Baez, Contreras, Schwarber will infuse Cubs-style fun into All-Star festivities
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A year ago, Major League Baseball finally got rid of the terrible practice of using the All-Star Game to determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series.
That means the game is all about fun again, rather than a forced attempt to make it mean something. As if to put an exclamation point on that, the three most entertaining Cubs will be part of the festivities: second baseman Javy Baez and outfielder Kyle Schwarber as free swingers in the Home Run Derby on Monday and Baez and catcher Willson Contreras as starters in the game Tuesday.
It’ll be nice for the rest of the country to see the joy we see on a regular basis.
Baez is an improvisational genius in the field, the baseball equivalent of a guitar god.
Schwarber hits home runs that sometimes re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, and if he were to say, ‘‘Aw, shucks,’’ after each one, no one would be surprised.
Contreras tries to pick off runners at any base at any time, which is fun and terrifying at the same time. He wore the Venezuelan flag on his sleeve as a tribute to his country until MLB told him to stop. He wears his heart on his sleeve at all times, sometimes irritating opponents.
Stoic pitcher Jon Lester, the other Cub picked for the game, is fun if you like an 11-2 record and a 2.45 ERA. If you do, he’s a bounce house of merriment. (Lester won’t pitch in the game because he is scheduled to start Sunday.)
None of this means the rest of the Cubs were born without panache or humor. Nor does it mean successful teams need to have players who dispense joy like dandelions spreading seeds. When the Cardinals were the toast of the National League, they weren’t exactly a comedy troupe. Winning is fun enough.
But Baez, Schwarber and Contreras add to the Cubs’ enjoyment. Their enthusiasm rubs off on teammates at times in a long season when it’s hard to locate enthusiasm. The month of July, for instance.
Baez is a see-it-to-believe-it fielder, making diving stops, chasing down pop flies that have no business being chased down and stealing bases. Would it be over the top if he stole home in the World Series? Yes, but no more so than normal.
Earlier this season, he upset Pirates manager Clint Hurdle by flipping his bat high in the air in frustration after popping out. The old-school Hurdle said Baez was disrespecting the game. If Baez wins the Home Run Derby, he should execute a bat flip so high and majestic that it would make a horrified Hurdle switch back to binge-watching ‘‘The Howdy Doody Show.’’
Yadier Molina took umbrage when Contreras told the Sun-Times in the offseason that he eventually would be better than the Cardinals catcher. Molina mistook Contreras’ earnestness for brashness. It was simply who Contreras is. He wants to be great. He cares. And he’ll let you know it, whether that’s through a quote in the newspaper or a word to a pitcher on the mound. Apparently, caring is a sin, too.
Schwarber has bounced back from a nightmarish 2017, when he hit .211. His backers will point to his 30 homers last season as proof that too much emphasis was placed on his batting average. The Cubs sending him down to the minors last season said it all. Yet he never seemed to lose his enthusiasm.
There’s a reason people compare him to Babe Ruth, and it’s not just the tape-measure homers. There’s a yesteryear feel to him. You could drop him in the 1930s, and he’d be right at home. I’d like to think he’d order a milkshake for him and his best girl, but it’s unclear if time travel would let him forget the healthy diet that has helped him lose 20 pounds or so.
His teammates love his genuineness. They pay attention when he comes to the plate because there’s always the chance something special will happen. That’s why he’ll be swinging with purpose in the Home Run Derby and why viewers would be wise not to look away.
There’s always concern that a Derby participant will return after the All-Star break with his swing in a knotted mess. It can happen. All of Schwarber’s numbers are up from last season, and the last thing the Cubs want is regression. But you let the kid cross off something he has had on his bucket list of things to do, and you cross your fingers.
It’s less a worry for Baez. He already swings from the heels. He came out of the womb swinging from the heels. What damage could a contest do to that swing?
Let them have fun. It’s all they know how to do anyway. And we’re all better for it.
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.