How close the Cubs came to losing Javy Baez and why he plays the game the way he does
“I didn’t want to play anymore,” said the Cubs’ shortstop — who four years later is making his second consecutive All-Star start.
“I walked in the hospital, and all my family was in the hallway, like it was a movie,” he said. “And I knew it.”
He went to her room. He cried with his brothers and mother, his cousins and aunts.
And then everything stopped. Everything shut down.
“I didn’t want to play anymore,” the Cubs shortstop said.
MANY who have followed Baez’s career with the Cubs know the story of his sister Noely and her lifelong fight after being born with severe spina bifida.
What many may not know is how close the Cubs came to losing Baez when his close-knit family lost the center of its orbit that day in April 2015 – and how much the next month defined why he plays the way he does now.
“My family always comes first,” he said. “We grew up without a father, without money, without everything. And at that moment, I had everything to live a good life in Puerto Rico.”
Baez wasn’t a rock-star baseball player drawing “Ja-vy, Ja-vy” chants at ballparks coast-to-coast back then. He wasn’t even really a Cub, much less their All-Star shortstop.
He was the rawest of raw prospects for Class AAA Iowa – a former first-round draft pick with whatever was left from a $2.6 million signing bonus – and was just trying to make it back to the big leagues after a high-powered, high-strikeout debut in 2014.
It was barely a week after the Cubs surprised him by sending him back to the minors out of spring training. It was literally the eve of the AAA season.
And Javy Baez was done.
“I didn’t have purpose to play anymore,” he said.
WATCH him play now, with the flash of his glove, the flair on the bases and the sheer power – and joy – of his game, and it’s almost impossible to imagine Baez doing anything else.
“He’s one of my favorite players in all of baseball,” superstar Bryce Harper said during last year’s All-Star festivities.
But it took nearly a month for Baez to regain his footing on the path that led him to a starring role in the 2016 postseason run, last year’s breakout, near-MVP season and, in a few days, his second consecutive starting All-Star assignment.
A generation ago, he would have been out of the organization for taking so much time.
“I thought it was going to take longer,” he said of the personal leave the Cubs allowed him to extend as long as he needed while he grieved that spring.
“It’s something I can never explain, how she was, how happy she was,” Baez said of Noely. “She was something incredible. But after she passed away, my family – it didn’t go apart. But we didn’t have that thing to come back together.
“I was kind of lost in my family because nobody knew how to react without my sister. … It hurt everybody so much that nobody wanted to talk about it, and I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ because it hurt me, too. I didn’t know how to react.”
Until then, she and their mother, and often one or both of his brothers, went everywhere he did.
She was a regular behind the on-deck circle whenever he played high school games in Jacksonville and often when the team traveled outside the area.
When he signed his first contract, he bought the family a wheelchair-accessible van for road trips, and they followed him in the minors. And when he hit that game-winning home run in the 12th inning of his debut at Coors Field, she was there.
“He was just extremely close to her,” said Tom Clark, the Cubs’ area scout who first tracked Baez and who became increasingly sold on the wild-swinging kid with the “off-the-charts” instincts the more he understood his makeup.
Clark said he saw Baez take care of Noely and the family before his high school games. “He would always chat with her before the game started,” he said. “And he’d make sure he greeted her properly before things got rolling.”
A related neurological condition required tubes in her body that made it difficult for Noely to speak, but fans heard her distinctive scream of a cheer whenever Javy was introduced or did something in the game. And he constantly acknowledged her when he batted or came off the field, Clark recalled.
“It was quite magical to watch the two of them,” he said. “It was really special.”
BAEZ doesn’t describe that time in 2015 as wanting to “quit.” It was less about walking away from the game than not knowing how to go back to it.
Besides family, baseball was all he knew in his life. In fact, baseball was family. His father, Angel Luis Baez, was a pitcher in the Puerto Rican leagues who taught him and his brothers to play. His grandfather, We Baez, was one of the island’s most prominent pitchers a generation earlier.
“It’s what I grew up doing, and it’s what I know how to do,” he said. “I couldn’t stop.”
He just couldn’t restart.
Part of what led him back, he said, was remembering his mother’s sacrifices after his father died when he was only 11, finding a way to move the family to North Carolina and then to Florida, and finding a way to get him to games “when she didn’t have the money or a car to take me.”
But without his sister? His purpose?
