Before Chuck Berry came along in the mid-'50s, there were Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, old-school Delta bluesmen who played the guitar well but didn’t show off their chops, who never thought for a minute about making the instrument the center of what they were singing about, because, after all, it wasn’t. And then the world heard the showmanship of the opening bars of “Johnny B. Goode” and forgot what it meant to live without it.
That’s what it’s like to watch Javy Báez apply a tag.
In a year full of sports disappointments for Chicago—the Bears Bearsing, the Bulls Bullsing, the Sox rebuilding, and the Hawks coming down the far side of a dynasty—the best thing on television this year was Báez, the exultant shortstop for these new-age Cubs. Day after day, as the North Siders struggled through a snakebitten hangover season, Báez, with his lightning-quick hands, incandescent charm, and brilliant flair for the dramatic, defined a skill nobody knew existed before he proved that it did.
At this point, I’m going to have to ask you to stop and watch this video:
The point I’m trying to make here is not that there are very few people in the world who can do that. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is nobody in the world who can do that, except for Ednel Javier Báez, the shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. Before he came along, nobody thought to rank players on how well they tagged other people out. Nobody thought it was something you could be elite at. And then he was.
One moment stands out. In early 2017, before the regular season even began, Báez played for his native Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial tournament MLB touts as the future of the sport’s international competition.
In an early-round matchup against the defending champions, the Dominican Republic, Báez found himself playing second with the game on the line and a runner on first. With two outs in a two-run game, the Puerto Ricans had to find a way to keep that runner from scoring and making it a one-run game heading into the ninth.
The dangerous Adrián Beltré was at the plate, leering and powerful. The pitcher came set, rocked, and fired. Beltré tensed. And then, in a flash, the runner was off from first, and the ball was suddenly in the exact wrong place. The Puerto Rican’s aging catcher, Yadier Molina, uncorked a throw down to second. And there, waiting, was Báez.
When Jason Parks, now Director of Pro Scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks and then Senior Prospect Writer at Baseball Prospectus, was asked in early 2014 to compare Báez and Carlos Correa, two up-and-coming Puerto Rican shortstop prospects, his answer was typically succinct: “Both could be All-Stars; Báez could be a religion.”
That WBC moment—that exultance, that delight in playing the game, the joy for life and for living so full to the bursting that it took Báez off the bag, pointing to his teammate and screaming at the pure thrill of it before the tag had even been made—was the highlight of the tournament. It shot Báez to stardom and provided, in the midst of a mostly forgettable sports year in Chicago, a sense of wonder and possibility as Báez hit notes we’d never heard before. Now we’re left to wonder how we lived without them.