I'm gonna like this kid.This is only part of the article.Try not to tear up.Good luck with that BTW.
DES MOINES, Iowa — The most powerful swing in all of minor league baseball begins each at-bat with a cold stare of indifference. And ends in a blur of violence. But when Javier Baez connects, when he syncs up his waist-high leg kick with the serpentine coil of his arms and his torso, what you marvel at is not the trajectory of the ball or the distance it travels. It's the sound that bat and ball make when they meet. It's a mixture of hunger and rage. A sledgehammer striking iron.
Even listening to him take indoor batting practice is mesmerizing. On a recent afternoon in August, Baez sings along in Spanish to "Esta Noche" by Justin Quiles as he waits patiently for his turn to hit, deep in the bowels of the Iowa Cubs' Principal Park. He fiddles with his fluorescent green batting gloves, cracks jokes with his teammates and bobs his head in time with the music, looking every bit like a baby-faced 22-year-old without a worry on earth. But when he steps inside the cage, his entire body, and his demeanor, hardens. A man emerges from the shadow of a boy, each swing unleashing an explosion of sound that reverberates off the facility's cinder block walls at a deafening volume.
"He has power like you've never seen," says Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey.
Two hours later, against the Nashville Sounds, Baez comes to the plate and annihilates a fastball, belting it off the right-field fence for an RBI triple, helping propel the Cubs to a 3-1 victory. It's a common occurrence. Through 63 games for the Triple-A Cubs this season, he's hit .315 with 13 home runs, 57 RBIs and a .925 OPS.
So why is Baez still in Iowa? It's the tireless storyline of the season, the routine question at pressers, the long, drawn-out plight of the second baseman perpetually stuck in the cornfields.
"He's doing really well," said Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon before Monday's game against the Indians, just a week before September's anticipated roster expansion. "The plan with him is just to continue to do well. Just because a guy starts doing well does not mean he has to be called up immediately."
Well, of course. But if only Baez's story were so simple. Coming into the 2014 season, ESPN senior baseball analyst Keith Law ranked Baez seventh on the list of baseball's top prospects, ahead of Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. (Addison Russell was No. 3). That year, while Bryant and Russell remained in the minors, Baez dazzled in his big league debuts, blasting three home runs in his first three games in early August. That sizzling start quickly fizzled when pitchers learned he would chase pitches, even some a foot off the plate, and his strikeout total ballooned. Although he played solid defense at second, he whiffed 95 times in 213 at-bats and hit just .169 in 52 games.
"I really had a hard time learning how to swing the way they wanted because of how hard I swing," Baez says. "It's been really tough making an adjustment."
But he's been making one — in Iowa.
Some 330 miles away in Chicago, the Cubs, who for years have been the subject of ridicule for their inept play, are boasting a wealth of young talent in their infield. Years of high draft picks, and a significant investment in player development, are paying off as fruitfully as anyone could have imagined. Bryant, 23, and Russell, 21, are two of the best young players in the National League. Starlin Castro has struggled this season, even being moved off shortstop for Russell, but he's already played in three All-Star Games for the Cubs and is just 25 years old. In one sense, Baez is a victim of circumstance. The Cubs — who have the luxury of being patient for the first time in a decade — haven't had room in the infield. Rumors even had Baez on the trading block as the team prepared for one final playoff push.
But Baez's minor league stay isn't purely circumstance.DURING A GAMEin late May against the Reno Braves, Baez approaches the batter's box. He looks anxious, his movements robotic. He stands well off the plate and takes a strike. Then he starts swinging, regardless of location. He exaggerates that leg kick, elongates his stride and lunges at the ball. He's come to the plate three times and been fooled badly each time. Every swing looks like he's trying to drive the ball over the golden dome of the Iowa state Capitol, visible beyond the center-field fence about 2 miles away.
His mind seems elsewhere, the pain still too raw.
Earlier that day, Baez spent close to an hour sharing stories about his sister, Noely, and his father, Angel, attempting to explain their impact on his life, and this season. It's hard to think of them in the past tense, he says, especially Noely. They were an important part of his journey, of the man he's trying to be. At the beginning of the season, after 21 "miraculous" years, Noely died from complications associated with spina bifida. She'd been his confidant, his inspiration and his biggest supporter. After the funeral, Baez was faced with questions we're all faced with at some point in our lives: How do you find time to grieve when the rest of the world doesn't stop and wait? Do you focus on family or your career? Do you make a selfish decision or a selfless one?
