Yasiel Puig plays baseball like a kid — a supremely talented, muscular kid that is. He can throw like Roberto Clemente and hit like…well, Roberto Clemente. The problem is that he's prone to brain farts and fist-pumping, the latter of which is verboten, according to baseball killjoys.
So Puig is the most controversial baseball player on the planet, one who's inspired countless columns by fogeys outraged by his playing style. And since Puig is a black player — a Cuban player, one who speaks through an interpreter — that criticism can came off as culturally ignorant or even downright racist.
Now, some of the criticism has undoubtedly been racist. But flinging around accusations and counter-accusations of racism in discussing Puig inexorably results in this sort of nonsense:
One other thing re: Puig coverage: Accusing reporters you don't know of being racist because of their color is nothing less than racism.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 27, 2014
So let's step back a bit and unpack all of this.
Race in sports is a thorny business. There is a tendency among some announcers, writers, and fans to allow their preconceptions about race to affect their perceptions of players. For instance, an exhaustive Atlantic study of baseball announcers' remarks found that "foreign-born players — the vast majority of whom are Latino — are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to receiving praise for intangibles."
White players are often lauded for their "hustle," while minority players are assumed to be naturally physically gifted (and by implication, less hard-working). This holds true for Puig, whose "Wild Horse" nickname — even if it was coined by the venerable Vin Scully — feels like the old deplorable practice of attributing animalistic characteristics to black players. And so you wind up with headlines like this:
Here's the thing though: The vast majority of the Puig criticism isn't racist. Rather, it's more of the same overblown hand-wringing from baseball purists who pine for the pastoral days of pantaloons and gloveless fielders.
Puig's critics have a legitimate point: The exuberant outfielder has a tendency to miss cutoff men, blunder on the base paths, and irk his manger. The problem is that critics tend to exaggerate those problems, extrapolating them into a broader narrative about Puig not playing the game the Right Way. When Puig screws up, we hear how he's letting his team down, how he's a clubhouse cancer, and so on. The gripes are founded in truths, though their extreme conclusions are a bunch of pearl-clutching hogwash.
But are those complaints intrinsically racist? On the whole, no. Just look at how Bryce Harper — another young, boisterous player — has been pilloried for the exact same reasons. In one of his first big league at-bats, Harper got beaned on purpose because of his braggadocio. Columnists nodded approvingly:
This is the Code at its deepest and most ingrained levels. It is the confluence of ability and pride and hype and the concept that all men must earn their stripes. It is the old guard welcoming the new — player and team alike — with an unmistakable challenge: Welcome to the big time. Let's see if you can hack it. [Sports Illustrated]
At bottom, the critiques of Puig stem from that same notion of baseball's unwritten code, which holds that young players need to "earn their stripes" before they can show any modicum of emotion. It's not that his critics think he's uppity — a racially loaded term — but rather that he just hasn't paid his dues. He has to learn how to play according to the (albeit ridiculous) rules of comportment inscribed, in invisible ink, by some self-appointed Defenders of the Game.
Now, this is not an attempt to absolve all of Puig's critics. There have been many abysmal articles written about him, and, though the season hasn't officially begun, there are more trickling out.
Most of all, they seem to miss the fact that Puig is the most exciting player in baseball, and that the game is better off with him zipping around the bases, diving for every ball hit in his direction, and flipping his bat after every groundout. He's only played one season in the pros. In time, he'll figure out how to keep playing like a maniac, but a smart maniac. For now, let's just be content to marvel at his incredible talent.