The following is excerpted from The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse. http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Team-…
Ned Colletti landed in Tennessee with his job on the line.
He had somehow survived the chaos of the McCourt era, which was no small feat since the thing his former boss loved most after suing people was firing them. Then, against even longer odds, Colletti hung on to his job as GM when the Guggenheim group took over, because Walter and Kasten wanted to see him in action before deciding what to do with him. So far, his audition wasn’t going very well. Even though ownership understood that the club’s injuries weren’t his fault, last place was embarrassing. And for the hundreds of millions ownership had spent on player salary, when the Dodgers flew home from Milwaukee on May 22 to face the Cardinals and Angels their roster appeared to be as deep as a paper cut.
A couple of young outfielders on the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate in Chattanooga were hitting well, so Colletti went to watch them play in person. One of those players was Yasiel Puig. He stood six foot three and weighed 240 pounds but carried it high in his chest and shoulders, like a wild animal that raised its hackles to look bigger to enemies. Except Puig’s enemies were everywhere. He was shaped like a sinewy funnel, with quick, strong hands that could snap the handle of a wooden bat in half on a check swing that didn’t even touch a baseball, and black eyes as endless as the season itself. Despite his size, he could beat any teammate in a footrace around the bases, an event that, were it up to him, would take place in batting practice every single day.
Puig hailed from Cuba but he may as well have been from Mars. When he showed up to the Dodgers’ spring training complex in Glendale, Arizona, that February he didn’t speak a lick of English. On his first day in major-league camp he stood in front of a water cooler and shook his head in disbelief at the blue liquid spewing out of it. He didn’t know Gatorade existed in more than one color. As the season wore on, the rest of the baseball world looked at him in much the same way. No one had heard of Puig a year ago, but in 2013 he would be the game’s most talked-about player.
Though it had been almost a century and a half since Major League Baseball was invented and declared America’s pastime, the game had changed more in the last 20 years before Puig’s call-up than in the hundred before that. In many ways, the advent of the Internet transformed baseball from a children’s game to a chew toy for adult control freaks and obsessive-compulsives. The brightest minds in front offices around the league now tied their livelihoods to predictive statistics and computer spreadsheets, safe in the knowledge that in the post-Google era, superstar ballplayers didn’t just materialize out of thin air anymore. The best (and worst) thing about scouting in the Information Age was that there were no more secrets: if any teenager, anywhere in the world, could hit a baseball five hundred feet or throw one 99 mph, then video evidence would, at the very least, be posted by a relative on YouTube. Because of this, and the United States relaxing its Cuba embargo shortly after Puig’s arrival, he was perhaps the sport’s last buried treasure.
Yasiel Puig, spring training 2013. Photo via Getty
Few MLB scouts had known what to make of the young refugee when he took the field to showcase his talent in Mexico City 18 months earlier. Most professional baseball players who blossom into stars have been studied under microscopes by talent evaluators since adolescence. But since Puig grew up in a country whose government not only controlled what went on the Internet, but was also especially keen to keep its young, exceptional ballplayers hidden from the prying eyes of American agents who might steal them away, his skill set was unknown. Some major-league scouts had seen Puig represent Cuba in a few international tournaments over the years, but he hadn’t even played for his country’s “A” team with the Cubs’ uber-prospect, Jorge Soler, or Yoenis Cespedes, the star outfielder who defected the year before and signed with the Oakland Athletics.
After several attempts to flee Cuba, in June 2012 Puig left by boat in a harrowing 350-mile escape that landed him in Cancún. He showed up to Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City a week later, fat and out of shape, having not played ball for a year after Cuban baseball officials had banned him from the game when they had foiled an earlier defection attempt. His showcase had been a fiasco. Major-league scouts were first told Puig’s tryout would be held in Mexico City. Then they were told it would happen in Cancún. After another round of phone calls, Puig showed up in Mexico City after all; the confusion stemmed from the fact that two separate management groups were trying to claim him as their client.
The Guggenheim group had assumed ownership of the Dodgers just weeks before Puig’s showcase. And in the midst of the chaos of a regime change, Logan White had taken over running the club’s international scouting department as well as the draft. When White received a call from Puig’s agent, Jaime Torres, asking him to come to Mexico to see the young right fielder, he was intrigued. White had never heard of the kid. Players born in the United States were subject to baseball’s amateur draft, and teams picked in the reverse order of where they finished in the previous season’s standings. The system was set up this way to help the weakest teams land the best prospects for competitive balance. But most foreign players were free to sign with the highest bidder. Now that White was working for men who were willing to pay a premium for the best players, he flew to Mexico City excited to finally have license to outbid other teams if Puig was a stud.
