2:13 AM EDT, July 10, 2013
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.
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!"
From there, they are together the rest of the morning and early afternoon, running errands and doing the mounds of paperwork that come with being a new resident in a strange land.
They drive together to the game in Puig's Rolls-Royce — yeah, with his $42-million contract, he just had to have one. Though viewers won't see Bravo during the games, he will be hanging out in a dugout hallway in case Manager Don Mattingly needs him to translate or help Puig understand a baseball nuance.
After the game, the teacher and pupil drive back to the apartment where, as his Twitter followers know, Puig often doesn't fall asleep till after 2 a.m.
The only time that Bravo has to himself is between 6:30 and 9 a.m., when he exercises and walks down the street to the Food 4 Less to buy that day's groceries.
"When they asked me to be with Puig, I said I'd give it a shot, but I didn't know I was going to be this immersed," Bravo said.
Bravo, a Los Angeles native who attended Monte Vista High in Whittier, had been with the Dodgers for six years as their part-time director of cultural assimilation. He was hired by former college teammate Logan White, the Dodgers scouting director, who met him at Western New Mexico University.
"I'm just a normal dude with a regular job who was doing some work for the Dodgers on the side," he said. "But then the minute Puig was signed, they asked me to drop everything."
And so he has done exactly that, for minimal pay and little fame, unless you count the time some of his family members saw a glimpse of head in that dugout hallway during a televised game.
When Puig was swarmed by fans while attempting to eat at a Chipotle restaurant in San Francisco, Bravo was there to escort him away. When anyone wants to contact Puig for any reason, Bravo writes down their name and number in a tiny red notebook.
Wherever Puig has gone, Bravo has gone, the two men embarking on a journey with nobody quite knowing where it will end, or how.
"And here I thought, I was just supposed to be his English teacher," Bravo said.
Yeah, well, and the Dodgers thought Puig was just supposed to be an outfielder.
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