BILL PLASCHKE

Someone to watch over Yasiel Puig

The most important member of the Dodgers' lineup? It's Tim Bravo, who watches over hard-living rookie phenom Yasiel Puig day and night.

The most important member of the Dodgers' lineup doesn't wear a uniform, doesn't have a contract, and is not even allowed in the dugout during games.

The most important member of the Dodgers' lineup doesn't pitch, or catch, or even remotely attempt to hit.

Tim Bravo watches. This is important, because he is watching Yasiel Puig.

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The 51-year-old schoolteacher watches the 22-year-old phenom from his morning steak-and-eggs breakfast to his midnight walks with his two English bulldogs.

Bravo lives with Puig, drives with him, hangs out with him in the clubhouse before games, then watches him play from darkened tunnels next to the dugout.

Bravo is there to make sure Puig doesn't drive too fast, or party too hard, or forget how to use his ATM card to withdraw some of his new major league millions. He is there to protect Puig from nutty autograph seekers, aggressive groupies and anyone else wanting to take advantage of an unsettled Cuban refugee who lives as hard as he swings.

Bravo originally signed up to be his English tutor, but he has become his life tutor, this compact man with a shiny bald head and dark goatee becoming so vital to Puig's comfort and safety that the outfielder refers to him not by his name, but his job.

"Teacher!" he shouts to Bravo in English when he needs him. "Teacher!"

Bravo is the keeper of the flame, the curator of the masterpiece, the guy in charge of harnessing the most exciting — and combustible — player in baseball.

And right now, he might be the only person in Los Angeles who isn't doing cartwheels over Puig's potential appearance in next week's All-Star game.

"The All-Star game is on my wedding anniversary," Bravo said with a sigh Tuesday at Chase Field before the Dodgers' 6-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks."But if Puig goes, I go."

By taking on Puig's life, Bravo has given up much of his own. He is a special education teacher at Las Cruces (N.M.) High. He has six children and six grandchildren. His 7-year-old son, Zechariah, is recovering from a rare form of cancer that was discovered under an eyelid.

Bravo will leave the Dodgers for a week after the All-Star break to accompany Zechariah on a Make-a-Wish trip to Disney World. It will be his longest absence from the team since he joined Puig at double-A Chattanooga this season.

The Dodgers will be holding their breaths. When it comes to anything involving the mercurial Puig, they hold their breaths, but Bravo is the one part of the kid's game that cannot disappear.

"Every day I thank Yasiel for taking me on this great ride, but I'm a daddy first," Bravo said.

How important is Bravo's success as a father figure so far? When he is gone next week, the Dodgers will replace him with the first guy who tried to do the job. The interim caretaker will be Eddie Oropesa, a former big league pitcher who was chronicled in this column during spring training. Oropesa, however, barely lasted a month with Puig, as he became frustrated with the stubborn and hard-living kid before taking a break to tend to personal business.

"It's been obviously a fast rise. Yasiel comes from a different place, a different culture, a totally different environment. There's adapting that needs to take place in a lot of different areas, including off the field," acknowledged Ned Colletti, Dodgers general manager. "We think we've got a good support group around him. Bravo is a teacher, and that's what he does, he teaches."

The schooling is endless, particularly during home games. Bravo sleeps in one of the three bedrooms in Puig's downtown apartment, and his day starts when Puig knocks on his door at midmorning.

"Teacher!" he yells. "Breakfast!"

 

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