When Yasiel Puig walked to home plate for his final at-bat Sunday afternoon, the crowd of 42,405 started chanting his name in anticipation of what the Cuban phenom might do next. Despite a lopsided score, the majority of fans remained at Dodger Stadium, electing to see the 22-year-old one more time instead of heading for an early exit to beat traffic.
While Puig struck out swinging, no Los Angeles fan could complain about his performance—four hits on the day, and a stunning 44 hits in his first 101 major league at-bats. Before Puig, Joe DiMaggio was the only baseball player to ever record at least 40 hits and four home runs in his first month of work.
“The thing that impresses the most about him is his street smarts,” said minor league hitting coach Orv Franchuk. “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.”
The Dodgers signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract after he escaped from Cuba a year ago. Puig highlights a wave of young players who have fled their Communist homeland to play in America.
In 2009, pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected from Cuba by walking out of his hotel room and driving away while his team was playing a tournament in the Netherlands. Now 23, Chapman is the closer for the Cincinnati Reds and holds the record for fastest pitch ever thrown in the major leagues—105 mph. In 2011, Yoenis Cespedes fled Cuba with his mother via speedboat and joined the Oakland Athletics a year later, batting .292 with 23 home runs in his first MLB season.
The adjustment to a new country and to American-style baseball is difficult for some players, but the opportunity for freedom, fame, and financial profit excites many young Cubans. Along with Puig, 23-year-old Boston Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias (.414 batting average in 38 games) and 25-year-old Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin (5 home runs, 15 stolen bases), both Cuban defectors, have made significant impacts this year.