Detroit Tigers’ Javier Baez has flair, amazing plays — and deep grief from childhood

Detroit Free Press

“Javy! Javy!”

A boy stood behind the Detroit Tigers’ dugout, holding a handmade sign that read: “I came for Javier Baez.”

“Javy!”

Baez approached the dugout and stopped on the top step. He signed a ball and got it to the boy with the help of an usher.

“Thank you!” the boy yelled.

Baez, the Tigers new shortstop, has a magnetic, star quality.

He’s got credentials — a two-time All-Star, an MVP runner-up, a Gold Glove winner, a Silver Slugger winner and the cover boy of “MLB: The Show” in 2020.

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He’s got incredible hands, uncanny instincts and a flair for the dramatic. Or as Ryne Sandberg, the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman once told the New York Times: “He could win a Gold Glove at four or five different positions.”

Entering his ninth season in the big leagues, Baez has a World Series ring from the Cubs magical run in 2016 and ended up with a street named after him in the Windy City; a part of a Humboldt Park street now known as “Javier ‘Javy’ Baez Way.”

But more than anything, Baez is a perfect match with AJ Hinch’s philosophy: work hard, have fun and win. Because Baez is fun, although occasionally maddening by striking out too frequently or committing sloppy errors. He’ll flip his bat after a home run or flip his thumbs down to Mets fans — something that makes him even more likable in my eyes.

He brings a fearless approach to Detroit, unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to put himself out there. Like when he posed for “The Body Issue” of ESPN The Magazine and wound up completely naked in a video (whoopsie) while showing off more than his abs and tats.

Most significantly, this shortstop known for his arm and glove work — as well as his lightning-quick tags at second base — gives the Tigers a serious threat at the plate. He is projected to hit 25 home runs, 24 doubles and knock in 75 runs this season, according to Baseball Reference. Of course, he’s also projected to strike out 162 times, or 22 fewer than he did in 2021, and that’s the maddening part.

You take both the good and the bad with Baez.

That’s the road you travel on Javy Way.

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Why Javy Baez plays with such emotion

Under all that flash and those amazing plays, there is something else — a tragic story of a man who has suffered profound loss. Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, his father, Angel Luis Baez, died when Javy was 12.

“From the dengue, pretty much, like a flu,” Baez said, standing in the Tigers clubhouse in Lakeland, Florida, during spring training.

Dengue is common in Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease left Javy’s father light-headed and he fell in the bathroom.

“He fell and hit himself in the head,” Baez said. “It was a tough, tough situation. Before my father, a week before, my grandma died. That’s why we decided to move to the States.”

And yet, there’s another layer to that story, according to a news story.

“Javier blamed himself for not stopping the fall,” his mother, Nelly Agosto told the New York Post in 2021.

The Baez family moved from Puerto Rico to North Carolina in 2004, eventually settling in Florida, in part to find better health care for Javy’s sister, Noely, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect known as a split spine.

“She wasn’t supposed to live for two hours when she was born,” Baez said. “And she lasted 21 years.”

Yes, this Baez family is filled with fighters. Noely was 11 months younger than Javy and they were extremely close.

“She went through so many things, so many surgeries,” Javy said. “And that’s something that made us stronger.”

Noely attended Javy’s MLB debut Aug. 5, 2014, and he hit a 12th-inning home run as the Cubs beat the Colorado Rockies, 6-5.

Noely was Javy’s reason, his purpose.

AJ Hinch is already working wonders with the Tigers. His players list the reasons ]

“She came out of the hospital like two months before she passed and she was very weak,” Javy said. “I prepared myself to say goodbye to her. And in many situations we thought she was going to go. She didn’t, so we know we know how strong she was.”

She died April 8, 2015.

“After she left, I shut down,” Javy said.

He didn’t want to play baseball anymore and left the game for a few weeks. “His sister was his world,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, who is also from Puerto Rico and close friends with Javy, told the Associated Press. “She’s in the sky watching him and smiling with that big smile she always had, that charisma she always had. She always wanted to help people.”

Once a young phenom

During spring training, Baez had a locker near Spencer Torkelson, who has made the Tigers club as a rookie.

In many ways, Baez has already lived the life Torkelson is about to enter. Baez was a first-round draft pick, No. 9 in 2011 by the Cubs. He faced scrutiny and attention as he climbed through the Cubs system, things Torkelson has already experienced.

And Baez was young when he made his debut — 21 years old, 247 days. Torkelson, 22, is expected to start at first base on Friday when the Tigers open their season against the Chicago White Sox.

“First of all, they have to be themselves,” Baez said, speaking about Torkelson and Riley Greene, who would have made the club but is injured. “I was really young. And I used to ask a lot of questions. But nothing is better than the experience. You just got there play. And when you make errors, you make  adjustments.”

Actually, the Tigers would like him to make adjustments, too.

The Tigers are trying to improve his defense — just like other teams have tried.

And the Tigers will try to get him to cut down on his strikeouts — just like others teams have tried.

But those are mere subplots, not the feature film, which promises to be wild and entertaining and fun to watch.

That’s the Javy Way.

A talk with his sister

There’s one more thing you need to know about Javy: He has a picture of his sister tattooed on his right shoulder.

In the ESPN The Magazine, issue where Baez bared it all, Javy revealed something else: How he is still grieving.

“I still cry for her,” he said in the magazine. “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.”

That’s the thing with Baez.

If you focus on one thing — like the sexy pictures or the awards or the remarkable plays or even the strikeouts — you will miss something important.

The story behind the flash.

He truly is El Mago; the magician. Everything is a sleight of hand.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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