The Ballad of Javier Báez

The former Chicago Cub is one of the most baffling players baseball has ever seen.

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By Finn Hartnett

It’s a typical August evening in Miami—the temperature hovers around 85 degrees. It’s hard to play baseball in weather like this. The long polyester pants get uncomfortable; the ball easily slips out of the players’ sweaty hands. Still, baseball is often played in these conditions. In fact, baseball is being played right now. 

Ednel Javier Báez, known to his New York Mets teammates and the rest of the world as Javy, stands at the plate. He wiggles his bat back and forth to ready himself for the coming pitch. Baseball players tend to keep their bat upright in their stances. Not Javy. He keeps his low, dangling slightly downward over his shoulder. There’s an air of cool around the stance. It’s as if he’s Marlon Brando, and the bat is an immaculately-maintained toothpick. 

This is the last inning for the Mets, and there are two runners on base. They are down by three runs. New York, dogfighting for the division lead, needs to win this game. They’re playing the Miami Marlins, for crying out loud. 

The pitch comes. There’s little doubt Báez will swing at it. A home run would tie the game. 

And as will become clear, Javy Báez is a man who loves to swing. 

He swings—but he doesn’t connect. He strikes out, and his arms, one grasping the large pine-tarred toothpick, fall to his side. He walks off the sickly green turf of Miami’s stadium. The Mets, after two more batters take their turn at the plate, lose the game.

It isn’t that Báez couldn’t get a hit in this instance. It’s not even that he struck out. Strikeouts have always been common in baseball, and in the modern era, they are more than ever, as hitters swing for the fences more frequently than in days of high-collared yore. 24% of at-bats in 2021 ended in a strikeout. Keep in mind that during any given baseball game, each player will get about four at-bats. No, it’s not that he struck out.

It’s that this is Javy Báez’s fifth strikeout of the game. 

***

The surname Báez is of Hispanic origin. It means “the son of Pelayo.” Pelayo, in turn, is derived from the Greek word “pelagio,” meaning mariner. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that Javier Báez and his family departed from safe shores in their early life, leaving their small home in Bayamon, Puerto Rico for Florida when Javy was only 13. Javy’s younger sister Noely was the reason for the departure. Noely was born with a condition called spina bifida, which left her spine undeveloped, and her lungs and kidneys with serious problems. Doctors had told the Baez parents she wouldn’t last a day after being born. Noely had survived that day, though, and with the use of a wheelchair, became capable of living a normal life. Still, her condition meant she needed regular medical care; the family had moved to America to have better access to hospitals.

Besides, there wasn’t much for the Báez family in Puerto Rico anymore. Their lives had changed completely following the death of Javy’s father, Ángel Luis, a few years prior. Ángel Luis had fallen in the bathroom, cracking his head on the ceramic floor. He was the one who had introduced Javy and his brothers to the sport of baseball, who had found the time to take them to the fields almost every day following long, sweaty shifts at his landscaping job. In his absence, everything had become dimmer. All the more reason to get away.

A few years later, in the spring of 2015, as Javy toiled away at shortstop for the Cubs’ triple-A affiliate in Iowa, he received word that his sister had been hospitalized. This was not, in itself, surprising news. Noely had been hospitalized a number of times over the years; she was continuously suffering from the effects of her condition. Now, though, her respiratory issues had become worse than before; Javy’s brother told him that he’d better fly home as soon as he could. But Javy never saw his sister’s symptoms improve. Noely, at the age of 21, passed away soon after Javy had touched down in the Florida airport.

Perhaps the violent swing is a defense mechanism. A swing to push the world away; a swing to say get off me. At the same time, Báez doesn’t seem like one to suppress the emotions inherent in his sport. He plays baseball with his heart on his sleeve, shouting into his glove after defensive plays, delivering violent hugs to his teammates after home runs. And if his swing, for whatever reason, does push the world away, the art on his body brings it right back in. Báez explodes with tattoos. These include portraits of family members, references to Puerto Rico and his birthplace of Bayamon, Christian crosses. There is one of Noely on his right shoulder. (His defensive work is also done with a glove embroidered with her name.) His first tattoo, though, was of the Major League Baseball logo. He and his two brothers all have one on the backs of their necks; they got it a few nights after their father passed. It’s a tribute to baseball and the man who introduced them to it. To warm, buggy evenings, where tired Ángel Luis would take his boys to desolate ballfields and throw batting practice as the sun sank behind them. 

***

Before Javy Báez was a New York Met, he was something even more laughable—a Chicago Cub. The Cubs were the organization that drafted him out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville when he was just 18 years old. They nurtured him through the minor leagues and fall ball as he played for teams with names so strange they evoked different dimensions: the Boise Hawks, the Mesa Solar Sox, los Cangrejeros de Santurce. Eventually, Báez had sufficiently proved his worth, and the Cubs called him up to the major leagues.

