For Cubs’ Javy Baez, the price of fame almost cost his love of the game

“It kind of pulled me away from everything, even from my family. My family and my friends,” Baez told the Sun-Times.

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Cubs infielder Javy Baez’s fame almost killed his love for the game of baseball.

Cubs infielder Javy Baez’s fame almost killed his love for the game of baseball.

John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Javy Baez is a household name, and he’s probably your favorite player’s favorite player.

The swipe tags, elusive slides, mammoth home runs and spectacular defense over the last five years have made him a fan favorite of kids, adults and everyone in between. It’s no shock that Baez is such a draw to kids because he plays the game like one. His childlike enthusiasm and energy are infectious.

“I love it,” Baez said. “I get really excited to see the way other players and other kids look at the way I play the game and the way I enjoy the game. I always say, it’s a game. It’s a game before anything. . . . I think you gotta enjoy the game and let your game talk.”

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His jersey has been in the top 10 of MLB’s top-selling jerseys each of the last four seasons, and after the Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, his popularity has grown exponentially.

Not only did that popularity put him on the map, it shot him into superstardom. The Puerto Rico native became a global icon.

But what’s the cost of being everyone’s favorite? For Baez, it was tedious as the mental toll of being everything to everybody slowly made him push back from the game he loved.

After the 2016 World Series, things didn’t slow down for Baez, not in the slightest. After doing ESPN’s Body Issue in 2017, the opportunities kept coming. The young shortstop was everywhere, from the cover of magazines and video games to red-carpet events and being seen with some of music’s biggest stars, such as friend and countrymen, Daddy Yankee.

Baez’s play on the field, though, never suffered. In fact, he was beginning to come into his own, finishing as runner-up in National League MVP Award voting in 2018 and being named an NL All-Star starter in ’18 and ’19.

What did suffer was that childlike enthusiasm. Yes, he was producing, putting up monster numbers and becoming one of the faces of baseball. But in some ways, he was going through the motions. As different opportunities came up, a little bit of the love he had for the game went with it and even took him away from the people he cared about.

“I wouldn’t say there was pressure, but it was the way I got attention for other stuff than baseball,” Baez told the Sun-Times. “It kind of pulled me away from everything, even from my family. My family and my friends.

“I was grateful to be recognized by all these people, but people weren’t looking at me the way I wanted them to. At the end of the day, I’m a baseball player. That’s what I want to be recognized as.”

For a player who was so often the happiest player on the diamond, the Cubs shortstop wasn’t happy, and finding that joy again required him to take a step back from the bright lights and decide who he wanted to be.

Everyone wants to be a star and every kid who grows up with the hopes of being an MLB player wants everything that comes with success, but Baez had to learn how to handle that fame, even if it meant pulling away from some of it.

“You gotta understand it,” Baez said. “You understand it. We were all kids once. I saw many rappers, boxers [from Puerto Rico] who went through it. I got excited about it. But it’s a privilege to be as close to people as we are. A lot of people didn’t have that in the past.”

With a better understanding of how to handle the outside noise, Baez’s next step was falling in love with the game again, and before the shortened regular season in 2020, he felt he did that, despite his struggles.

But going into the final season before impending free agency, Baez feels comfortable with who he is and is ready to get back to being the player millions of people fell in love with when he burst onto the scene.

“I think you need to struggle sometimes,” Baez said. “Obviously, not a lot, but you need to fail to get better. You got to make adjustments. As soon as I get in the shower after the game, I turn the page and come back the next day ready to learn something and be better.

“I do feel more focused this spring. I’m not taking much from last year because this is a different year, a different situation.”

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