‘Mago’ mania: At All-Star Game, everybody’s talking about Cubs’ Javy Baez
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WASHINGTON — What was he going to do, lose his cool? Lose his confidence? Check his swagger at the door?
That wouldn’t have been Javy Baez. And so when Baez heard rumor after rumor that the Cubs were looking to trade him, he shrugged his shoulders and kept playing.
This was during the latter stages of the Cubs’ rebuild under team president Theo Epstein and his team of whizzes. Baez — like fellow 2018 All-Star Willson Contreras — had been a Jim Hendry draft pick, taken ninth overall in 2011. At some point, perhaps when he failed to make the big-league squad out of spring training in 2015, he figured he was a goner.
“I did at one [time],” the 25-year-old infielder said. “It’s like, ‘OK, the rumor is out there and everybody is talking about it.’ And at the same time, I was like, ‘I’m here right now, and I can’t control if I get traded.’
“But everything happens for a reason. I don’t think any team will trade a player if it’s not to help, if it’s not to make a team better. That’s the way I look at it. We don’t control that. If you play with it [on your mind], then you will struggle more than you already do.”
A trade of Baez now would turn Chicago upside-down. His “it” factor was off the charts from the moment he set foot in Nationals Park. There was more talk about the Orioles’ Manny Machado, the hottest trade prospect of the season. There was the expected fawning over Nationals stars Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer. But no one moved the needle with fellow All-Stars more than Baez. An example of this came when Harper, after winning the Home Run Derby, turned a question about the Braves’ Freddie Freeman into an answer about Baez.
“Baez, he’s one of my favorite players in all of baseball,” Harper said. “Just the way he plays, his swag and the way he plays the game, the way he uncoils and the way he thinks.”
Harper was still laughing at a question Baez asked him before the Derby: “If I get tired on the right side, can I hit on the left side?”
“That would be epic,” Harper told him.
It would’ve been pure magic. Perhaps a tad ridiculous, too, but Baez probably would’ve looked as cool trying as he does routinely pulling off special defensive plays.
“To see the Javy Baez show pretty much the whole year, it’s been special,” teammate Kyle Schwarber said.
Pitcher Jon Lester has been singing Baez’s praises lately, telling a group of reporters from Chicago and Boston, his old stomping grounds, that Baez is the best infielder he’s ever played with.
“And that speaks highly,” Lester said. “I’ve played with some good ones. [Dustin] Pedroia, [Mike] Lowell, [Adrian] Beltre at third. These guys are pretty special defenders and players, [but] Javy’s athleticism just kind of makes him above and beyond those guys.”
Lester described being up to bat in the 2016 NLCS and watching Baez steal home.
“I don’t think people really understand how he can control his body and just stop and go in a different direction,” he said. “For me, that was probably the most impressive play I’ve ever seen live and in person.”
Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, one of the game’s elite defenders, called Baez one of the most fun players out there.
“He brings energy and a lot of athleticism to baseball,” Crawford said. “I think a lot of people enjoy watching that. And then his power, his speed on the bases — he can change a game at any time.”
Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich has played against Baez since their days in the minors.
“He’s one of the best fielders — I can’t call him second base or shortstop because he plays all over the place — but just one of the best fielders I’ve seen,” Yelich said. “Wherever he’s at, it’s probably the most exciting place on the field.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has likened Baez to Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, even Willie Mays. How’s that for a compliment?
“I don’t think it’s a good match to compare me with Robbie Alomar because he’s one of the greatest second basemen, for me,” Baez said. “He’s my favorite.
“But at the same time, there’s [Robinson] Cano out there, [Jose] Altuve’s out there, Dee Gordon’s out there. They’re right here now. They’re playing when I’m playing. I would love to be compared with them. I’m not saying I’m better than them.”
Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. But there’s no one out-Baezing Baez these days.
“I love the way he plays,” Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar said. “He puts out 100 percent on the field, and everybody can see it. He loves the game, and he should.
“I’ve just got to say it: He’s ‘El Mago.’ ”
Contributing: Gordon Wittenmyer