CINCINNATI — Javy Baez still gets people who tell him he should tone down his flair or flash or whatever somebody wants to call his playing style.
He also has a street in Chicago named after him, large sections of fans — even in Cincinnati this week — who chant his name when he steps to the plate and kids in ballparks around the league who line up for his autograph.
He also has no intention of changing who he is on the baseball field for the sake of some antiquated definition of respect for the game.
“I’m not going to change because somebody doesn’t like it,” said Baez, whose knack for the spectacular and no-look tags played a big role in the Cubs’ 2016 postseason run and could be big down the stretch again this year. “There’s a lot of people that take it the wrong way.”
People such as Steve Blass. Blass, the 75-year-old former big-league pitcher now broadcasting games for the Pirates, took a shot at Baez a few days ago, singling him out when the subject of the Cubs came up, calling him “a difficult player for me to root for.”
Because of his “flashiness?”
Blass: “That’s a nice way to put it … flashiness.”
Baez smiled when asked about it because he has heard it so many times before from so-called old-school types, and he was not surprised that a 75-year-old white guy in Pittsburgh has a problem with his style.
“Not really,” he said. “People have different views. Not everybody has to like you. But it’s the way that I am. You can take it the right way, or you can take it the wrong way. I don’t really pay attention to negative stuff like that.”
It’s one of the most common personal criticisms that persist in a major-league culture that tends to lag behind much of the rest of society: older, often white, players and media bemoaning the displays of passion or “flashiness” of younger, often Latin, players.
Baez, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida, said he doesn’t think it’s racism.
“It’s just the way that they played the game,” he said. “Baseball’s changed so much from the past. The game is still the same, but the way it [is played], the way it’s handled is different.
“I don’t show anybody up. There’s not one player that’s going to be the same as somebody else. We’ve all got different styles.”
What’s clear is that teammates and management want Baez to keep the passion and even the flash, no matter what critics such as Blass say.
“That’s just a dried-up, old-school opinion of one of the game’s brightest athletes,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I think we should just all enjoy watching guys like that play and leave him the hell alone.”
Case in point: Thursday’s sixth inning against the Reds. After an intentional walk, Baez lined a go-ahead, two-out single to left. Then in the bottom of the inning, he made a perfect relay throw from shallow left to throw out the potential tying run at the plate.
Then he pointed emphatically and victoriously back at left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who had made a strong throw to Baez. And then he held his pose and slowly smiled.
“Sometimes old-school guys forget what they looked like when they were young-school guys,” said manager Joe Maddon, who considers any effort to coach the fire and flash out of Baez a risky proposition for such a talented player.
He said some of the mistakes Baez makes now – with his strike zone and in the field – will fade as he gets more established the next two or three years. “And then heads up,” Maddon said.
It’s already starting to happen as Baez has had a chance the last month to play every day at shortstop in place of the injured Addison Russell, said Maddon – who compares Baez’ skill level and style to Magic Johnson in basketball.
“And [Omar] Vizquel. [Roberto] Alomar. They had a little flash about their game,” Maddon said. “The moment you start trying to subtract from a player’s joy on the field by making him into your perception of what it’s supposed to look like, you may lose a really good player.”
Said Baez: “As long you’re playing the game right and doing the right thing, it’s going to go all right. A lot of people take this game as a job. It is something serious, but at the end of the day it’s still a game.”
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