GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig closes his eyes and scrunches his face, guzzling shamrock-green juice from a clear plastic tumbler as if he had a taxi waiting outside.
The juice fits into the diet plan that has helped Puig lose weight this offseason, so he rejects the desire of his taste buds for the greater good. This is not the first time Puig has taken dedicated steps to finally doing what is right for the city, team and ultimately himself -- yet somehow this effort seems to be his most determined yet.
Eating -- and drinking -- what is best for him is just the beginning. Puig is quick to mention a need to be prompt, not just more often but 100 percent of the time. He knows that when his voice is heard at high decibels it needs to be for the team and not to seek attention for personal gratification.
Above all, Puig has a newfound desire to follow in the footsteps of some of the game’s current stars. He mentions guys by name: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols.
Puig has never been shy about shooting for the stars. It shows in swings from the heels and throws from the warning track. His plan for following in the footsteps of some of the game’s greats, though, was given to him straight from some of those future Hall of Famers themselves.
During the past six months, Pujols and Cano have reached out to Puig to show their support and give raw advice on how to juggle expectations, performance and clubhouse synergy -- not just when the going is good, but especially when the numbers are not accumulating as consistently as desired.
“It’s more of a mental thing,” Puig said through an interpreter about the advice he received. “Things that you have to fix yourself. Nobody can do it for you. You have to leave the bad things in the past and continue to work toward the future to get better. Continue to do your job.
“You just have to focus on what you have to do, and if you focus, things get easier,” Puig explained, his eyes wide open, his thinner faced relaxed. “That’s the reason great ballplayers have been successful, like Harper, Trout, Robinson Cano and Pujols. They have seen results because they focus, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.
“I think this year I’m going to play, not to put up stats, but rather to pay them back and to make sure that I follow their advice and make them feel like I was listening. I know that I can be a better person like they are, on and off the field. Not just batting, but being an overall good person.”
Expect the new approach to be a constant work in progress, though. Two days before talking about his new selfless approach, Puig grinned ear to ear with a dark brown baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. It came shipped in a wooden box with “The Walking Dead” logo on the outside. He posed for photographs and showed the bat to onlookers.
But the zombie weapon soon disappeared, and Puig rejected interview requests from anybody who wanted to talk about it. He said he never asked for the bat and does not watch the hit television show. As it turned out, other high-profile players around the league were sent the same bat.
Old Puig and new Puig seemed to collide that day: the guy that likes attention and the one that is trying to keep his head down and stay out of his own way. New Puig ultimately won out.
That’s not to say Puig will never do his part to keep things light in the clubhouse. Yet he seemed to realize that his first minute in spring training camp, before he ever set foot on the field, was a bad time to force the cameras in his direction.
“This is my job, but I like to have fun at work when I’m doing my job,” Puig said. “That’s why I do crazy things, because I like to have fun. That’s how I play, and I will keep playing that way. In order for things not to be boring, you have to have fun on the field.”
The big swings and long throws are not going anywhere. Clubhouse high jinks are always a rush of adrenaline away. The key is that he now seems to understand when he was doing things not in the best interest of the team and is determined to fix it.
Puig said that Pujols reached out by phone last year unsolicited, right after the Dodgers’ mercurial star had been sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Cano gave his advice in person when Puig was in the Dominican Republic to lend his time to the charitable foundation of former Dodger Manny Mota.
“I’m very thankful that they took the time to call me and give me advice,” Puig said. “And I feel that the only way I can pay them back is by doing the right things this season.”
Puig’s expression of gratitude is capable of massive heights. His splashy major league debut in 2013 shows what incredible levels in the game he can reach. And while that dynamic debut has sometimes seemed like a standard impossible of reaching again, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts believes Puig is capable of becoming a top-10 or at least a top-20 player in the league.
“If you’re talking a ceiling, that certainly is fair,” Roberts said. “You have to go out there and perform, and that is what he expects of himself, too.”
Roberts has said all winter -- and now into the spring -- that if Puig is getting the majority of the at-bats in right field, then that is good for the Dodgers. Unsaid is that the Dodgers have hordes of outfield depth, so he will not get unlimited chances to prove himself.
“I think that in any case, you should have to earn at-bats, and that goes with quality plate appearances,” Roberts said. “We all know Yasiel as a defender, so if he is out there, he can impact a game on the defensive side. So now, if you look at his at-bat quality vs. right-handers or left, if it’s consistent, then there should be no reason he wouldn’t be out there virtually every day.”
The anxious at-bats Puig showed in the big leagues last season must be curtailed. Puig showed he was capable of slowing his heartbeat, when he returned from his Triple-A demotion as a more confident player at the plate.
“It’s something that I realized I had to do when I got back,” said Puig, who started against left-handed pitchers in September and earned his way onto the playoff roster. “The manager in Triple-A [Bill Haselman] told me many times; [coach] Luis Matos told me many times; [Shawn] Wooten the batting coach told me many times. All the coaches helped me, and being with the guys there helped me.
“That’s the passion I had when I got back. I couldn’t let myself down anymore, or God or those guys that always helped me.”
Can he do it for a full season? Last year at this time, Puig was showing off a new social media savvy in which he was comical and self-deprecating. He was the first to arrive for a flight on an early-season road trip and shared a picture of himself on an empty charter flight.
But his tardy ways returned, his on-field struggles mounted and his anxiousness showed when he started swinging at any and all pitches.
Now he is reflective, he sounds determined, and he chugs his green juice, even if it could use more pulverized apple to improve the taste.
“I’m thankful that Cano helped me in [the] Dominican Republic, so there are a lot of people that I can’t let down this year. Hitting or not hitting is not my problem. What I want to do is be 100 percent, be on time and eliminate the problems that sent me to Triple-A.”
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