There is no wrong choice, really, and also there’s no accounting for taste where extravagant full-body thrusting maneuvers and lusty bat flips are concerned. But my personal favorite Yasiel Puig moment of the MLB playoffs thus far isn’t one of the big ones. This should take nothing away from the time when Puig licked his bat and instantly regretted it, or slid into third base with his tongue hanging out of his mouth like a dang Rhodesian Ridgeback, or bat-flipped and basically started voguing after hitting a ball that one-hopped the left field fence. I also mean no disrespect to the time that he shadowboxed a vigorous round of tonsil hockey with a TBS camera. These are all good moments, and all good choices. They just happen not to be mine.
Mine happened on October 6, shortly after Puig licked his bat and immediately after his subsequent double off Arizona Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker plated Cody Bellinger. Bellinger scored from first base on the play, and Puig was standing on second when his teammate slid safely around a tag. Home was where the action was on that play, but the camera caught Puig in the background, at second base, just absolutely going to town on his crotch.
Because he is the biggest personality in this postseason and because he has been the best hitter on a Dodgers team that still hasn’t lost a playoff game, Yasiel Puig has spent much of this month in the foreground. He’s done a decent amount of humping there, too, of course, just because of who he is and how he is. He is a very good baseball player who is currently playing well above his head, and he is also a man who celebrates baseballing success with variously adolescent acts of sex-related gestural theater. None of this, or none of this beyond the current pyrotechnic amplitude of Puig’s dominance, is really new.
Anyway, it’s the fact that Puig was not at the center of the action that makes that particular instance of celebratory humpage sing, for me. Because the camera loves him and because he so plainly loves it back, and because sports are a TV show, it’s easy to see Puig’s most overtly extra on-camera moments as pure ham, and in some way done for the benefit of a national television audience. This more than misjudges Puig, I think. He is just like this, when the cameras are on him and when they are not, when he is playing well and when he is not, when people are charmed by it and also when they are not. This has been a problem for him even in the fairly recent past, but it is not remotely a problem right now.
Right now, Puig is more or less entirely out of his body. Playing in his current state of agape ensures some dippy heat-check stolen base attempts, but given that Puig’s postseason OPS currently starts with a 1, a decimal point, and the number four it’s a deal the Dodgers are happy to make. When Puig first broke through as a 22-year-old, back in 2013, this was what he looked like—superheroically great and also somehow out of control, absolutely like The Real Thing and seemingly simultaneously doomed to decline and diminishing returns, if only because baseball players are just not supposed to operate at that temperature.
Puig did indeed become a very good player, but he is not yet and may never be a great one; he is only a superstar in the ambient, vibeological sense. Moment by moment, he is probably the most exciting player in the game, but the average of those moments is something considerably less remarkable. He played very well in 2017, but is also just a year removed from a punitive minor league assignment and some very urgent-seeming trade rumors. More to the point, he’s still just 26 years old, and in no way a finished product.
Puig is still becoming whatever he will be as a player, in other words. But after years of salt-and-vinegar complaints from some anonymous ex-coworkers and peers and the baseball media’s broader grumblebear community about how he does his job, it seems like a broader detente has been reached on the once extremely fraught question of whether Yasiel Puig was Good or Bad for The Game Of Baseball. Either the broader baseball world has dialed it back a half-dozen notches or so or Puig’s sheer and unrelenting Puig-ishness has forced that detente upon us; either way, the question is now revealed as the needlessly sour waste of time it always was. This doesn’t reflect any broader progress, really, in the baffling long-running debate about whether baseball should or should not be fun. But it sure feels as if the broader baseball universe has decided that it’s okay to just enjoy Yasiel Puig, now.
I mean, he’s still making people mad. After the aforementioned bat-flipped double, Keith Olbermann went ahead and Got Mad Online about it.
That musty sentiment from that particular source is not terribly surprising in itself, and easily enough dismissed; Puig himself shrugged it off with a generous offer and a deft deployment of the #PuigYourFriend hashtag.
And Olbermann himself was quick to recant his notably tangy opinion.
Again, this is all roughly par for the course when it comes to both online discourse and the distended, stagy playfighting of sports takery. But also, and with all due caveats about basing any sort of broader argument on the metrics of an unprofitable social media site that drives people insane: Holy hotchy-motchy look at that ratio of responses to retweets on Olbermann’s original tweet. Or look at the actual responses, of which about half are different GIFs of extravagant Puig bat flips and maybe another third are just people tweeting, “Sir, SIR” at Olbermann.
Again, this is Twitter and this is Keith Olbermann—a defective social media platform that deranges people and the reigning champion of Weirdly Vague Bombast. But it is also what progress looks like on topics like this, and how it works. People, let alone those of us dopey enough to give sports teams some say-so over our emotional well-being, do not generally gather, reason together, and agree upon some reasoned, level-headed conclusions. That would be nice, of course, it would be nice if that happened even fucking once, but more often moving forward works just the way that it has worked with Puig.
That is, people just sort of realize, quietly and gradually and in their own ways, that life is too short to be angry about something they used to be angry about; a positive outcome has been reached through a passive and subtractive process. Puig is probably a slightly more moderate presence now than he was in 2013, but the real difference might just be that the world offers many more deserving things to be mad about now than it did then. Or it might just be that baseball, though still mired in its generations-long work of getting over itself, decided that a little bit of theatricality and goofiness wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
Whatever the case, it’s heartening and good. People will still get angry about things they probably shouldn’t and stay that way for longer than they should. That’s the whole story of human history, really. We only impose the idea of dramatic change on it after the fact, when we tell the story back to ourselves so that it makes a little more sense. Mostly, though, it’s just this. You notice the man in the background, his face somehow both giddy and serene, humping deliriously away at second base. Then you notice that it doesn’t bother you. Then maybe you notice that you’re smiling.