PHOENIX – The legend of Javier Baez is only going to continue to grow, because soon he will to disappear into minor-league camp. He’ll live on through Twitter, box scores and the stories told by club officials. It will be obsession from afar by Cubs fans and the Chicago media.
It’s too soon to start The Baez Watch, counting down and wondering when he’ll get to Wrigley Field, considering the 20-year-old shortstop will likely be joining his buddy Jorge Soler at Class-A Daytona.
But one day Baez could give the Cubs some swagger. Alfonso Soriano wasn’t the first person to compare Baez to Gary Sheffield, and he won’t be the last.
Coming off a 101-loss season and a hangover that’s lasted more than a century since their last World Series title – and becoming even more corporate in the post-Tribune Co. era – maybe the Cubs could use some attitude.
“You need to have that kind of swagger,” catcher Welington Castillo said Sunday. “That’s what Sori told me. He told everybody: ‘Be respectful of the game, but think to yourself: Hey, you can do it. You’re the guy. You’re the man. You can play here.’”
If the Cubs did hit the jackpot with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, people are going to keep talking about the walk-off, called shot Baez delivered against Team Japan. That was part of a run in which he homered on three straight pitches, and four times in five at-bats over two days.
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Castillo – who was scheduled to bat third in the ninth inning on Friday at HoHoKam Stadium – yelled in the dugout and challenged Christian Villanueva or Baez to end the game.
“Who wants to be the hitter?” Castillo recalled saying. “I told (Baez): ‘If you don’t want to be the hitter, just let me know, I’ll take care of it.’ He looked at me and just said: ‘That’s it.’”
Baez didn’t talk trash when he crossed home plate. As Castillo recalled: “He didn’t say nothing. He was just laughing.”
The Cubs have certainly noticed the lightning-quick bat speed. Bench coach Jamie Quirk is now in his 41st season in pro ball. He played with George Brett and Bo Jackson and won a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals in 1985. He almost won two more with Tony La Russa’s Oakland A’s and “The Bash Brothers” in the early 1990s.
“He’s special,” Quirk said of Baez. “Hopefully, he just keeps doing what he’s doing. And time will tell when he gets here.
“His talents will take him as quickly as he needs to be, but there’s no rush.”
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By the end of Sunday’s 12-6 loss to the A’s, Baez hadn’t notched another homer, but his uniform was covered in dirt. He struck out twice, but didn’t look out of place in front of the 7,184 fans at Phoenix Municipal Stadium celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
First at-bat, Baez lined a sharp single up the middle. He then hustled but left too early trying to tag up on Anthony Rizzo’s flyball to deep center (the TV replays may have said otherwise). He later sliced a two-out RBI double into the right-field corner.
“I never saw him play before,” Soriano said. “I heard he’s a big prospect in the organization. But what I see in spring training is unbelievable. He’s got a lot of power and plays very good defense, too. For 20 years old, it’s very impressive. (I) hope to see him soon in the big leagues.
“When the season starts, it’s different. But what he’s shown in spring training – it looks like he’s very close.”
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Maybe the kids are supposed to be seen not heard, but not here, not now. Soler had a bunch of teammates huddled around his locker on Saturday watching a video on his laptop. It stopped Scott Baker in his tracks and the veteran pitcher looked on with a smile on his face.
After Saturday’s game, Soler smiled and gestured at Baez, his locker and the reporters waiting in the middle of the clubhouse, nudging him to talk to the media before taking a shower.
Baez recently found his white Mercedes-Benz decorated with the Major League Baseball logo on the hood and trunk and a message across the bumper: “ROOKIE ON BOARD.”
“It’s rookie hazing, it goes with the territory,” Quirk said. “Baez, Soler, Villanueva – (people) forget they’re still young and they’ve handled themselves outstanding.”
That same logo is tattooed onto the back of his neck. Baez has denied the story about how he pointed there at a banquet in Florida, when the state’s elite high school players were supposed to say their name and where they’re going to college. Baez insisted he didn’t announce: “University of Major League Baseball.”
But that’s part of the legend now and no doubt there will be more classic Baez stories.
Baez and Soler will be part of the roster moves announced Monday (along with Junior Lake and Josh Vitters being optioned to Triple-A Iowa, Villanueva to Double-A Tennessee and Rafael Lopez and Barret Loux assigned to minor-league camp). It’s time to stop daydreaming. But this past month has made you wonder if the future isn’t so far off in the distance.
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“I will do whatever they want me to,” Baez said. “My goal was to show them I can play the game hard and come to play every day.”