Talking about his sister over the years, Baez said many times: “She is in our lives for a reason.”
Now that she was gone, it stared him in the face. What was that reason?
“I learned everything from my sister, the way that nothing’s impossible,” he said. “These little things that you don’t have in life that you think really matter; they really don’t.”
Noely endured more surgeries as an infant than Baez can remember. She had close calls and return trips to the hospital over the years, and went through periods of suffering, but never complained, he said.
“And she lived 21 years of her life when she was supposed to live two hours,” he said. “So who’s going to tell me that something that you don’t have you can’t get it, or you can’t dream about it.”
His dream was still there if he wanted it. Their dream.
“My sister would want me to keep playing, obviously,” he said. “I decided to get better at it, and to have fun.”
Until then, the fun was attached to trying to advance as quickly as possible, attached too much to the business side of the game.
“I decided not to look at the game like a lot of people do as a business,” he said. “It is, but it’s a sport before it’s a business.
“I think having fun out there is one of the biggest things I can do.”
WHEN Joe Maddon was hired to manage the Cubs in the fall of 2014, one of his first assignments was to travel to Puerto Rico to watch the kid with all that promise, all that talent and all those strikeouts.
He watched the base running that showed the baseball intelligence. He watched the swing that showed how much work was still to be done. And he listened at length to winter league manager Eduardo Perez rave about what might yet be discovered in Baez.
“Wherever he’s at, it’s probably the most exciting place on the field.”
“He was kind of like a colt, just a mustang,” Maddon said. “He was just wild a little bit. But he had all this wonderful ability. During [spring training], I definitely realized that he had to make some adjustments, just mental adjustments.
“But, God, did I like him on the field,” Maddon said. “I distinctly remember that spring training in a meeting when I was trying to decide how to do this with him, and I said, ‘I just know one thing: We’re a better team when he’s on the field.’”
Until then, Baez had been the subject of trade talks. He still was the subject of much internal debate – including when it came time to decide whether to keep him on the big-league roster despite struggles at the plate that spring.
He has since grown into the Cubs’ best player.
Former teammate Jake Arrieta called him the best athlete on the team the four years they were together. “He’s got the best hands I’ve seen, and it’s not even close,” Arrieta said.
And ace Jon Lester has called him “probably my favorite player to watch.”
“He can change the game at any time,” rival shortstop Brandon Crawford of the Giants said at the All-Star game last year.
Baez was a major part of keeping the Cubs’ first half intact last season when Anthony Rizzo struggled early and Kris Bryant got hurt. And he has continued to improve after his runner-up finish to Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich in last year’s MVP race.
Said Yelich: “Wherever he’s at, it’s probably the most exciting place on the field.”
After listening to Maddon say in recent years that Baez will turn into Manny Ramirez once he lays off the slider out of the zone, consider this stat this year:
Through 85 games, Baez is 24-for-79 (.304) after he falls behind 0-2 in the count, with nine homers and a 1.068 OPS.
That’s better than when he gets ahead 2-0: He’s 8-for-32 (.250) with three homers and a 1.022 OPS.
Javy being Javy.
HARPER loves Baez’s “swag.”
Fans chant his name at ballparks from San Diego to Washington and every NL Central ballpark in between.
Young kids in particular can’t get enough of the flashy shortstop with the big smile and dynamic play – Clark’s 4-year-old granddaughter a few years ago bringing up “Hah-bee” whenever they talked about baseball. Some kids shake and cry when they meet him.
But whether it’s Francisco Lindor, Harper, Tim Anderson, Baez – or any of the other vibrant, showy players putting a young, new face on the game’s culture, the critics never seem far behind.
“I’m as old school as they get, and there are things that occur on the field that I don’t like, but I don’t see how anybody can watch him and not be a fan of what he does.”
“Anybody but Javier Baez,” Pirates broadcaster and former player Steve Blass, then 75, said during a broadcast two years ago. “He’s a difficult player to root for.”
Because of the flashiness? “That’s a nice way to put it,” he told his broadcast partner.
Baez said he’s heard of similar criticism from older players on other teams.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called out Baez after a game last year when Baez flipped a bat in anger at himself on a popup.
“Where’s the respect for the game?” Hurdle said in the postgame media briefing.
Nobody who knows Baez would suggest he doesn’t respect the game.
