SAN DIEGO — It’s not easy to walk the streets or have a meal with budding Chicago Cubs star Javier Baez. Just ask his teammates, who have seen Baez rise from a piece in the Cubs puzzle to an All-Star who is must-watch at the plate, on the bases and in the field.
And the fans have taken notice.
“It’s crazy,” reliever Pedro Strop said this week. “We can’t hide anymore. We used to go out and walk in stores and everywhere. Now, it’s almost impossible. As soon as you step out of the hotel, people are yelling, ‘Javy, Javy.'”
The love affair with fans reached its zenith last weekend, when Baez made a charge from third place to win the fan voting as the starting second baseman for the National League at the All-Star Game. If the World Baseball Classic wasn’t enough of a stage last year, then perhaps this coming Monday in the Home Run Derby and Tuesday in the All-Star Game, the rest of the baseball world will finally get to see what Cubs fans do every day: Baez is the most entertaining player in the game. There’s a reason they call him El Mago (The Magician).
“I named my dog after him,” said 12-year-old Leif Graves, while holding an El Mago sign at AT&T Park in San Francisco earlier this week. “I play second, too. He’s my role model. His defense is phenomenal. It’s out of this world.”
Remember, this is on the road, where Graves and thousands of other Cubs fans were in attendance. No player on the Cubs roster gets the reaction Baez does when he walks onto the field or just sticks his neck out from the dugout. And when he’s at the plate? Fans chant his name as if he’s in his home park.
“It’s really exciting,” Baez said with a big smile. “I love my fans. I try to focus my emotions because it’s a lot to handle.”
He can blame only himself for the attention. After all, he has stolen home twice this season, made countless highlight-reel plays in the field, run the bases like a wild man and delivered big hit after big hit at the plate. The latest was a seventh-inning home run that tied a game the Cubs lost 5-4 in 13 innings Wednesday.
The defeat didn’t matter to some. Baez’s fans got their money’s worth. It’s not a big secret why they love him so much. In a game with little emotion and sometimes even less entertainment value these days, Baez brings both.
“His swag and love for the game is great,” said fan Brandon Bajema from Modesto, California. “He lays it out there every day.”
“It’s either Ringo or Paul or John or George getting off the bus,” Joe Maddon said. “It’s pretty cool. And he handles it extremely well. He’s still a humble person.
“He’s the most exciting player in the game right now. And he’s only getting better. He has that rock-star feel with his teammates. For people that come to enjoy baseball, he’s the guy you come watch.”
To a man, his teammates say Baez is handling the newfound level of fame well. If he has to turn down an autograph- or picture-seeker, he’ll at least do it politely. He has to eat, after all.
“They sometimes need to understand it’s our free time, too, and we’re with family, but I try to sign as much as I can here at the field,” Baez said.
“He knows how to deal with fans,” Strop added. “He has good chemistry. Even when he says no, he says it in a good way.”
Baez might have to say “no” more often after Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Considering there is nothing at stake in the contest, many Cubs believe — in fact, they say they know — Baez will try something that will bring the “wow” factor. If it doesn’t come Tuesday, then perhaps the night before, during the Home Run Derby.
“You know he will,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “Javy is just so entertaining.”
Rookie David Bote added, “Everybody enjoys playing, but not everyone can show it. He does. The fans can relate to that. I’ll be watching.”
It has been well-documented that some in the game still prefer an old-school approach and aren’t fans of Baez’s flamboyance. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has been critical of Baez, as have others in uniform, but Bote summed it up well when it came to baseball fans — at least those who don’t hate the Cubs.
“He’s very cheerable,” Bote said.
Bote won’t be the only one watching Tuesday. So will young Leif Graves and presumably his dog, Javy, as well. Graves wasn’t sure if he would get his El Mago sign autographed, but he was committed to trying. The problem is the amount of fans looking for Baez’s attention. It can be daunting. Just ask Strop.
“I’m happy for him, but sometimes you feel like there is no privacy,” he said.
Strop shook his head, with a smile, when it was suggested maybe he should stop hanging out with Baez if the attention is too much.
“It’s too much fun,” he responded.
The All-Star was glad to hear that. After all, a star needs a posse.
“They’re my security,” Baez joked.