n June 3, 2013, a year after setting foot in this country, Puig found himself in the Dodgers lineup for the first time. He wore the number 66 on his jersey, the whimsy of clubhouse manager Mitch Poole, who thought Puig, with his frenetic ways, was “kind of like the Tasmanian Devil.” The organization knew that Puig was still a work in progress—he had already earned the first of his arrests, for driving 97 mph, while playing at Double-A Chattanooga that spring—but the Dodgers were desperate. Despite a $216 million payroll, the team was in last place, the roster riddled with injuries.

Puig started the game against the San Diego Padres with a bloop single. He ended the game with a bazooka-worthy throw that doubled up a runner at first. The next day he homered twice. Two days later, he slugged a grand slam. By the end of the month, Puig had amassed 44 hits, a debut topped only by Joe DiMaggio. Instantly the rookie was a “diva” and a “rock star,” the machinery of fame and fandom, nonexistent in Cuba, scrutinizing every foible and flourish. Whether it was a frivolous slide after a walk-off home run or a boys’ night out at the Playboy Mansion during the all-star break, Puig had triggered something akin to a referendum on what it means to respect the national pastime. No moment symbolized the spectacle more than his Game 3 blast in the National League Championship Series against St. Louis: Having flipped his bat and trotted in triumph toward first, he suddenly realized that the ball had hit the fence and he needed to sprint—and even then he made it to third, with time for a bunny hop. “He must think that he’s still playing somewhere else,” an irked Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals’ veteran, said after the game.

The worshiping and bashing and defending became so feverish that one sports blog asked if the “Puig Backlash and Puig Backlash Backlash factions” could just try to get along. Even with his late start, Puig finished the season with MLB’s third-best-selling jersey.

he fascination was inseparable from the mystery. The more Puig cordoned off his past, the greater his legend grew. He had leaped overnight from the 19th century to the 21st—an experience familiar to many in L.A.’s immigrant communities—and yet he continued to insist that his only concern, his sole longing, was to help the Dodgers win.

He seemed to relish the camaraderie of his teammates, engaging pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu in mock tae kwon do battles and feeding bananas to Juan Uribe each time the stout third baseman homered (at least until the Dodgers, sensitive to how Puig’s stab at King Kong humor would be perceived, put an end to that ritual). He appeared generous, too, with fans, especially the littlest ones, signing caps and posing with babies wherever he met a crowd. One evening last October, unplanned and unannounced, Puig dropped by the Northeast Los Angeles Little League field, in the hills right across from Dodger Stadium, and after nearly an hour of autographs and photos, insisted on throwing batting practice.

“It was just mind-blowing,” said John Vergara, whose nine-year-old son, Daniel, got to smack a meatball off Puig. “I’ve been coaching at Northeast Little League for about 14 years, and there’s never been a current Dodger player, let alone a star, who’s come up to the field and just done that.”

At the same time, Puig is the only player in the Dodgers clubhouse whom the press finds consistently unapproachable, refusing to be interviewed unless the PR staff leans on him or his gatekeeper, who doubles as a “VIP host supervisor” with Sam Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment, gives him the OK. Faced with a reporter, Puig will squint, which makes him look like the late heavyweight Floyd Patterson, or smirk, which conjures the comic Tracy Morgan, and say something about being muy contento as a Dodger. After two months of negotiations, I managed to secure nine minutes with him in the boisterous kitchen of Homegirl Café, in Chinatown, during the team’s preseason Community Service Caravan. Puig had slipped off his gold jewelry and donned a hair net to lend a hand to the recovering gangsters who do the baking there; I was interrupting his first taste ever of a lemon bar. It seemed unlikely that he would reveal anything under those circumstances, but when I asked about his unusually late-night posts on Twitter and Instagram last season, how he seemed to lose himself in video-game soccer battles till the wee hours, Puig allowed that he sometimes struggled to find rest—that closing his eyes invited in too many other thoughts.