Allow me to step on my soapbox for a moment here. I am tired of folks screaming about baseball and “the right way” to play it. Whether it’s old school players and coaches who had the game pass them by years ago or traditionalists who still believe that RBIs are indicative of a player’s ability level, that subsection of the baseball world and their philosophies would appear to be such that exists entirely opposite my own. Whether from my perspective as a writer or a coach or just a fan, I find so many things about that end of the spectrum to be perplexing.
Here’s what I do and do not believe. I do believe in being “selectively aggressive” and in swinging at a 3-0 pitch if its your pitch. I do not believe in bunting as an offensive focus or gameplan. I do believe pitching and defense, above all, will take you to where you need to be. I do not believe that limiting a player’s personality and creativity is a way to allow them to be successful.
And I sure as hell believe in the way that Javier Baez plays the game of baseball.
Baez’s skill set is such that only describing him as “electric” would almost be underselling. While there are still elements of his game to be developed, particularly on the offensive side, he’s a gamechanger. He brings an impact bat hidden within a beautifully violent swinging motion. His hands and his instincts are on another level from almost any other player in baseball. And his glove can play well (understatement) at almost any position.
Javier Baez is a treasure. In a time in baseball’s history where there is an abundance of wonderful, young talent that makes an entire slate of games worth watching (except maybe, like, if the Padres are playing), Baez is managing to nab our focus over far more accomplished and notable names. And in doing so, he’s become a polarizing individual who has drawn the ire of the “right way” folks for a few different reasons, not all of which we’ll get into here.
Traditionalists don’t like players who carry themselves in the way that Baez carries himself, which can convey a sense of arrogance to the wrong people. He’s extremely confident in his skill set and he carries himself as such. He plays with his heart on his sleeve. That combination of emotion and confidence, the latter of which I’d classify as more swagger than anything, is seemingly as big a no-no as there is for that particular baseball community. The latest entry into this anti-Baez/anti-fun agenda came courtesy of his tag against Venezuela on Tuesday night.
Baez took a throw from Yadier Molina and caught and tagged Nelson Cruz at second base, all while maintaining eye contact with and pointing to his catcher in celebration. He seemingly never looked at Cruz, but promptly brought down the tag that resulted in the final out of the top of the eighth inning. At this point, you’ve seen the play. This demonstration of confidence and outright fun was not something that could be tolerated by folks who believe in playing the game “the right way.” Between that and a home run in a previous game in which Baez smacked the ball over the fence and set his bat politely down on the ground, folks were condemning his actions. While it’s not worth the time to dig up tweets to single people out, such entries into the “right way” handbook referred to Baez as everything wrong with sports and no shortage of expletives that degraded his value to the sport.
But Baez is as valuable an entity as there is to the game of baseball. In a sport which fails miserably in promoting its stars, Baez is a self-promotion machine. His play and his swagger speak for themselves. He’s just downright fun. Which can be a scary thing for a lot of people, apparently. Scarier than players who have had legal issues off the field, whether with alcohol or domestic violence, or have played with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Baez hasn’t had any of those things. By all accounts, he’s a likable clubhouse guy and as diligent a worker as there is in baseball. What element of that isn’t “right”?
Besides, what does it mean to play baseball “the right way” anyway? There are differing opinions and philosophies on strategy and on fundamentals, sure, but the “right way” folks don’t seem interested in any of that. It’s a character thing or a demeanor thing. It’s not about whether the designated hitter should be a part of the game or if your closer should only be deployed in a save situation or if baseball players respond to yelling and overwhelming conditioning during the season of play. It’s about whether a certain player behaves a certain way in a given situation. And if what Baez was doing was so egregious and offensive toward certain players or fans, then there could be cause for questioning what he does on a baseball field. But it’s not and there’s not.
Maybe if Baez was just his skill set and not as much his personality and swagger, then he wouldn’t be as polarizing an individual as he is. Perhaps if he fielded a routine groundball in the most traditional, fundamentally sound way possible and then walked back to his position without saying much of anything, he wouldn’t face such contemptuous opposition from his detractors. But the flash and the swagger and the personality are all part of what makes him Javy.
Baez is really good at the game of baseball. And he knows it. There’s nothing wrong with carrying yourself in such a way that reflects that awareness and reflects that confidence. Baseball needs a player like Javier Baez. A player who not only succeeds as an offensive player and is elite as a defensive player, but looks like he’s actually enjoying himself while he’s playing. Nothing that Baez has done to this point is so egregious that we should declare him anything other than a damn joy to watch.
I, for one, could not be more excited to watch Javier Baez step on a baseball field in 2017. Every single time he steps in the batter’s box, it’s worth dropping everything and tuning in to watch the ball fly off his bat. Every ball hit his way is a legendary highlight waiting to happen. And every single time he does any of those things, you know he’s going to do it with maximum effort and as much fun as anybody in the sport is having at that given moment.
If Javy Baez isn’t playing the game the “right way”, then nobody is.
Lead photo courtesy Orlando Jorge Ramirez—USA Today Sports