Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a homerun against the Kansas City Royals on March 15, 2013, in Glendale, Ariz.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the only celebrities they get is the occasional country music artist who moseys on over from Nashville.
But suddenly there’s a new star in town – a young millionaire with his own entourage. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and he’s hardly the Chattanooga shoe shine boy.
He is Yasiel Puig, an exotic name if there ever was one, and he wanted so much to chase the American Dream from his native homeland that the communist authorities there punished him in the worst way possible.
His torture? He couldn’t play baseball for a whole year.
But today, Puig is being groomed to become the next big star in Hollywood. He is a baseball phenom, and he belongs to the Dodgers, thanks to a $42 million deal they signed him to last year when he finally was able to defect from Cuba.
Puig’s entourage that the Dodgers have assembled around their young star includes a translator for all his interviews and an English teacher who will be tutoring him with English classes five days a week.
How long Puig will be groomed in Chattanooga is anybody’s guess, though the way he’s been tearing up the Double-A pitching, it’s likely he will quickly be moved to Triple-A.
And up to the Dodgers?
Some press people speculated he might have been ready to break spring training with the Dodgers after an incredible run and show of power that had manager Don Mattingly and centerfielder Matt Kemp comparing him to Bo Jackson, the athletic wonder of the 1980s who played both professional baseball and football.
Last week, Puig’s name was being bandied about by fans and on sports talk shows who thought he might be the answer to the Dodger’s anemic offensive showing in the first week of the season.
Part of the problem to moving Puig to the big club, though, is where to play Puig with a solid Dodger outfield that has Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford.
Crawford is a leadoff hitter, and he’s leading the team in hitting. Kemp is the offensive franchise. And Ethier is signed through 2017.
Now, with Adrian Gonzalez hitting in mid-season form, the early hitting worries have begun subsiding, and the Dodger brass’ decision to leave Puig in the minors for seasoning is beginning to look smart.
Still, can Puig be converted to play third base – with the idea of plugging his hot bat into that corner slot ala Adrian Beltre? That question becomes more pressing as Luis Cruz struggles, hitless in five games. Is any great fielding third baseman today, like Cruz has shown himself to be, worth playing when he literally can’t hit the weight of a newborn?
Puig, though, likely won’t be asked to make that transition in a year already full of changes for the 22-year-old with a build not unlike that of the young Bo Jackson -- 6-foot-3, 245 pounds -- and fresh off a spring training with stats any rookie would envy: a .526 average, three home runs, 11 RBIs.
He is keeping busy learning English, acquainting himself with American southern culture and cooking, and hearing more tales of how he reminds people of the athlete fans knew affectionately as just Bo -- who seemingly knew everything, according to his old Nike commercials.
"I never knew who Bo Jackson was when I was in Cuba," Puig told reporter David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I just try to play hard every day, and if people want to compare me to him, that's okay with me. I have seen two or three Bo Jackson highlights.
"I have seen him hit and the catch he made when he jumped up on the fence. I am very impressed that Bo Jackson could play baseball and football."
So long as Puig doesn’t get any ideas he could do the same, the Dodgers couldn’t be any happier.
“The thing that impresses the most about him is his street smarts," says Chattanooga hitting coach Orv Franchuk. “He's not a Harvard guy, but he figures stuff out. Sometimes you get guys from underdeveloped countries in that condition because they've had to fight and scratch and steal just to survive every day. He's that kind of a guy.
“His tools are off the chart, but I call his makeup a tool, and he's got solid makeup. Nothing seems to bother him much.”