Javy Báez paid back the Chicago Cubs in a style that would become typical of the man. When he was called up to the major leagues in 2014 the six at-bats the baby-faced twenty-one year old took in his first game basically summed up what his career would become. They were a prophecy, one which read like Ezra Pound poetry: 

Strikeout

Groundout

Strikeout

Lineout

Strikeout

Home Run

 

That home run, of course, won the game for the Cubs that night. 

To say Báez possessed a flair for the dramatic would be an understatement. He’d hit three home runs in his first three games in the major leagues, a feat that no one had accomplished in 60 years. Two years later, Báez would win the World Series with the team from the North Side, helping to break the Cubs’ 108-year-long championship curse. There’s video footage of Javy after the final out of that series. It’s as if his entire life had led up to this moment. In the cold Cleveland night, he swings both arms in the air, and eye-black bleeds down his cheeks as he wrestles his teammates into the grass. 

That year, 2016, Báez had excelled for the Cubs, playing a full season for the first time in his career. He still struck out a hell of a lot—that went without saying—and he hadn’t developed the power streak that would lead him to his loftiest heights in his later years. Yet, he was still an incredible player. 

How? Well, a bat isn’t the only tool with which baseball’s ignorance is displayed. Most of Báez’s prowess in 2016 came on the defensive side of the field. Over the season he tried his hand at nearly every position on the diamond: third base, shortstop, second base, first base, center field, left field. Essentially, the only thing he didn’t do was pitch and play catcher. (Báez could play catcher, too, by the way. He did so often in high school. When the Cubs drafted him in 2011, their scouting director even said the Cubs might try him out behind the plate, despite his wiry build.) Báez played defense in the same head-over-heels way he batted, only the outcomes of his defensive work were all positive. He’d collapse into the dirt to stop ground balls in their tracks, sprint headlong into foul territory to make over-the-shoulder catches, and apply tags to would-be base-stealers with a violent exuberance. Playing infield can evoke a kind of melodrama, and one could tell Báez reveled in it. If a ball took a strange hop on the grass, or hit his glove so hard that it popped a few feet in the air, he seemed to enjoy the subsequent moments—the catch, the throw, the umpire’s cry of out!—all the better.

His athleticism and glovework were extraordinary, but it was Báez’s skill at tagging out runners that elevated his defense to mythical levels. Tagging is an extremely niche part of baseball. I doubt even the most diehard of diehards could name a player who was really good at applying tags before 2016, when Báez essentially invented the award for the sole purpose of winning it ad infinitum. Hector may have defended Troy from the Achaeans for nine years, but Báez has been keeping base-stealers from reaching second for even longer than that.

His tagging ability is fluid, like a river. Everything in his body charges up when he sees an opposing player sprinting towards him; such is the build-up and cathartic release in which Javy Báez applies glove to man. It might be a terrible throw; no matter; pick the ball out of coffee-colored dirt and tag. When he is covering second base, there’s no reason for anyone to be worried about opposing players trying to steal. No one knows this better than Báez himself, who once celebrated tagging someone out before he even laid the glove on him

His defensive talents meant that in 2016 Javy Báez won the Fielding Bible Award, probably the most well-respected fielding prize in baseball. He’d go on to win the award again in 2017, 2018, and 2020. 

Báez’s speed, which is a crucial part of his defensive ability, also means he can perform what are essentially works of witchcraft when running the bases. Take the National League Championship Series in 2016, when catcher Carlos Ruíz assumed he’d caught Báez stranded off of third base after a failed bunt attempt by the pitcher, and slung the ball toward him. Instead of scurrying back to safety, though, Báez took off towards Ruíz. The Dodgers’ third baseman snapped the ball back to the catcher, of course. But his throw was too high, and too late. Báez, without even really trying to, had consummated a feat synonymous with baseball legend. A feat that’s been photographed and painted to oblivion, sure, but one which happens rarely enough that there’s still a sense of magic to it: a steal of home. The first in a playoff game by a Chicago Cub since before World War I. Báez garnered a nickname from his teammates the year that the Cubs shook off their curse. It was El Mago.

The Magician.

***

Last summer was a poor one for my mental health. I had a bakery job that I enjoyed, but it was also a job that kept me up until midnight one day and woke me up five hours later for a morning shift the next. My family was often out of town, which meant I was alone at home for most of the time I wasn’t at work. My girlfriend was around, but her and I were going through a tough period, which would eventually lead to us spitting up when she left for university. I’d like to say the New York Mets gave me some rare moments of happiness; watching them on TV every evening I was free, sneaking looks at the scores on my phone when I was at work. But they didn’t. They would’ve had to be good to have done that. 

