‘It’s all Javy’: Báez embraces villain role in Chicago

Detroit Tigers

CHICAGO — The Tigers have enjoyed playing spoiler here this weekend for the White Sox dwindling chances in the American League Central race. But that’s nothing compared to how much Javier Báez enjoys playing the villain.

“I feel like he plays better when he gets booed,” teammate Riley Greene said. “It’s awesome. I love it.”

Some of Báez’s best moments in a difficult first season as a Tiger have come with opposing fans booing him on the road. He egged them on at Dodger Stadium in April while going 5-for-13 as he brought back memories of his 2016 postseason run with the Cubs. He had a back-and-forth with a fan in Arizona after hitting a grand slam against the Diamondbacks in in June. But he has saved his best for the White Sox, batting .348 (23-for-66) with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 17 games against them this season.

Miguel Cabrera is in his 20th season and has had his share of chilly receptions from crowds over the years, mostly before he became beloved as a 3,000-hit, 500-homer legend. He can’t remember playing with somebody who feeds off of hostile energy like Báez.

“Never,” Cabrera said.

If White Sox fans at Guaranteed Rate Field can’t cheer their team back into the playoffs — their elimination number is down to 1 after Detroit’s 7-2 win on Saturday combined with Cleveland’s win over Texas — they’ve been determined to at least boo Báez, their longtime crosstown rival.

Every at-bat Báez has taken here this season has brought on a chorus of boos. Most of his at-bats this series ended in cheers, including two strikeouts Friday and a strong throw from Gavin Sheets to retire him at second on a hit off the right-field wall in the fifth inning Saturday.

But once Báez sent Jake Diekman’s fastball 410 feet to right-center field for a three-run homer in the seventh inning to seal the Tigers’ win, he gave all that grief back with aplomb.

“It’s fun,” he said. “They make me focus, make me play better, so it’s good for me. Hopefully it keeps going. I just have fun and they just make me compete.”

Báez’s trip around the bases took 30.3 seconds, according to Statcast, but it felt much longer. It was a one-man play that included enough theater to spend hours dissecting while demonstrating why no Tiger feeds off the hatred from a hostile crowd quite like him.

“I think the interaction between players and fans have increased over the years,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Javy embraces it. He likes being the villain. He loves this city. And don’t let them kid you, man. They come down and want his autograph and want a picture with him more than they want him to fail.”

Strike a pose
There was the freeze-frame of Báez at home plate in the final stage of his swing as he watched his drive soar towards the seats in right-center. That lasted about four seconds before he left the batter’s box, providing enough time for fans to take out their phones and snap a photo, or simply yell. By the time he left the box, the ball was nearly in the stands, and the fans were well into a fervor.

Teammate Willi Castro, meanwhile, was at the dugout railing cheering and laughing, in part because he predicted it.

“I was talking to Eduardo [Rodriguez],” Castro said, “and I was telling him he’s going to hit it out. He was looking for a pitch to hammer and he was having good ABs.”

Hand to the ear
Báez’s trot from home to first lasted 10.83 seconds, according to Statcast. His stroll down the line was slow enough for him to cup his hand to his right ear for fans as he neared first base.

“He wanted everybody to know,” Castro said. “He wanted to hear more.”

He got it. As White Sox television broadcaster Connor McKnight put it as he rounded first, “Javier Báez hears you.”

Flying into second
Báez picked up the pace as he rounded first base and headed to second. One might say he took off by comparison, and he spread out his arms like wings as he neared second base to amplify the point.

“When he comes here to these big cities, New York, Chicago, L.A., the interaction with the fans, it’s all authentic,” Hinch said, “and it’s all Javy.”

Safe at home
Báez didn’t do anything as he rounded third base, perhaps not wanting to show any disrespect to the White Sox dugout. Once he crossed home plate, he raised his arms, put his fingers together and begged the fans for more chatter.

It made the wait for him to get home worth it for Greene.

“I love it when he crosses the plate during the homer and they’re all giving it to him and he’s giving it back,” Greene said. “I just feel like that’s energy we need. We need to feed off and we need to take it into tomorrow.”

The Tigers will have a chance to officially knock the White Sox out of postseason contention on Sunday. But while playing spoiler would seem like a perfect role for Báez, he says he takes little pleasure in it.

“If we were higher than them [in the standings], it would be exciting,” he said. “But we can’t say anything because we’re in last place. Like I’ve said, we didn’t play good baseball this year but we’ve got to move forward to next year and play better.”

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