Five years of Javier Baez: Skills, smiles and swag

CHICAGO -- It has been five years of big swings and bigger home runs. It has been five years of adventures on the basepaths few would even attempt. And it has been a half-decade of tags with the sleight of hand reserved for a magician -- hence the nickname "El Mago."

Mostly, it has been five years of swag.

Chicago Cubs star Javier Baez celebrates the fifth anniversary of his call-up to the big leagues on Monday, when the streaky Cubs host the Oakland Athletics with a 1½-game lead in the NL Central.

The Cubs have several stars on their roster, but none bigger than Baez, who plays the game with "fearlessness," according to his manager, with "unbelievable energy," in the words of his teammates, all while being called "adorable" by his, well, adoring fans. Baez has come a long way since he was a brash kid who "swung at everything."

"I was sitting in the stands for one of his early games in 2014," teammate Kris Bryant said over the weekend. "I was getting the minor league player of the year award, and he had a bad game. Swung at everything. You saw the reaction he got then and the reactions he gets now. It's night and day."

Perhaps no Cub in recent memory has been viewed with such skepticism when he first got to the big leagues -- as a first-round pick -- but has turned naysayers into die-hard fans over the course of his five-year career. Seemingly everyone loves Javier Baez.

"He's got that 'it' factor when he steps onto the field," Jon Lester said. "He reminds of me of David Ortiz. When David came on deck, no one cared who was up to bat. But Baez has it on defense too. When the ball is hit to him and when he gets to it, everyone stops what they're doing and pays attention.

"I've never seen that."

That last sentence might be one of the most repeated phrases about Baez. His uniqueness has taken him from free swinger to superstar even though he has just a .311 career on-base percentage and leads the majors in strikeouts. People don't care -- certainly not his manager.

"He's willing to take chances that no one else will because he's not afraid," manager Joe Maddon said. "He plays the game fearlessly. He plays the game as a game, whereas a lot of guys can't do that. The reason is if someone makes a mistake, they feel like they have to make it in a more mundane manner because it's more acceptable.

"And in the same token, if you make a mistake in a more flamboyant manner, it's going to be frowned upon. He doesn't care. And I don't want him to ever care."

Asked why Baez might be the biggest star on the team, Bryant -- a star in his own right -- said this:

"The energy. The persona. The flashiness and ease he goes about things. People love that stuff. The tags and the baserunning. He has an eye for the camera. He's so unique. No one is like him."

That, more than anything, is what attracts even casual fans to Baez.

"He's my favorite, for sure," said Cubs fan Jill Oldham, from Highland Park. "I love watching him. And I love his smile."

Oldham isn't a season-ticket holder or even someone who watches or attends that many games. But she'll stop what she's doing when "El Mago" is doing his thing. And Baez's smile tells you everything you need to know about his attitude toward the game.

"It's fun," Baez said. "It's fun everyone knows you and expects big things from you. I don't let that get into my game. I have to play my game, and when I make mistakes, it happens. Just play the game hard."

Lest you think a low on-base percentage or high strikeout total takes anything away from his game, consider his accomplishments over five years: co-MVP of the 2016 NL Championship Series, runner-up for NL MVP in 2018, All-Star starter at second base and shortstop in consecutive seasons and, of course, a World Series winner. Like several of his teammates, over his four full seasons in the big leagues, his team has never missed the postseason.

Since his debut in Colorado five years ago Monday -- he homered in that game -- Baez is third on the Cubs in hits, home runs, RBIs and runs scored while leading the team in stolen bases. And he wasn't an everyday player until 2017.

"Just making adjustments," Baez said of how he has progressed. "That's the hardest thing, but you have to do it."

Although he might have been brash at one time, that isn't how Maddon views him. What the manager calls Baez's "attentiveness" to his sister Noely, who had spina bifida and died in 2015, was a window inside the Cubs star.

"That will always be part of his fabric," Maddon said. "There's no questioning Javy as a human being. ... How has he changed over the past five years? He hasn't. I'm seeing the same guy. He's so grounded."

On the field, Maddon's deft hand in his player's ascension to stardom over the past half-decade might be some of his best work.

He let Javy be Javy.

"The game on the field? Less mental mistakes," Maddon said. "When I first saw him, he didn't always make the routine play routinely. Now he does that and still makes his fabulous plays. I've said it many times: I never want to coach the aggressiveness out of him."

Baez says he'll never change because he simply can't play the game any other way.

"A lot of people change, but what got me here is me being me," he said. "I want to stay the same."

That sounds like a promise for another five years of more. More tags. More crazy risks on the bases -- which normally work in his favor.

And more swag. Not everyone has it.

"He has that charismatic feature about him," Lester said. "I love watching him."

"It's been a pretty fast five years," Baez said. "I've been through a lot of ups and downs. I feel great. And I'm healthy. Why can't I keep it up?"