|Puello. (NY Daily News)|
My first article was to be written about starting pitcher Cory Mazzoni. I walked into the clubhouse for the first time, with only a notebook and a picture of Mazzoni on my phone. I surveyed shyly from a corner.
And then Baseball America's #77 prospect, 22 year-old outfielder Cesar Puello came up to me, though he was generally quieter than the other players. He shook my hand, smiled wide and greeted me in imperfect English, helped point me towards Mazzoni, and wished me luck. And in my subsequent visits, he would always say hi. And then I got the assignment to cover Puello. I was ecstatic.
I had watched the team's workouts, and a lot of the games. It's an understatement to say Puello worked hard. He was in the gym constantly. He was always ready for drills, always listening intently to hitting coach Luis Natera. I remember watching one game in particular. I don't remember the exact score, but I know it was a clear blowout and Puello hit a sky high pop-up, well into foul territory. There was no hesitation. As soon as he made contact, his head was down, his arms flailing; he ran towards first as if trying to beat out an infield single with two outs in game seven. In years prior, he had struggled with injuries, due mostly to an all-out style of play. His manager, Pedro Lopez, told me "whenever you get a ballplayer out there who goes 100 percent every day [and] plays the game right -- injuries will happen."
He would sit outside the clubhouse on the floor, among the fans walking in. The little ones would stare at him and he would smile, give high-fives. He was on the phone, speaking in Spanish.
He was also in the middle of a breakout season. In 91 games with Binghamton, Puello was hitting to the tune of .326/.403/.547/.950, all at the highest level he had reached. His best OPS at any other point was .796 way back at the rookie league in 2009. Always considered "toolsy," things were finally coming together as he was cementing himself as a top-prospect and potential piece for the big league team.
And then this happened. Puello was suspended 50 games for his connection with the dreaded Biogenesis scandal.
I began watching baseball in 2001, a seven-year old, and I took to it obsessively. I watched every game, read baseball history books, learned math as I poured over Mom's edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I played as Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds on Backyard Baseball 2001. I watched Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, and Alex Rodriguez daily. Every time a player went down, I was as disappointed as any other idealistic young baseball fan. And then Puello went down. I was devastated. He wasn't just a player I watched on television, played as on my computer, or wrote about on my little blog. He was a player that I saw working tirelessly day in day out. More than that, Cesar Puello, the person, proved genuine to me. He was welcoming from the start.
It's not fair to idealize these guys, because that leads to vilification once they don't live up to those idealizations. I do understand that these guys are role models. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were definitely two of mine as a young baseball fan and player. But they are also people. I cannot imagine the pressure these people must face.
Almost four years ago, I left home for college. With my parents telling me the type of student they believe I can be, my Professors assigning assignment after assignment, and life continuing on despite it, the pressure has been at times debilitating. Sitting in my room struggling to crank out a paper, when that third cup of coffee just no longer works, I have been tempted myself to resort to the student's version of a performance enhancing drug. I was eighteen and 200 miles from home, a quick weekend bus ride.
And then there is Puello, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, alone in a new country at just seventeen years old, endless coaches discriminating his every move, fans cheering or booing based not on his character, or his work ethic, but his performance. He reads scouting reports telling him he can be this, but right now he's that. And don't forget the expectations of family he left behind.
Puello slipped up. As a wonderful Judge in traffic court just told me, people slip up. When good people slip up, they should be responsible, but they also deserve a break. And they deserve respect.
And so now, while I keep track of Puello's progress - and I most definitely will - I will see him the same way I saw him in the clubhouse. I won't see him as the guy who was suspended for steroids. I won't even see him as the phenom who's hitting .300. I'll see him as the person who works as hard as anyone I've ever met to perfect his craft. I'll see him as the person who, no matter the score, runs down the line as he should. I'll see him as the person who recognized the shy intern standing in the corner, who went out of his way, out of his own comfort zone, to bring me into mine.