For Cubs super-utility man Javy Baez, the National League Division Series was a coming-out party — a chance for the baseball world to see what Chicago already knows about the kid with the broad smile and the super-quick swipe tag.
On Friday, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White rewarded Baez with the Sportsman of the Year Award license plate he issues as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
White got a chance to cash in on Cubs-mania and remind reporters that he played professional baseball in the Cubs organization in a career delayed by the 1957 draft and the two years White spent in the U.S. Army.
Baez had a chance to talk about the talent, enthusiasm and fearlessness that makes his game so special.
“I just go out there and have fun and enjoy the game. I’m young. I like to have fun out there. I play like a little kid. It’s been making me play better and helping my team,” said Baez, 23, who got the go-ahead single during the ninth-inning rally that buried the San Francisco Giants.
Baez said he takes to heart Cubs manager Joe Madden’s infamous tee-shirt slogans.
“’Try not to suck.’ I love that word,” Baez said. “It makes me go out there and, if I make a mistake, I obviously didn’t mean to do it. But, I’m not afraid to fail. I’ve failed so many times, I know how to pick up myself.”
One of the only mistakes Baez made while batting .375 during the NLDS was his decision to admire a home run hit into the wind at Wrigley instead of running hard out of the box and “respecting 90,” as Maddon likes to put it.
On Friday, he played some pretty nifty defense when asked about that.
“It was obviously a big hit the first game,” he said. “Really exciting moment for me and the team and the fans. Obviously didn’t mean to show anybody up. I was just living the moment. Whatever happened in the past, we deal with it.
“If I do it again, I’m not trying to show anybody up. Maybe I get off my game a little bit. But, everybody on my team and on the other 29 teams know how I play the game and how hard I work.”
Joining Baez in White’s office at the Thompson Center were Baez’s mother, Nelida, his brother, Gadiel, and girlfriend, Imarie Marquez.
Once again, Baez talked about those beloved family members who weren’t there and the inspiration he draws from those personal tragedies.
His father Angel Luis was a landscaper who died from a head injury suffered during a fall when Baez was just 11 years old. His sister and best friend, Noely, died last year of spina bifida. She was eleven months younger than Baez.
“It’s something that — you’ve just got to live the moment. I dreamed to be here all my life. Now, I’m living the dream with my family having fun. But, it’s not over. Hopefully, we can bring that ‘W’ to Chicago,” he said. “One of my biggest dreams was letting my sister see me play baseball in the highest level. She finally did. So, I’m happy. She knows I always do this for her and my dad.”
After surviving those personal tragedies, Baez said he could care less about the infamous Billy Goat curse that superstitious Cubs fans blame for the longest drought in the history of professional sports.
“For me, it doesn’t mean anything,” Baez said. “Things that people talk out of the field is something that we can’t control. We’ve just got to keep it out of our minds.”
Baez was asked whether he feels the weight of the 108-year wait between World Series championships on the North Side — or whether that burden is simply for the fans to carry.
“It is for both [fans and players]. But, it’s something that we can’t pay attention to. We just got to play our game and, if we make it, we did and, if not, we come next year again.”
White gave Baez a framed “Javy 23” license plate and warned him not to put it on his car. Then, he made the Cubs superstar blush.
“If you’ve seen his play, you’ve seen his stick,” White said. “I’m talking about his bat.”