Still, I embraced rooting for the Mets over that summer. Although they rarely made me happy, it meant the few times they did became that much sweeter. It wasn’t about happiness, anyway. More sanity. The Mets were one of the few ways I could escape my anxieties and just feel some good-old-fashioned emotion. 

The New York Mets that season could be a story unto themselves. But it’s one that doesn’t really need to be told. The essence of the season seems to be instilled into the ballclub; it repeats itself every year. The Mets should have been good, but they just weren’t. They faltered, misfired, and sometimes just imploded. Where does Javy Báez fit into this? Well, about two-thirds of the way through the 2021 season, the Chicago Cubs decided to pull the plug on competing for the playoffs and retool their franchise. They traded their best players to teams in contention for cash and young prospects. The Mets were one of these teams in contention; when the Cubs began selling in late July, the Mets were leading their division by four games. It was a poor division, to be fair, but it was also one New York hadn’t won in 6 years. When the Cubs offered them Báez for nothing but an ominously-named prospect named Pete Crow-Armstrong, New York was happy to oblige.

Báez setting east invoked mixed emotions from the New York faithful. Yes, the Mets needed reinforcing if they were to push for a playoff spot. But a power-hitting shortstop with good defense didn’t seem like the solution. The Mets already had one of those in Fransciso Lindor, to whom they’d given a 10-year contract worth $341 million dollars before the season began. Also, while Cubs fans on fan forums expressed true sadness that Báez was gone, some took the moment to act as oracles, preaching warnings about the polarity that was Báez. And recently, how the bad had outweighed the good. 

In Báez’s first game in orange and blue, he hit a weak ground ball to the shortstop on the first pitch he saw. The pitch was about six inches out of the strike zone. In his second at-bat, he struck out on a high fastball. I remember thinking to myself, eating McDoubles in my room, watching on a misfiring laptop, why would anyone throw this guy a strike? In this third at-bat, he again took a hack at an inside pitch out of the zone. Only this time, the ball soared high into the air, landing a few rows back into the left-field bleachers. A go-ahead home run. I jumped out of my seat and yelled at my computer. The oracles were right. 

“There is a narrative arc to the very way he plays the game,” Cody Stavenhagen wrote about Báez for The Athletic. In the article, Stavenhagen quotes a line from Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager for most of Baez’s time in the organization. Reading Báez’s scouting reports, Maddon said, was like reading a novella. 

Madden’s words feel more accurate than Stavenhagen’s own. Báez’s play evokes less of a smooth arc than a cardiogram of someone having heart palpitations. To watch the man play baseball is one of the most dramatic, baffling experiences in American sports. Báez comes into the batter’s box with one idea in his mind: to swing as hard as he can at any pitch he has a chance at. This approach leads to some of the worst-looking plate appearances of all time. But if you’re a pitcher and make a mistake against him—hang a breaking ball over the plate, say—he will punish you. Sometimes, you don’t even need to make a mistake. On a good day, Javy can hook pitches a foot outside for home runs. 

It’s often said about Báez that if he could stop swinging at half the terrible pitches he does, he’d be one of the best players in baseball, a rival to bona fide studs like Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Mike Trout. But he can’t; he won’t. And I, for one, am glad. He wouldn’t hit home runs as frequently as he does if he changed his approach. Besides, being too good gets old. We don’t read novellas for eternally happy protagonists. 

***

Báez, in the summer of 2021, was not happy. A month after signing for the Mets—a month after they were leading their division by four games—his new team was floundering their way into finishing outside of the playoff spots for the fifth season in a row. The Atlanta Braves, who would eventually go on to win the World Series, had wrestled hold of the division lead without much resistance. Báez was playing alright, but the fans were still restless. New York City has never shied away from a good booing—I can verify this as a native speaker of the language—and the Mets’ pitiful dog day performances were exceptionally easy targets. Boo for an error. Boo for stranding a runner. And, of course, boo for a strikeout.

And so, on August 29, Baez, Francisco Lindor, and a few other Mets starters brought out a new celebration after big hits: two thumbs down. You can guess which group this was directed toward—although an interesting aspect of the story was how bluntly Báez explained the celebration in a postgame press conference. "When we don't get success, we're going to get booed," he said, bouncing his son on his lap. "So they’re going to get booed when we get success." Obviously, this statement did nothing but provoke more anger from the New York faithful. That night, the owner and general manager of the Mets both made comments stating that Báez’s comments were unacceptable from a player. The entire debacle was, for lack of a better word, very Metsy. 

Javy Báez inevitably frustrates. The night of the saga, I laid in bed reading irate tweets from Mets fans. He was acting incredibly entitled, the commenters said, and it was hard to disagree. Yes, boos from fans can surely get to the players. But sometimes you have to vent a little, and when ticket revenue and TV audiences fund so much of each player's salary, fans are entitled to respond when their team isn’t playing well. 