White arrived alone in Mexico City for the second day of Puig’s tryout. Puig took four rounds of batting practice in front of him and scouts from a dozen other teams. Because Puig was so out of shape, 45 pitches took 45 minutes. He bent over his knees between pitches to catch his breath and took long breaks between rounds. Scouts from other teams didn’t seem very impressed. By day three of his tryout, only four other teams stayed to watch him hit again. But White couldn’t believe what he saw in the kid. Puig was raw, yes, but his mechanics were flawless. The path the barrel of Puig’s bat took to meet the ball was so optimal that White believed he could hit for power and average. His hands were so fast that he could stay back on the ball for an unusually long time before he decided whether to swing, which gave him an advantage. They also appeared strong enough to flick baseballs over the fence even without the use of his legs. And his hands didn’t panic or flail: they stayed between his body and the ball with so much consistency that he usually drove inside pitches to right center field, a marked difference from young, overanxious hitters who try to pull everything. White had seen thousands of players swing bats over his three decades in the game, first from the mound as a pitcher in the Mariners’ minor-league system, then as a scout for San Diego, Baltimore, Seattle, and finally Los Angeles. He knew Puig was an exceptional talent. He was certain he would be a star.
Yasiel Puig makes a catch against the Atlanta Braves, 2014. Photo via Getty
White wanted him, bad. But there were a few problems. First, new international signing rules were about to go into effect in a few weeks. Because MLB worried rich teams had too big of an advantage under the current free agency system, it decided to give each club an allotment of money to spend on international players, with respect to where they finished in the standings. (The worse the team was, the more it would be allowed to spend.) If a team went over its bonus pool money, it would be fined and prohibited from signing a foreign-born pro for more than $250,000 for the next two years. Under the new system, the worst teams might get only $5 million to spend on players, the best might get only $2 million. White thought Puig was worth many times that sum, and he worried the other teams who stayed to watch his tryout did, too. Since major-league clubs still weren’t allowed to sign players out of Cuba, Puig would first have to establish residency in Mexico, then reach a deal with a team before the new rules went into place to avoid any penalties. While White wanted Puig, he didn’t want to put the Dodgers in a situation where signing him would prevent the club from inking talented foreign players for two years—especially now that he was working with owners who were willing to spend money.
The other hurdle White faced was getting Kasten to say yes. Even though he loved Puig, signing him was still a huge risk. White had only seen Puig swing at 45 mph batting practice fastballs. Puig hammered the ball, sure, but Mexico City sits at 7,300 feet, and baseballs tend to rocket through thin air. White never saw Puig swing at a breaking ball, or run the bases, or field his position in right, or throw home from the outfield. Puig had been away from baseball so long and was in such a hurry to sign that his handlers didn’t want him to hurt himself. The Dodgers had bid aggressively on the much-hyped Soler, but had lost out to the Cubs. White believed Puig was better. To help reassure himself that he wasn’t crazy, he called two of his scouts in Los Angeles and asked them to hop on the first plane to Mexico City to watch the kid hit. The scouts did and agreed that Puig was the real deal.
Talent evaluators from other teams weren’t as impressed. Some thought that Puig’s refusal to run or throw or field demonstrated laziness or arrogance. Rumors flew about his temper. The stories the evaluators traded only added to his myth. Baseball scouts are known for gossiping like teenagers, but the veracity of these stories didn’t matter because Puig’s past was impossible to check. Nonetheless, the salacious tales scared off many potential suitors.
White knew about Puig’s anger issues, and he told his bosses. But he also knew the kid was smart and quickwitted. They went to dinner together and Puig fixed White’s computer so he could get online abroad. White believed that the Cubs and White Sox also coveted Puig, so he joked with the kid in broken Spanish that he didn’t want to live in Illinois because Chicago was muy frio and windy, while Los Angeles was full of sunshine and the girls were better looking. Puig laughed. He understood.
While his future as a major leaguer was almost impossible to project based on a couple of days of BP at high altitude, the fact that he was such a mystery made White want him even more: his potential upside was much higher than that of an American prospect who’d been put through a battery of tests, both physical and psychological, by every other team. White looked at signing Puig like buying a lottery ticket. So he called Kasten and told him that the kid had a chance to turn into the kind of five-tool player who came along once in a generation. The Cubs had paid $30 million for nine years of Soler. White told Kasten the Dodgers should offer Puig $42 million, just to be safe. Kasten about choked on his phone. Since no one else seemed to know who Puig was, it was perhaps the biggest gamble of Kasten’s career. He tried to call Mark Walter but couldn’t reach him. With very little time to wait, Kasten knew he had to make the decision himself. Remembering that Walter had told him he wanted the Dodgers to be overaggressive in paying for international talent after they missed out on Soler, Kasten gulped, called White back, and gave him the go-ahead. The club’s race to sign Puig before the deadline was so frantic they had to scramble to find a reputable doctor in Mexico City to examine him because they didn’t have time to fly him to Los Angeles for a physical. When that doctor found no hidden problems, the Dodgers got their man.
© Molly Knight, The Best Team Money Can Buy, excerpted with permission from Simon & Schuster.
Molly Knight wrote about baseball for ESPN the Magazine for eight seasons. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, SELF, Baseball Prospectus, and Variety. A native of Los Angeles and lifelong Dodgers fan, she lives in LA.