Terry Francona asked him to have a chat with Puig right off the bat.

“I’m really surprised. He’s a cool guy,” Santana said in Spanish. “I think he adjusted quickly to the team, with so many Latino players here. He feels comfortable. When he got here, I spoke with him. I told him that here we come to play baseball and play it hard. I think he got my message, and he’s been playing hard.”

It certainly helps that Puig has performed well of late, hitting .288 with two home runs, 11 RBIs, eight walks, 10 runs and an .810 OPS in 21 games with Cleveland.

“He works hard,” shortstop said about Puig in Spanish. “He wants to win all the time. On the field, he does crazy stuff. When he’s on your team, you’re happy to see it, but when he’s not, you might find it somewhat annoying. But he’s a great guy. He’s a guy who wants to win, and he’s focused on the team.”

Francona credits Indians players for the way they’ve welcomed Puig into the fold.

“I haven’t seen anybody come here and really not fit in it. Got a pretty good bunch in there,” said Francona. “[They] make guys feel at home pretty quickly. Felt like that every year I’ve been here. The guys have done a good job with [Puig], and some of his intensity and some of his exuberance has rubbed off, which is a good thing, too.”

That should be music Puig's ears, as the Cuban-born outfielder has no intention of dialing back his ebullient style of play.

“I like playing the way I do because it gives me the energy I need to give my best on the field and get the results that my teammates and the team want,” said Puig, 28, in Spanish. “Everyone is free to criticize whatever they want. It’s a free country.”

The Indians are hoping Puig’s energy will help them secure a playoff berth. Cleveland entered the week 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Twins in the American League Central and in the top AL Wild Card spot.

Barring an offseason reunion, Puig's time with the Indians will be brief. The seven-year, $42 million contract Puig signed with the Dodgers in 2012 expires when the season ends. He's hitting a combined .258 with 24 homers, 72 RBIs and a .783 OPS in 121 games this season.

“If I start thinking about that, I won’t accomplish what I want to do on the field,” Puig said about his pending free agency. “I’m not trying to do too much on the field, only to give my best every day. With the help of my teammates, everything will be fine.

“If I don’t hit, I have defense and baserunning. There’s always something you can do to help your team win. As long as we win and we get to where we want to be, everything will be fine with my numbers and my free agency.”

Regardless of where Puig ends up, he's picked up a few fans in Cleveland.

“I truly love it,” Reyes says of Puig’s style of play. “I love the energy he brings to the game, his desire to win, how anxious he is to do something for his team. He’s given me a lot of motivation.”