SAN DIEGO – Seven years ago on a Saturday morning in Tennessee, the assistant general manager of the San Diego Padres saw something more puzzling than anything he’d seen in a decade of scouting high school players.
Against vastly inferior competition, a kid from Florida with elite bat speed and power hit “freaking missiles all over the yard” during a doubleheader but also struck out multiple times — with a right-handed swing so wild at times the exec captured a picture of the kid on one knee with his head turned far to his left and the ball in the dirt in the opposite batter’s box.
After the game, during a workout for scouts, the kid was asked if he could hit left-handed.
“Yeah, sure,” he said after a pause – before launching pitch after pitch over the fence.
The assistant GM quickly called Padres GM Jed Hoyer.
“Hey, Jed, I just saw Javier Baez,” Jason McLeod told his boss. “I have no idea what I’ve got. This guy could be the next Manny Ramirez or he may never get out of Double-A.”
Fast-forward to Friday night at Petco Park in San Diego, 2,000 miles away from Wrigley Field, as fans chanted “Ja-vy! Ja-vy! Ja-vy!” every time he batted – like fans in San Francisco had earlier in the week, and fans in 10 other road cities have all season.
Kids scream for his autograph as soon as he emerges from the dugout for batting practice from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Baez No. 9 replica jerseys seem to be showing up in greater numbers wherever the Cubs play – including a family of three in Cub No. 9s last month in St. Louis, two stadium levels away from the player-family seating.
Already ranked ninth in the majors among all players in jersey sales last year, Baez might be passing teammates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (top three in sales in 2017) in national popularity this year – almost certainly among younger fans.
“Yeah, he’s one of my [teenage] son’s favorite players,” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who will manage Baez as a first-time All-Star on Tuesday in Washington. “Just because of the way he plays defense, the energy he plays with, the sunglasses and the swagger that he exudes.
“Kids love that. … I love watching him play.”
It’s obvious why.
“Because I’m me,” Baez, 25, says without a hint of cockiness. “I’m me out there.”
Just starting to scratch the surface of his big-league hitting talent, Baez already has the flair on the infield, the flash on the bases and the flip in his bat that occasionally has rankled the old-school likes of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
But he is fast becoming the face for a generation of fans, with an unbridled style that has helped inject action into a sport that has suffered from increasing periods of inaction and long, stagnant games.
“He draws them in,” manager Joe Maddon says. “He’s a perfect example of what major league baseball needs to highlight.”
Baez may not completely understand the fascination fans might have when recognizing him away from the field. “It’s like sometimes they have to get a video from me saying `hi.’ Like they don’t believe it’s me,” he says. “I don’t know.”
The El Mago nickname. The MLB logo he had tattooed on the back of his neck as a junior in high school. The four career steals of home, including two already this year. The no-look tags at second. The swim slides around others’ tags on the bases. The infield single he turned into the winning run in Friday’s 10th inning by stealing second and taking the next two bases on subsequent errors – including a bobble by the center fielder trying to rush the play knowing who was running.
“His baseball instincts are taking over the whole game and people are noticing it more than ever,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said.
What’s certain is that McLeod – now in his seventh season as a Cubs’ scouting executive – has a much better idea what he’s seeing. And why he wants to keep watching.
“He’s going to do something you probably haven’t seen before,” McLeod says. “There are great players of course, but he’s on that level where he’s just so freakishly talented and does things on the field that make you want to wait and see what he’s going to do.”
Manny Ramirez? That’s a comp Maddon has been using all year – as in, once he stops chasing sliders away he’ll become Ramirez.
Maddon also has compared him to Willie Mays on the bases. And Roberto Alomar in the field.
And Frank Sinatra for the swagger.
And the Beatles.
“Who?” Baez says.
“Maybe if I see them. I’m terrible at names,” he says.
That’s who Maddon compared you to this time.
“That means I’m doing something good.”
But you don’t know who they are.
Those who know Baez best say that a humble, hard-working player with a beautiful baseball mind lives beneath all the flash and swagger.
“I love him. He’s my brother,” says Cleveland All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, who has known Baez since they were kids in Puerto Rico and later high school opponents in Florida. “I believe in what he can do. He can be an MVP one day.
“He’s a great player, and he’s an even better person.”
A deep respect for the game gets missed in the too-common, old-school rush to judgment by some, such as Hurdle.
“It’s easy to see,” Roberts says. “This guy understands the game, loves the game and plays with a certain energy. I love that energy.”
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his pure baseball intelligence,” Cubs president Theo Epstein says. “He sees the game so well. His innate sense of timing and anticipation is really unrivaled.”
If McLeod, Epstein and Hoyer – now the Cubs’ GM – know what they have in Baez these days, the newly ordained All-Star knows what his bosses can count on in days to come.
“I’m not going to change,” Baez says. “On the field, I try to do my best, I try to play hard, I try to make every play I can.
“People are still going to talk,” he says. “Some people are going to like me; some people are not going to like me. You can’t control that. And I’m not going to change the way I am, the way I play the game.”
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