MESA — Blond hair, a fancy, three-wheeled car, a new World Series tattoo and his usual flamboyant play on defense.
Maybe Javier Baez didn’t get the memo about one of Joe Maddon’s often-preached buzzwords of the spring: humility.
The Chicago Cubs are just fine with that. It’s Javy being Javy.
“He’s definitely an individual,” teammate Addison Russell said over the weekend. “There is no one like him. I love the flair. I love the confidence. The young kid at heart. He just wants to get out there and play. He knows where the line is, as far as taking it too far. I even learn some things from him.”
There’s another Maddon phrase — “Be yourself” — that suits Baez better than anyone else on the roster. Baez is not concerned with what people think of his newly dyed hair, just like he doesn’t worry about the consequences of attempting an acrobatic play on defense, which might not always produce a desired result and might draw the ire of many managers.
“That was the first person that came to mind,” Ben Zobrist said of an ideal player under Maddon. “[Baez] is himself. That’s one of the marks of a genuine person. They’re comfortable in their own skin, no matter where they’re at.”
Baez has flair, but not to the point of being disrespectful — at least not anymore. He once jokingly told veteran Alfonso Soriano to “go shag with the rookies,” but that’s about as far as he’ll go regarding anything outside the norms of locker room ribbing.
“He’s had a lot of attention thrown his way,” Maddon said. “He’s a young man that has to deal with that. I think there are a lot of ground wires around him throughout this clubhouse. I think if anything got off-kilter with him or anyone else, there are other guys that will pull you back in.”
First baseman Anthony Rizzo is most certainly one of those “ground wires,” but he doesn’t feel there’s much need to step in when it comes to Baez.
“He’s not a loud guy at all,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of the nicest guys around here. He really cares about his teammates. I know he has flair, but that’s who he is. He doesn’t disrespect anyone. That’s just who he is.”
When Baez showed up to Cubs camp driving a Polaris Slingshot, he waved it off as no big deal, and his teammates didn’t think he crossed the line the team is trying to find this spring.
“They [the dealership] said while I’m here, I can use it,” Baez explained. “I’m just having fun, but it’s a little cold driving it in the morning.”
He didn’t buy the car, but something that is now permanently his is a new World Series tattoo that is not exactly low-key.
“We are the champs, and no one can take that away from us, and no one can take this away, either,” Baez said as he rolled up his left sleeve to show off his ink.
Although his knack for the spectacular play can sometimes look like showing off, more often than not, his attempts to be great on defense are rewarded. The baseball world got to see as much during the playoffs last season, when Baez earned NLCS co-MVP honors with Jon Lester.
“The reason why Javy is so great is his ability to not worry about making a mistake because he does things no one else does,” Zobrist said. “There is no hesitation there.”
Zobrist, who was signed to play second base, couldn’t deny that Baez deserved to play the position in the playoffs. Maddon wanted Baez to win a Gold Glove as a utility player, and some coaches believe he could be the best Cubs infielder at any of the four positions if he played one of them regularly.
“I like a chrome-less (not fancy) kind of an infield. However, if someone comes equipped like he has, I don’t necessarily want to tone that down,” Maddon said. “I’ve talked about making the routine play more routinely, then letting his athleticism take over on the more magnificent play.”
Baez understands all this, and each year, he gets closer to being that complete player. His swing has been toned down a little, and once in a while, he’ll eat a ball instead of trying for a spectacular play.
“I have to think about doing the simple things first, then making the great plays,” Baez said. “And no matter what happens, keep the same swing and same approach.”
The Cubs’ challenge will be finding playing time for Baez on a deep team. But there’s no concern when he’s in there.
“You like the way he plays second base?” Maddon said with a smirk. “I’m not changing anything about that.”
And Baez isn’t changing anything about himself. Life is good right now.
“I love being me,” Baez said. “I just like to play and be this way.”