“He does things with flair. But he always plays hard,” Clark said. “I’m as old school as they get, and there are things that occur on the field that I don’t like, but I don’t see how anybody can watch him and not be a fan of what he does.”
Baez is used to it.
“Even people that know what I’ve been through, they don’t like my game or they say they don’t have to because they grew up differently,” he said. “And I don’t pay attention to that. I respect their comments. As long as they don’t go personal on my family and my style of playing we should be good.”
And he’s not going to change, he said.
But a game fighting for the attention of young fans might have to. And Baez said he’s proud to be considered one of the players who might help bring that change.
“I think every player that is out there is making a little change to the game,” he said. “Sometimes you see players so into the game that they don’t know how fun it is, or they don’t know when to relax, when to be focused in the game.
“Every pitch, I’m focused. In between pitches, I’m looking around, looking at what’s going on, looking at the dugout or in the stands or in the other dugout. … Obviously, you’ve got to get back in the game,” he added. “But you’ve got to time to relax, to know what to do if the ball is coming to you, what you’re going to do, where the ball’s going.”
And time to smell the roses. Maybe even to have fun playing the game.
With his father and the family’s love for baseball in mind, Baez and his brothers, along with some cousins, got the MLB logo tattooed on the backs of their necks when he was a junior in high school.
He has a tattoo on one forearm of his mother’s name. The image of his sister is on one shoulder, the image of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series trophy on the other.
Some just see ink.
That might include a few scouts who looked the MLB tattoo before the draft and, in Clark’s estimation, made the wrong read on the kid.
“I think there are two kinds of guys that would get that tattoo,” Clark said. “Guys that are genuinely kind of badass and guys that are false bravado. For me it was genuine.”
HENEVER someone asks Joe Maddon to describe what sets Baez apart from other talented players, the word “fearless” is never far behind.
But that’s not completely true.
“I’m afraid of the night,” Baez said. “I don’t like the night.”
It was a late summer in 2004, and it was after dark, just outside his house near Bayamon, Puerto Rico, when 11-year-old Javy sat on his bike, playing with a new iPod a friend let him use.
That’s when a car suddenly rolled to a stop near him, and a man jumped out.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
A frightened Baez jumped off his bike to surrender it, and it fell against the car, scratching the paint.
And then the boy saw the gun.
“He put it on my chest,” Baez said. “He said, ‘Don’t be a clown, give me what you’ve got.’ So I froze. I didn’t move. He took everything from me.”
Baez still carries that part of 11-year-old Javy with him today.
“After that I didn’t want to go out at night,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything at night. I’m not saying I struggle with that, but if I go out at night for dinner or something, I pay attention to everybody who’s close to me.”
THAT was the first time life came at Baez faster than he was ready to handle, than anyone could be expected to handle.
The trauma of the gun in his chest still fresh in his psyche, Baez lost his father only weeks later, when Angel Baez fell in the shower and hit his head. A grandmother died within days of that.
Soon after, his mother moved the family to the United States, where Noely could receive better care and Javy could play baseball at a higher level. And safely.
The closeness of his family became even more important.
When Javy thinks of his sister now, he remembers the quality of life he and his brothers tried to give her.
“The only thing she didn’t do was walk,” said Baez, who conspired to help her ride jet skis and motorcycles when their mother wasn’t watching.
“She wasn’t scared,” he said. “It was what she wanted to do. We treated her like a normal person. We made her stronger.”
That worked both ways.
“That’s what I learned and why I am the way I am,” he said. “Because you don’t know when or where you’re going to be tomorrow.”
He has his own family now. He married Irmarie Marquez, a childhood friend, after they had become reacquainted during one of his trips back to Puerto Rico a few years ago. They have a son who just celebrated his first birthday.
“It gives me another purpose to play,” Baez said. “It gives me another purpose to keep learning in life and a great purpose to come home every day to know that someone is learning from what I’m doing.”
These days his family is so big, including his wife’s extended family, that he said he actually counts his guests at Christmas at his ranch in Puerto Rico in the hundreds.
The ones who aren’t there are never far away, either, he said.
“I’m always with them in my mind,” said Baez, who sees his sister and his father whenever he points to the sky after a home run.
But their story is not about sadness and loss as much as it is about how to live, he said.
Maybe even how he plays.
The life his sister lived was full, he said, with lots of laughter.
“I think life, once it goes, it doesn’t go back. You don’t get it back,” he said.
“You’ve got to enjoy life.”