SAN FRANCISCO — Yasiel Puig believes he has the support from his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates and the club to help him keep his focus on baseball despite challenges off the field.
Puig returned to the starting lineup in right field for Thursday’s series finale against the Giants amid reports that smugglers who helped him defect from Cuba had threatened his life.
“I’m only concentrating on the season and being the best teammate and helping my teammates,” Puig said, speaking in Spanish during an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday morning at his locker in AT&T Park.
While Puig won’t address the details specifically because of a pending legal case, he said he will focus on baseball and on helping the defending NL West champion Dodgers keep winning. He went 1 for 4 with a strikeout in Thursday’s 2-1 victory. While he dropped a routine fly to right, he also made two nice catches on the run.
“I have great teammates who are helping support me so much this season and to focus on the season when I get to the stadium so I am comfortable,” Puig said. “That way I don’t start thinking about anything negative in the stadium. I’m only thinking about working on the things that are going to make me a better ballplayer.”
The 23-year-old, scratched from the starting lineup after arriving late for his team’s home opener April 4, is hitting .250 with one home run and five RBIs in his second major league season.
He said after the game he is committed to baseball “so those things that are happening don’t torment me.”
“We’re at the field right now. We’ve just got to be thinking about baseball,” teammate Hanley Ramirez said. “What I’ve seen is he’s been learning and he’s just happy to be here. He’s playing today and he told me he’s going to do everything it takes to win today’s game.”
Manager Don Mattingly said he has read articles about Puig’s journey and will offer support. He has spoken briefly with the outfielder, but not regarding specifics of his journey to the United States — saying if Puig wants to keep those details private, he will respect that wish.
Mattingly is committed to helping Puig, who signed a $42 million, seven-year contract.
Court documents, part of a federal lawsuit in Miami, say smugglers who helped Puig leave Cuba on a speedboat have made death threats against him and against a Cuban boxer who says he defected with Puig. Boxer Yunior Despaigne says in an affidavit he is afraid of being harmed by the smugglers or their associates if Puig hasn’t paid them money he owes.
“He hasn’t talked about his background. Nobody’s told me about his background. Nobody’s told me about his story,” Mattingly said. “If it’s true, it’s a wild story.”
Other Cuban big leaguers have shared similar experiences. In Oakland, Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes discussed in February 2013 how he worried constantly about his family members the previous season as they made their way to the U.S. He wasn’t sure whether they might be targeted because of his legal issues stemming from a former agent who claimed the outfielder owed him money.
“If you care about Yasiel, you worry about some serious stuff there that he has to deal with,” Mattingly said. “If you care about him as a person, you worry about what he’s going through.”