One way or another, he takes your breath away. Sometimes because you’re breathless, and sometimes because you’re gasping.
There was the dive home on Aug. 4 that occurred on a field but belongs in a museum. Javier Baez dove toward Marlins catcher Alex Jackson with his left arm leading the way — before pulling it back, artfully in control of his body even amid a head-first, full-speed plunge. He turned on his side as Jackson lunged for a left arm that suddenly was retreating, and Baez touched home plate with his right hand, dodging his way to one run before driving his way to another with an eighth-inning, go-ahead homer.
The next day, he became the first Met in 23 years to strike out five times in one game. It wasn’t even the first time Baez had done so in his career.
There was the go-ahead, second-deck blast in Washington that propelled the Mets to a win, and the ensuing news conference in which he announced his thumbs-down gesture might as well have been a middle finger to Mets fans.
Before the next game, there was the apology — and then the mad dash around the bases to score from first on a single to win the game.
Everywhere in Baez’s game there is a draw, and there is a drawback. He will enter free agency as a slick-fielding shortstop and second baseman turning 29 in December who so far has clobbered 31 home runs — only Marcus Semien and Fernando Tatis Jr. have hit more as middle infielders — and he likely will enter the market with the most strikeouts in the National League.
There is wonder what that will mean for his next contract, with the Cubs lurking for a possible reunion with a franchise that saw his appeal outweigh his shortcomings in helping lead it to a drought-snapping World Series. The belief in the industry is he will score a nine-figure deal, with a game of shortstop musical chairs that could lead to new homes for Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Semien and Baez.
The Mets already have parted with a top prospect, 2020 first-round pick Pete Crow-Armstrong, to acquire Baez and could turn him into more than a rental. The team and its fan base have received a telling look behind The Magician’s curtain in a few short months of baseball.
There is the fire, there is the chill, and there is something else there, too: honesty. Baez was not going to construct a tale of rodents in explaining the thumbs-down meaning. There is an openness about his game, its warts unaddressed and plainly seen. That nakedness in style has been on display in Puerto Rico, in Jacksonville, in the minors, in Chicago, in New York.
“The way he plays the game, I feel like any stage suits him,” former teammate and current Cub Jason Heyward said.
“He plays for the people he loves,” his brother Gadiel said. “But he also loves the fans. The fans made him Javy Baez.”
He plays his own way — engaging and electrifying and exasperating and unapologetic — for the ones who can see him, for those who follow him wherever he goes. And for the two who no longer can be in the Javier Baez cheering section.
There were skeptics around the field at the onset of his career. Young Javier, the grandson of Luis “Gui” Baez, a great pitcher in the Puerto Rico leagues, was the youngest of three talented, future-pro brothers growing up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, where his legend took its first steps.
Rolando, the oldest, was introducing the diamond to the 4-year-old Javier and 5-year-old Gadiel. They were playing some pickup ball, and there was a runner on first.
“If you get the ball,” Rolando told Javier, according to Gadiel, “you tag second base, and you throw to first.”
A woman walked by the field and commented to Rolando that tiny kid should not be in the shortstop hole. And so the ball was hit to Javier, who touched second and slung it to Gadiel at first. El Mago had dropped his first jaw.
Javier adored his family and was — and is — obsessive about animals. Today, he owns a farm and eight dogs, at least at last count. He has been known to bring in a stray if he sees one wandering the streets.
He grew on the same Puerto Rico infields that included Francisco Lindor, an early opponent and friend. Javier would wait for his father, Angel Luis, to return from work each day and immediately ask if they could go play ball in the park — and Angel would ask if they could have dinner first.
When Javier was 10, Angel contracted dengue fever and was resistant to seeing a doctor, confident he would soon get better. At their home, Javier’s father went to the bathroom and grew light-headed, his youngest son rushing in. Angel fell, and Javier could not catch him before he hit his head against the shower wall. At the hospital, he required 72 stitches and died not long after from a pulmonary edema.
“Javier blamed himself for not stopping the fall,” his mother, Nelly Agosto, said through interpreter Luis Sanchez.
Not yet a teenager, Javier was sent to a psychologist to sort out feelings of loss, of mourning, of not being strong enough.
After about two months of sessions, a frustrated Javier confronted his mother.
“He said, ‘I’m not going back because if I keep going back, I’m going to make this psychologist go crazy,’ ” Nelly relayed, the time that has passed allowing her to laugh. He declared himself fine and did his best to move on.
Javier had lost a father. He did not want to lose a sister next, and so he and his family soon moved and instead he next lost a sense of home.
Noely was never supposed to make it. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that literally means “split spine” because the spinal column does not form properly. Doctors thought she would not survive those first days, but she made it home, made it to 1 year old and kept growing.
When Javier was 12, the family moved first, briefly, to North Carolina — which did not have enough baseball for the boys — then to Jacksonville, Fla., to seek better treatment for Noely.
Javier was exactly 11 months older than Noely, and the two were inseparable: Noely a loud presence at Javier’s games and Javier treating his only sister with both care and compassion. He did not want her to be treated differently. Her wheelchair was a complication but not an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome. She would have so many of the same experiences her brothers had.
