This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2017. Subscribe today!
World Series winner? Check. NLCS MVP? Check. World Baseball Classic silver medalist? Check, check, check. After quite a year (when’s the last time you won a title 108 years in the making?), Javier Baez decided to top it all off by posing for ESPN’s ninth edition of the Body Issue. Reporter Marly Rivera talked to the 24-year-old Baez about his unique physical gifts, the art of tagging and how he’s inspired by his Puerto Rican roots. Here’s Baez, in his own words:
When I got to the World Series, I started to try to do more than I was capable of doing. I wanted to hit a homer off the first pitch. I started to get nervous, and I wanted to do more than what’s possible. I think that’s something you can’t control, though. In the World Series, all the noise, the motivation, the feelings you get on that field — and the whole world is watching you. That got to me. When I went out to Game 1 in Cleveland, there was so much noise, I really felt smaller.
One of the things that helped me a lot was talking about that pressure with the press. It wasn’t that I loved to talk about it, but I got it off my chest. I always said, “If I make an error, it’s no big deal. I just move forward.” I think that’s why I did so well against San Francisco. When I started to say there was no pressure, I started to believe it.
I’m a strong person, mentally speaking. I have learned to be that way; I’ve learned to be strong. My father and my great-grandmother died within the very same week. On the next Wednesday, I was mugged. I was 11 years old. I had a gun put next to my chest. I have lived a lot of different situations.
I’m strong as well because I’ve seen all the things my sister, Noely, has gone through. [Noely Baez suffered from spina bifida and died in 2015 at age 21.] But for me, my sister was never a crippled person. The only thing she didn’t do throughout her life was walk. She is my biggest inspiration. She loved going to the ballpark; she never missed a game. She cheered a lot. We had a lot of fun together.
I still cry for her. Whenever I go to Puerto Rico, I go to her grave and I sit there and let it all out. Sometimes I go on my own. I don’t tell anyone. I go there, sit down and talk to her. I laugh out loud remembering everything I have gone through with her. I told her about the World Series.
Because of all the things I’ve gone through, I am not that emotional. I never show how happy I am. For example, when we won the World Series, my girlfriend said to me, “Aren’t you excited?” I keep my emotions in balance. If I make one of those plays that impress people, it’s not that I’m bragging that it was easy for me. I approach it like a routine play so I can be ready for the next one.
My family remains my source of inspiration. My sister is gone, but she still inspires me. My mother stopped living for herself in order to live with my sister for 22 years. And she never complained. For me, that is incredible. She did everything my sister needed to be done, gracefully. They, and my whole family, are my inspiration.
THE SECRETS OF TAGGING
Almost no one knows this, but I’m a lefty. I can switch-hit, but I’m naturally a lefty. I eat left-handed. I write with my left hand. I do practically everything with my left hand. That’s why catching the ball is super easy for me. Being able to use both hands helps me with my tagging because I know how fast I can use my hand, and I know where the ball is. I try to calculate my timing of catching the ball with the palm of my hand, and since I have the whole glove pocket, I get in position before the ball gets there. Then, when I grab the ball, I’m already lowering my hand in order to make the tag.
Francisco Lindor as an example. I know he’s going to go for it. So the first thing I do is to draw mentally an angle of the line in which he comes running, which tells me where I should stand on base. I already know that when the ball comes my way, I can’t go further from that angle, because if I do, I have to get the ball from behind and turn myself while I tag. I don’t go outside that line. If the ball goes wherever the runner is, I go and look for it, but all within the same line where he is coming from so I could reach out to him.
I think about all of those things before the pitch happens. Right before the pitch is thrown, I already have an idea in my mind on how I’ll react so I can do the simple things first. I do this all the time. The only thing that changes is the timing on where the ball is going to reach you. I help the whole team with my tags. I can turn a play which was a “sure” safe call into an out.
“I WASN’T ABLE TO WALK”
Sometimes my legs play tricks on me. When running sometimes, I try harder, beyond my abilities, and I get stuck. I can run, sort of, but I end up believing I’m a bit faster than what I already am. When I was 8 months old, they put orthopedic boots on me so they could straighten me out. I wasn’t able to walk. I didn’t walk until I was beyond 1 year old. Every day, I had boots that were tighter so they would straighten out my feet a bit more. There was a hill in front of my grandmother’s place; my aunt grabbed me by the hands, and I tried to follow her along but I just couldn’t do it with my feet all crooked.
When I run now, I can see the way I walked when I was a small kid. When I was 12, before moving to the States, I played in a world tournament in California representing Puerto Rico, and in a center-field shot you can see me running from second to third base, stealing a bag; the camera shows me from my back, and you can see my legs here and there. Sometimes I can’t believe I am able to run this fast.
“THEY TURNED ME INTO AN INFIELDER”
I like playing defense the most. Last year Joe Maddon said to me: “Everyone knows you are strong, that you’re able to run. Forget about hitting, we don’t want you to be a hitter, you play defense.” I took it this way: If you look at our lineup, if I don’t do anything offensively, someone will. It isn’t about just one person, it’s about a whole team. I took it in a positive way, and I said to myself, “I will play the best defense I can.” And that’s what I did. I focused on my defense. I love throwing myself onto the field and do everything I can.
When I was a kid, I played catcher and center field. In Puerto Rico, you always played a doubleheader, so I played a game in center field and the next one as a catcher. One day after batting practice I was playing third base and someone hit a line drive, which hit my eye. It wasn’t a big deal, my eye was swollen, but I didn’t want to play in the infield anymore. I got scared of the ball, and it was tough for me to play in the infield in high school. In 10th grade, a scout told me I could be drafted for a bit more money if I played in the infield, so they turned me into an infielder, and I started to play third base and shortstop. I stayed as a shortstop because of the scouts and the advice they gave me, but it wasn’t my choice.
Sincerely, my favorite position is center field and now second base. For me, the best plays you can see are always in the outfield. I’m an explosive player who likes to run here and there a lot. I liked center field quite a lot. In fact, last year, before [former Cub] Dexter Fowler was re-signed, we discussed if there were any chances of me playing lots of games in center field. I like playing second base now, since throughout my career we’ve seen what I can do with my hands. I love making double plays. Double plays are where you can see fast hands at their best.
For more from the 2017 Body Issue, pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 7.