LOS ANGELES -- Don Mattingly used the word “fun” Monday night and, amazingly, he was describing the part of his day from 7 to 10 p.m.
If you’ve been following this team for the past couple of months, ask yourself: When was the last time you heard the beaten-down Los Angeles Dodgers manager say he was having fun? Or, more to the point, when was the last time you had fun watching Mattingly’s team?
We won’t know Yasiel Puig’s impact on this season for months. But we know his impact on the Dodgers’ mood in these dark, dragging weeks filled with MRIs, churning roster moves and rehab assignment after rehab assignment.
He’s given them a reason to smile, to raise an eyebrow, in a season that was trending toward dull, borderline unwatchable at times.
Puig made his major league debut Monday night and had a couple of hits, displayed some of the wild, daring play the Dodgers saw all spring and then made the game-ending play -- throwing from deep on the warning track to first base to double up Chris Denorfia and preserve the Dodgers’ 2-1 win over the San Diego Padres.
“It’s hard for you not to feel that energy, because it’s just so powerful,” Mattingly said. “The crowd got excited when he grounded out to third. It’s a good start, obviously good energy. He’s going to bring that.”
Between about 3:30 and 4 p.m., Puig was taking grounders and fly balls off the bat of coach Davey Lopes and working on his leads at first base. A few minutes after that, he walked through a door that leads to the interview room, saw about 50 members of the media packed in the room to hear him speak. He froze, his jaw dropped and his eyes got wide as saucers.
In a five-minute, awkward question-and-answer session -- he often mumbled out of range of the microphone -- he might have said 50 words.
“I’ve learned to respect my coaches,” he said through his interpreter, and, “I think I can come up here and help the team win.”
Saturday night, on the team bus from Mobile to Chattanooga, Puig’s Double-A team watched the movie “Bull Durham.” Thus, the cliché answers.
Kind of strikes the right note, doesn’t it? It’s fair to say the Dodgers would like to find the right mentor for Puig, who already has had a history of failing to control his emotions on the field and getting into trouble off it.
It’s probably no accident Puig’s locker was wedged into a corner next to Adrian Gonzalez’s, the Dodgers’ leading run producer and one of the quietest stars in the game.
“It’s not like I’m going to be saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,’" Gonzalez said before the game, glancing at Puig. “He’s going to play his game and, if something happens where it’s like, ‘You can’t do that,' then it’s going to be mentioned.”
However long this first trip to the majors lasts for Puig, it will be largely about him adding energy to the Dodgers' clubhouse and the Dodgers adding quiet to Puig’s game.
It could be massively beneficial for both sides.
“We’re a team that really hasn’t put anything together,” Mattingly said before the game. “This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about him, feeling like we need somebody to play with some energy and to do some things. It’s an opportunity like anyone else gets.”
On Monday, we saw only glimpses of Puig’s tools. He had a bloop single to center in his first at-bat. He chopped a ball off the first baseman’s glove for a single, then took a ridiculously aggressive turn at first even though the second baseman was retrieving the ball about 20 feet away. In the sixth, he threw a one-hop bullet to the plate, way too late to get speedy Alexi Amarista.
Dodgers fans are, forgivably, running out of patience this season -- thus the hoopla for Puig’s debut -- but for a player with as little seasoning as he has, they’re going to need some. Bryce Harper batted .230 in his first 20 games. Mike Trout hit .220 in his first 40.
“I think all the writers are looking for the Trout-Harper parallels,” Gonzalez said. “Don’t go there. Just let him play.”
Puig, 22, is a project. He has been since the Dodgers gave him a seven-year, $42 million contract fresh off his defection from Cuba, never having seen him play in person. He had a splashy debut Monday night, but there will be times, undoubtedly, when he does something that’s exciting in the other team’s favor, not the Dodgers’ favor.
And, all the while, it will be entirely worth watching.