M. Terry / SFVS

San Fernando resident Janet Toscano made sure she and her son Nathan got to Pioneer Park in the City of San Fernando as early as they could on Thursday, April 19. They would have to stand along a roped-off section of a baseball field, and didn’t know if they would be able to get a glimpse of the man hundreds of others had come to see today — Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.

They saw a story that Puig and his Wild Horse Children’s Foundation was going to partner with the City of San Fernando and renovate the park, as well as refurbish a house by the park that had been used for pottery classes and Boy Scout meetings, but had been boarded up for nearly 10 years and was dilapidated. Puig envisioned turning that home into a place where children could do homework and learn to eat healthy where mental and other health services could be provided. Best of all, his foundation was putting out between $750,000 to $1 million to get the project completed, and wanted to do so by the end of this year.

“I’m excited,” Toscano said. “It’s a great opportunity for the children here in the San Fernando Valley to know there are people who actually made it and are giving a helping hand.”

Standing next to her were Sylmar residents Sylvia Fernandez and her nephew Robbie Gallardo, who confided he was going to start playing baseball again because he likes Puig and how he plays. Fernandez was also grateful that Puig had chosen this location to provide this kind of support.

“They really don’t have that much stuff here, so it’s good that he’s doing this for them,” Fernandez said.

Puig arrived in San Fernando in the late afternoon Thursday. He went back and forth between charming the City of San Fernando Chamber of Commerce and then delighting children squealing his name by doling out plenty of high fives, signing autographs for a few lucky ones, and having his picture taken by selfie or by gently holding up youngsters in his powerful arms while parents clicked away. He also made a point to connect with the elderly women and men who could not easily stand.

But Puig and his handlers, including foundation Executive Director Lisette Carnet, spoke repeatedly about “the vision” Puig had of what Pioneer Park could and would  become. Of how he came to Carnet in February to find him a place that he could convert. Of how she scouted various locations before telling him about Pioneer Park, and how Councilmember Robert Gonzalez spoke to them about the kind of services that could be created or were in place.

And then there was the empty house. A house that City officials were willing to tear down, but was the kind of place that Puig envisioned could be everything from a place to give kids a good, healthy meal, provide various levels of counseling, or just be a place where a kid could be a kid.

That sealed the deal for him. Not just a handout, but a hand. And the city council agreed to the partnership at its April 16 meeting. 

Puig addressed both the chamber’s members and the outdoor crowd in Spanish. He told people that, besides the money already provided for the project, he would donate $1,000 for every home run he hit the rest of the 2018 season. He made people laugh, he made them gasp.

Mostly he made them cheer.

Puig took it upon himself to do his media requests in English even though, he said, “I get shy speaking English with lots of people around.”

No matter what language he chose, Puig made it very clear that he wanted to do something for San Fernando on a grand, yet personal scale.

“I wanted to do my first [sports] field here,” he told the San Fernando Sun/El Sol. “I wanted to have a lot of facilities: baseball field, basketball court, tennis, soccer. And this house we can use for yoga, massages, cooking classes, a place for kids to do homework.

“I saw [in Pioneer Park] all the things I want to do for a community in this place. And that’s why I want to do it here.”

That Puig is a baseball star gives his outreach an even deeper meaning to the City of San Fernando. Many residents here love the game, and many of them love their Doyers.

But Puig, while acknowledging the Latino love for baseball, wants kids to play whatever sports they want after school. He just wants them to have a nice place to play.

“You can come here and play baseball, play basketball, play any sport. You don’t have to do the wrong things in the street,” he said. “I try to tell kids to stay off the street and come to my facility, the San Fernando facility to help their family.” 

Puig’s defection from Cuba and journey to this country has been well chronicled. He was toiling in Fidel Castro’s state-run sports program, playing for the Cuban national team and earning about $17 per month, and tried several times to flee his home city of Cienfuegos, located on the Cuban southern shore, but was stopped. He finally managed to successfully escape in 2012, first reaching the province of Matanzas by car, then smuggled out of the county by boat — a journey that would take 350 miles into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico instead of a straight 90-mile route to Miami.

As later detailed in court documents, Puig’s escape had been, for all intents and purposes, paid for by Raul Pacheco, a businessman and recycler in Miami who was also on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID. Pacheco had allegedly agreed to pay the smugglers $250,000 to get Puig out of Cuba; Puig, after signing a contract, would then owe 20 percent of his future earnings to Pacheco.

It took time but eventually the matter was settled, and the Dodgers would sign Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract — a deal that got done before Major League Baseball would place a $2.9 million cap on the bonuses paid to young, inexperienced international players.

He came up to the Dodgers in June of 2013. It has taken some time for “The Wild Horse,” as he is known, to harness all his physical talents and become a consistent major leaguer. But Puig hit 28 home runs last year, as the Dodgers went to the World Series for the first time since 1988. He is a huge fan favorite at Dodger Stadium and is still only 27 years old, approaching his prime playing years.

He admitted that it still boggles his mind that he is in a position to provide this kind of gift.

“For everything I went through in Cuba, this is why I want to do this — give back to the community. I had this dream the first time I got to the United States. I wouldn’t have this [kind of] opportunity in Cuba,” Puig said.

“This is coming from my heart…when I was a little kid I asked God to give me the opportunity to have a glove, bat and cleats to play baseball. But nobody was coming to give me these things. That made me work hard. I asked a friend to give me his glove to practice with. So I want to give [the kind of] opportunity my friend gave me in Cuba.”