MESA, Ariz. -- How does Javier Baez do it? How did the Cubs second baseman learn to leap and pivot and spin and dive and make the great acrobatic plays that he does? A lot of it has to do with how he grew up in Puerto Rico."I think it's
MESA, Ariz. -- How does Javier Baez do it? How did the Cubs second baseman learn to leap and pivot and spin and dive and make the great acrobatic plays that he does? A lot of it has to do with how he grew up in Puerto Rico.
"I think it's life -- what you go through, where you come from," Baez said. "It was perfect all day in Puerto Rico, and we'd be riding bikes, jumping this way, that way. That's the way I grew up -- I grew up on the streets, and not in a bad way on the streets. My whole neighborhood had a lot of kids, and we used to play all day. We had a baseball field, we had a basketball court. We had so much fun. That's what you learn to do."
He didn't have the most pristine fields to play on, but that may have helped him. The rough terrain created crazy bounces, and Baez had to be ready for anything.
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"That's how you get better," he said. "I went through it. In Puerto Rico, we don't have the best fields, but we don't have the worst ones either. In Jacksonville, [Fla.], I was at a private school, and we had a softball field that nobody used and the infield was kind of messed up and that's where we used to take ground balls, and the ball jumped everywhere. You get used to following the ball everywhere. When you go to a good field that's flat, it's easier."
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It's not as if Baez or Cubs shortstop Addison Russell practice making Cirque du Soleil-style plays, although Russell admits he does do flips on a trampoline to get used to being airborne.
"Some of the more acrobatic plays, it's just habit," Russell said. "The ball takes us in certain positions and we have to get in position to get the ball to make an out. We'll try to angle our body or twist our body or get to our feet as fast as we can. In Javy's case, he doesn't need to get to his feet sometimes to get in a good position to let go of the ball and deliver a good strong throw.
"He's not afraid to make a mistake. He's athletic in the way he plays. You can't teach that."
This spring, Baez, 25, started his video highlight reel early, making a pair of impressive plays in the Cubs' home opener Saturday against the Rangers. When Russell was injured last season, he had a front-row seat to watch Baez put on a show at shortstop.
"Seeing him progress, you know that stuff's in there," Russell said. "It's just a matter of when are you going to see it. It's a fantastic thing to see. Some of the plays he made last year, I'm in awe."
Apparently, a comment by manager Joe Maddon to Baez last year had quite the impact.
"What I talked to him about was when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play," Maddon said. "When the play requires craziness, you're there, you can do that. But the straight-up ground ball, three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play through it, make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck."
Russell follows that mantra, too.
"You get in a rhythm of nailing those down and then you're a consistent big leaguer, and that's what we all strive to do is be consistent in the big leagues," Russell said.
Baez has grown not just as a ballplayer but as a person. He returned to Puerto Rico this offseason to try to help his homeland recover from the devastating hurricanes last fall. He took part in a charity home run derby organized by Cardinals catcher Yadi Molina.
"We're the type of people, it doesn't matter the situation we've been through," Baez said. "We're always fighting, we're always fighting to get out of it. The Puerto Rican attitude is, 'Don't go in reverse -- just go forward.' It's been really hard there, but at the same time, the people who are still in Puerto Rico, they want to progress, they want to get better.
"There are a lot of people who lost everything. The little help that I did over there, it was huge for them and for my family. We've just been going through it, and my heart is with them all the time."
This will be a big year for Baez, no matter what happens with the Cubs. Baez and his girlfriend, Irmarie, who he first met in high school, are expecting a baby boy. The infielder already has a baby-sized glove and Cubs cap.
"I'm really excited," Baez said. "I've been with [Irmarie] for a long time. We've got a great connection and being a dad, I'm really excited. I'm ready for it."
Their due date is July 10, a week before the All-Star Game. Wouldn't that be a nice baby gift?
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.