The Mets played their next game two days later. Down 4 to 1 in the final inning after some farcical hitting throughout the night, the home fans’ frustrations were at the fore once again. The Mets still had some hope of catching up to the Atlanta Braves in the division lead, but as it stood they were poised to fall frighteningly far back in the playoff race. They already had three more losses than wins.

But the Mets clung on desperately to their scraps of belief. (What do you expect from a team who was born out of the deaths of two older clubs, who reached historically low lows in their first five years of existence, whose unofficial motto since the seventies has been ya gotta believe?) With one out, Brandon Nimmo, perhaps the polar opposite of Báez both in hitting approach and in personality, pulled a two-run home run to right. Then, with the Mets down to their final out, Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso both reached base safely. Javy Báez had been benched that day, presumably for his oral sins. Now, though, he was substituted in and rudely deposited at the plate.

In front of the fans who he’d publicly apologized to the previous day, who continued booing him sporadically as he coolly futzed with his gloves. The Mets were down by two runs. A home run would win the game in dramatic fashion. 

You can guess what happened next. 

You probably wouldn’t be right, though. Javy Báez swung at the third pitch he saw and chopped it into the ground. It bounced towards the shortstop, who gloved it and threw to first. Javy Báez inevitably frustrates. 

And then, just as inevitably, he comes good. The hit was pulled just enough to make the play difficult for the shortstop; as the throw reached the base, El Mago was already standing there. Dom Smith had scored, and the Mets were still alive. With the Mets still a run down, their next batter, Michael Conforto, whacked a pitch to left field. That brought in the tying run. Ya gotta believe.

As Javy Báez sprinted to third, he saw the Marlins' left fielder fumbling with the ball; it popped out of his glove as he tried to pick it up cleanly. I’d guess most runners would already be sliding into the base at this moment. But, as has been established, Báez runs the bases like he is reciting incantations with each footstep. (We haven’t even discussed the baserunning play in May 2021 when he essentially caused the Pittsburgh Pirates to forget the rules of a 130-year-old sport.) As soon as Báez saw the ball get away, he put his head down and spinted for home. 

In the footage of the play, as soon as the umpire signals safe, Báez is mobbed at home plate. Around the Mets’ stadium, about half of the fans remain. Many have opted for a faster trip home rather than bothering to watch a final inning in which their team is down by three runs. Still, the noise is deafening. They embrace each other and throw plastic beer cups in the air. They don’t applaud Báez much, nor do they chant his name. They just look at El Mago, and stick their thumbs toward the sky.

***

This ballad is one that plies its trade in different ages. It does not sing about the present. It can, however, sing of the future. 

Javier Báez is no longer a New York Met. Last November, he agreed to a deal with the Detroit Tigers, one worth a staggering $140 million over six years. Javy doesn’t have to play in Detroit for all of those six years; the contract he signed contains the ability for him to opt out after the second. But why the hell would he? He and his children and his children’s children are rich. He is a franchise shortstop now. The contract will expire when he is 35; most players are retired by then. 

Báez, in the end, did extremely well in New York. A stat called OPS+ reports that Baez was 41% better than the average hitter during his 47 games with the Mets. If he had kept that up all season, he’d be in exceptional company. Still, the consensus on the Mets forums I browse during boring afternoons are that the Mets were smart not to be the ones to sign Javy Báez to a long-term deal. “His skillset won’t age well,” is a common remark. “He’s only going to strike out more,” is another. The Tigers may have been better off splashing their cash elsewhere.

It’s probably true that Báez won’t age well. The speed of that beautiful, violent swing will decline as he ages; what were once home runs will become flyouts. Any drop in his foot speed will make him a significantly worse fielder and baserunner. In addition, veteran hitters are generally good at taking their walks. But it's hard to see Javy suddenly growing any more patient at the plate. Just last year, he struck out 6.7 times for every time he walked, the worst rate in the major leagues. 

The future might appear depressing for Javier Báez. But isn’t that true for all of us? Regardless, what we experience in our brief lives is not the future but the present, and the present for Báez is bright, unshakably so. The Detroit Tigers are a team building towards playoff contention, and Báez may be the star who drags them over the line. He is a man who shocks and amazes, whose style of play infringes on the highest highs and the lowest lows of the sport. Detroit, city of music and motor oil, will welcome his vigor. Know this: they will tell stories of the day Javier Báez steps into the Comerica Park batter's box for the first time. They will tell of the cloudy Detroit sky, the skyscrapers that lumber into view past the outfield bleachers. The stadium announcer who reads his name. The first pitch he sees, which will be far, far outside the strike zone. And they will tell—sing, maybe—of Javier Báez himself, of how he lifted his bat off his tattooed shoulder and swung for all his might.