Chicago Cubs Exclusive: A sit-down with slick-fielding infielder Javier Baez

Oct 17, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Javier Baez (9) during today's workout prior to game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Javier Baez (9) during today's workout prior to game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /
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I had the chance to sit down and talk baseball with up-and-coming Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez ahead of Opening Night in St. Louis.

On a team loaded with young talent, Javier Baez is still looking to make a name for himself. The Chicago Cubs are looking to make it two World Series titles in a row – and they’re counting on their young utility player to step up in a big way.

Still entering just his age-24 campaign, Baez is searching for a permanent role in the Chicago infield. Addison Russell has a firm handle on shortstop and veteran Ben Zobrist is under contract for three more years at second base.

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But that doesn’t matter to Baez. He’s hungrier than ever – ready to find a starting role on a team that won 103 games in 2016.

"I’m just trying to get playing time anywhere. But moving to the future I want to have my own position and I think it’ll be second base with the crazy tags and other great things. I like playing short and second so hopefully it’ll be one of those two positions and I stay there for a long time."

The Puerto Rican native batted .273/.314/.423 last season, appearing in a career-high 142 games. Most notably, he cut down his strikeouts -all the way to 25.6 percent. By contrast, in his 2014 rookie season, Baez whiffed in over 44 percent of his at-bats.

An early season highlight – and a gift for his mom

So what was the highlight for the Cubs’ former first-round draft pick?

Winning a World Series and breaking the curse on the North Side? No. Making it to the championship game of the World Baseball Classic? Nope, not that either. It came in early May, at Wrigley Field, with his mother in the stands.

In April 2015, Baez’s sister, Noely, passed away at 21. The two were unimaginably close and the loss weighed heavily not only on Baez himself, but his mother, as well. A little over a year later, she saw her son hit a 13th-inning, walk-off homer to give the Cubs a walk-off win over the Washington Nationals.

Related Story: Baez the newest face for Sports Crate

"It was a great gift to my mom (who was there). She’s been through a lot in her life, with my sister passing away and all this stuff. It was a great moment. Probably the greatest moment in my career right now."

‘Try not to suck’ – funny, but true

That was a high point in a season full of excitement for Baez. He took home co-NLCS MVP honors, sharing the award with teammate Jon Lester. His tags, which took his stardom to a national level – maybe even international – captured viewers during the Cubs’ run to a championship.

In the NCLS, he hit the game-winning home run against the Dodgers at Wrigley. In the same series, he stole home – becoming the first Cubs player to accomplish the feat since 1907. These ‘crazy plays’, as he put it, are a credit to not only himself but manager Joe Maddon, who has allowed him to be himself since joining the big league club.

"When I came up, that’s what he said to me – be myself. He told me the thing he tells everybody: ‘Try not to suck.’ It was funny but at the same time, it makes sense. Being myself helped me be who I am right now with these tags and the crazy plays and diving everywhere. I love doing that. I started doing it and now there are kids doing it. That’s what it’s all about."

Talking to Baez, who had a pretty bad cold when we chatted earlier this week, you can tell how much he cares about the game. It’s not for some self-serving reason, either. He genuinely wants to inspire the next generation of Major League Baseball stars.

And, to be frank, he’s doing an excellent job. In a sport that seems stuck in the past at times with stoic superstars, Baez has bucked the trend. He’s been himself, operating with levels of enthusiasm and energy you rarely see in the game today. All the while, he’s grown more humble with time, appreciating the opportunity at-hand.

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"I think that’s what it’s all about – to have passion out there. Have fun out there and just be you. It makes me a better person and a better player. You know, there are so many different people and different styles out there."

Turning the page – ready to do it again

How do you move on from bringing a World Series championship to the Chicago Cubs? It’s a tall task in and of itself, but Baez and the team are moving forward – with their eyes set on doing it all again this fall.

The return of Kyle Schwarber will change the Cubs’ roster in a big way. But, after his breakout 2016 campaign, you can bet Baez will be in the lineup more often than not. Of course, that depends on his staying healthy, which has been a challenge in the past.

"We’re in a good spot right now. We’re turning the page on last year. We’re going to try to do it again. This year, the team feels great. It feels more relaxing than last year. To me, personally, I’m just trying to stay healthy a whole year. I’ve been through tough years with injuries and hopefully we stay together the whole year and I think we can go far again."

Always looking good

Baez is known for always standing out. Whether it’s on the diamond with his outstanding glove work, or off the field with his tattoos, he’s always on the forefront of style.

He’s also become one of the faces of Sports Crate, one of the newest products for team-specific sports fans.

Sports Crate is a monthly subscription service featuring exclusive team-focused products and VIP one-of-a-kind experiences. Those experiences range from meeting team legends to throwing out a first pitch at Wrigley.

Next: A fast start would do a lot for the reigning World Champs

As we saw throughout both the regular season and playoffs last year, Javier Baez is never someone who can be counted out. On either side of the ball, he can step up and make a big play. As he showed in the WBC, he’s ready to be a leader.

On global stage, Baez shines brightest

For the second-straight World Baseball Classic, Puerto Rico fell short of a championship. Despite this result, how the team – and Baez – played the game made fans of all of us. This group came together with vigor and energy. And, in the process, they inspired an entire country.

"It was really huge for fans from Puerto Rico. It was really big for our island. Families over there, everybody gathered together to watch us play. We’re going through a hard time in Puerto Rico. There’s a lot of young guys not playing sports or anything. So we showed them that a sport is everything."

This is what baseball needs. Energy, passion and unbridled enthusiasm for our national pastime. There’s no one on the Cubs’ roster who encapsulates this love for the game than Baez – and this is a title he’s proud to hold.

"I think that’s what it’s all about – to have passion out there. Have fun out there and just be you. It makes me a better person and a better player. You know, there are so many different people and different styles out there."

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