Yasiel Puig did not be start in Friday's Los Angeles Dodgers home opener because he showed up late work and was punitively benched by manager Don Mattingly. He had originally been listed as the starter in right field. Given that the Dodgers had just activated frequently-wounded outfielder Matt Kemp, Puig's breach of discipline gave Mattingly an excuse to get Kemp into the lineup, albeit probably not one that he wanted.
Recalcitrant ballplayers are often just like anyone else who just can't help but do the wrong thing. Puig obviously knows he has to conform to team rules and play a more refined brand of baseball that he has sometimes exhibited in his brief major league career -- last week he called a team meeting to ask his teammates to help him get better -- but for whatever reason he just can't follow through at this point in his life. Someday, perhaps he will have matured to the point that he can. Maybe, and I suspect we have all known someone like this, he never will.
There is a Hall of Fame baseball player named Hack Wilson. Wilson was 5'6", shaped like an inverted pyramid, and could really, really hit. He happened to bat in the middle of a great offense at a time when every ball had a "Star Wars"-like hyperdrive installed that activated as soon as it was struck, so in 1930 he set the major league record for RBI with 191. He was also a severe alcoholic. In the old days, people liked to tell jokes about drunken baseball players, but there was honestly nothing funny about the way Wilson put away the booze in legendary amounts. It destroyed his career. He was done at 34, died destitute at 48. In his last interview, he said, in words that anticipated Mickey Mantle's own sad apologia by roughly 50 years, "Kids... Don't let what happened to me happen to you."
There is a story about Cubs manager Joe McCarthy trying to straighten Wilson out. It's probably apocryphal, and (again) there's nothing funny about it whether it's true or imaginary or actually was imported from the life of some other ballplayer. The story is that McCarthy sat Wilson down, opened up a big bottle of rotgut, and dropped a live worm into it. The worm died in extreme agony. "Now, what does that say to you?" McCarthy asked.
"That booze is bad for worms," Wilson supposedly replied. Laughter. Curtain. The point is not that Wilson was dumb, but that some people aren't capable of getting it until they're ready, for whatever reason, at whatever time, dictated by a million circumstances of psychology and a multitude of tiny wires in their brain.
Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, which, translated to a modern idiom, means, "Don't be so bleeping anal, awright? Who cares if he's a little late?" But esprit de corps is important for things like military units, baseball teams, and ballet companies. You can't have 25 guys and 25 different sets of rules, tra la la. Mattingly, then, is bound to be a martinet. However, Mattingly also isn't an automaton, one-size-fits-all solutions are the first refuge of the incompetent, and if discipline and tough love (or just hostility) ain't working, a leader is pretty much duty-bound to try something else.
Mattingly might remember a bit of this from the days when Rickey Henderson was his teammate and the Yankees drove themselves to a point of pathetically public paranoia trying to guess whether he had a hamstring pull or just didn't feel like playing -- or when they benched Mattingly, Donnie Baseball, because his hair was too long.
Anyway, Puig isn't playing today. He got caught in traffic or the drive-thru line at Burger King was slow or he overslept or just didn't care. No doubt we will have another round of columns pointing out that Puig is an evil-bad force of chaos who should immediately be traded for a good clubhouse guy like Willie Bloomquist. Enjoy that. Just remember, the real purpose of leadership in baseball is not to punish, not even to teach manhood or good clubhouse manners or good oral hygiene or anything at all except to extract maximum value from a player.
Does a punitive benching do that? Maybe, maybe not. Ask me again in five years, after Puig has been traded for Bloomquist.