She could not walk, but she was still jet-skiing. If Rolando, the oldest, were hesitant out of caution about giving her a ride, tears would come, and soon she would be riding whatever she requested, whether it be a four-wheeler or motorcycle. She wanted the thrill, and the boys wanted her to have it.
Family life was improving, but Javier’s personal life was suffering since leaving Puerto Rico. His game translated as he enrolled at Arlington Country Day High School, but the language did not.
“The first two years, we couldn’t communicate with anybody,” Gadiel said.
There were only a few Spanish-speaking students, one being good friend Nandi, who would order Javier’s and Gadiel’s food at lunchtime. Nandi grew tired of serving as their voice.
“You know what?” Gadiel remembers Nandi saying. “I’m not going to speak in Spanish to you guys because you guys will never learn English.”
At McDonald’s, they nervously gave their orders. In the car, Nandi would start speaking English and be met with eye-rolls and annoyance, but they learned.
Javier did not need much tutoring on the field, though. He was a star who dreamed of being on the cover of the “MLB: The Show” video game — which became a reality in 2020 — and the Cubs chose him with the ninth pick in 2011.
And yet, he did not have to leave his family. The grind that is the minor leagues was a shared experience — with Nelly, Noely, Gadiel & Co. driving all around the country to see Javier play in mostly empty stadiums, Noely’s voice from the stands a soundtrack of the family’s summers.
The same polarizing style of play has defined Baez wherever he has gone.
In his first taste of pro ball, in the Arizona Rookie League in 2011, then-Cubs minor league catching coordinator Marty Pevey took a look at their new top prospect, whose play was “just ridiculous.”
He chased a curveball in the dirt. He was not going to lay off a fastball over his head.
“At first he made me kind of mad,” said Pevey, who later managed Baez with Triple-A Iowa. “Then I saw him make a couple of plays and take charge of the infield.”
And then he saw him hit a home run that went “700 feet.”
“Oh, now I get it,” remembered Pevey.
Baez rose through the system, a relentless free-swinger who drilled 37 home runs in 2013, when MLB Pipeline listed him as the ninth-best prospect in all of baseball.
The following year, he finally got the call while in Omaha, Neb., for a series. He walked into his family’s room — in the same hotel as the team was staying — early in the August morning, laid atop Gadiel with a horizontal hug and whispered, “Yo, bro, I’m going to the bigs.”
There were thrills — including a home run in his debut — and rookie struggles. But what was supposed to be the best time of Javier’s life was about to become the most devastating.
Javier did not make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster in 2015 and started his season with the Iowa Cubs. They were in Memphis, Tenn., on April 9 when Gadiel called. He had just gotten off the phone with their mother, and Noely, who had been in and out of the hospital for so many years, was taking a turn for the worse.
“We gave her everything we could. I know that she was happy,” Gadiel said of Noely, who was supposed to live for mere minutes. “Her life was meant to be 21 years.”
The brothers did not make it to the hospital in time. Javier, broken, confided to his family that he did not know if he would go back to the Cubs.
The family as a whole told Javier there was nothing Noely enjoyed more than going to his games. His mother, though, had the strongest argument.
“I know that your pain is great,” Nelly told him. “But mine is greater because I bore her for nine months, and I had to give birth to her with a C-section without anesthesia. My pain is even worse than yours.”
Javier nodded. At the hospital, he approached Noely’s body. So much of his life and his career had been co-piloted by Noely. He would look up at the stands and point, and her face would light up.
He had to make more moments for the both of them.
“He told her that he would continue to play so they could realize their dream,” Nelly said.
There were struggles upon returning to Iowa. And true to Baez’s nature, there was a big turnaround that saw him promoted again to the majors, where he would stay.
There was the 2016 run through the playoffs that ended 108 years of Chicago frustration, with Baez as the NLCS co-MVP, even notching the 20th steal of home in postseason history. And there was a cold World Series in which he hit .167.
There were All-Star Games in 2018 and 2019. There were steps back in 2020 and this year, before the trade to New York awoke his game.
At a time when analogues are discussed and sought for to analyze what the next contract looks like, there might not be another player like him. No one with so much firepower and yet so much backfire.
Clubhouses — especially ones with Lindor, who will want his buddy back — like having him around.
“He has fun, he’s always happy,” Heyward said. “Even when it’s hard as hell to be happy.”
Fan bases, especially the Mets’ — with some fans still harboring doubts over Thumbgate — are less certain.
It is the front offices whose opinions will matter most, and they will want to know whether there is a new Baez or whether the past few weeks have been a mirage. He is taking more pitches, striking out less and walking more in the three weeks with the Mets since returning from back spasms. Swinging at better pitches has led to improved results.
Did the Mets’ hitting minds alter the approach of a player famously swing-happy? Could improved plate discipline entice more teams? And what does Baez want?
His family likes New York — but they loved Chicago, too. And wherever he goes, they will be there.
“Good son, good brother,” Nelly said of Javier. “A good human being who tries to please everybody.”
One who will infuriate, electrify and entertain whoever is watching him play, all while honoring a few who cannot any longer.