Baez chose family. He took a two-week leave of absence to be with his mother and brothers, and the organization didn't balk at granting it. While he was away, though, Bryant and Russell got promoted. Then, when it looked like his call-up time had finally arrived in June, he broke his finger sliding into second base.
"It's been really tough and frustrating," Baez says.
It's also been the most important season of his life.
SHORTLY AFTER NOELY was born, doctors in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, told the Baez family that she was unlikely to live more than a few hours. At best, she might make it through the night. Her spinal cord had not properly developed in utero, a condition they diagnosed as spina bifida. Her internal organs and circulatory system were a mess, and brain damage was probable. Javier was just 11 months old, far too young to remember what happened, but his oldest brother, Rolando (11 years old at the time), can still recall his parents' devastation. "I was just a kid, so it was hard to understand what was going on, but everyone made it clear she wasn't going to be around long," Rolando says.
Two hours went by, and Noely, a fighter right from birth, was still breathing. A day later, doctors revised their estimate. It's possible she could live a few weeks, maybe even months, they said. When those markers passed, no one was sure what to think. A year? A decade?
"As she started to grow up, that's when we started to realize: This girl isn't handicapped," Rolando says. "She's a miracle."
Javier was 7 when his mother, Nelida, sat him down and tried to explain to him and his middle brother, Gadiel, what spina bifida means, to help them understand why Noely couldn't walk, why she struggled to talk and why she needed to wear an electrical device with a wire connected to her brain to help circulate blood throughout her body. Medical complications often meant monthslong hospital stays for Noely, with Nelida refusing to leave her daughter's side. That put the boys in the care of their father, Angel, who became the family's No. 1 cook, coach and confidant, especially after Rolando was drafted by the Padres and left home to play in the minors. "My dad would do the craziest stuff to make us laugh," Javier says. "One day, my brother's baseball team won a championship, and Dad climbed up the net behind home plate to celebrate, all the way to the top, and then he didn't know how to get down. We had to call the police for help."
The boys found solace in baseball. Even at a young age, Javier's skill on the diamond was evident. Blessed with a wiry, athletic frame, strong hands and a salsa dancer's feet, and surrounded by baseball-loving brothers and cousins, Javier blossomed. His grandfather had been an excellent pitcher in the Puerto Rican League, but Javier was determined to go further. He patterned his approach at the plate after his favorite player, Manny Ramirez, and he went after baseballs as if they had wronged him and he was seeking revenge. "Inside the park, he was like a different person," Rolando says. "He carried himself like he'd been in the big leagues for 20 years. But then he'd come home, and he was just a little kid."
Javier wondered why God had given him a body capable of so much, yet had given his little sister a twisted spine and damaged lungs. The arrangement seemed mercilessly unfair, even to the boy blessed with the physical gifts. "I thought a lot about it," Javier says. "I thought, 'What if I could give her my legs? What if I could take her place so she could walk? But she didn't want that. She wanted to do things for herself."
ANGEL BAEZ WASN'T a large man, 5-foot-3, give or take an inch. But he was a hard worker who did his best to provide for the family. "We weren't rich or poor, but we had enough," Javier says. Angel cut grass for a living and was employed by Twins Landscaping, a large but local company, to care for the baseball fields and parks in Bayamon. He seemed tireless, indestructible at times, which was why his family was surprised one summer night when he came home from work and went straight to bed. Typically, he'd take his sons to play catch or hit grounders; but on this day, he was exhausted.
In the middle of the night, Angel stumbled to the bathroom and began vomiting. Javier, then 12, heard the commotion. Knowing his mother was sleeping at the hospital with Noely, he got out of bed to see if he could help. "I was holding him in the bathroom when he was throwing up," Javier says. "I told him, 'Hang on, I'll go wake up Rolando so he can take care of you.' As my brother was getting dressed, I came back to the bathroom and saw him lying on the ground. I tried to talk to him, to get him up, but I didn't have much power to do it."
It was then that Javier noticed the gash on his father's head. It seemed Angel had tried to stand, slipped and hit his head on the sink or the toilet. There was a deep gash in his scalp, and his hair was soaked with blood. The boys placed a frantic call to their mother, but by the time they got their father to the hospital, it was too late. Angel died, Javier says, as a result of that blow to the head.
"I just remember thinking 'No way this is happening,'" Javier says. "We went to my grandmother's house, and there were so many people outside, it was almost like a party. I saw my mom in the living room, and I told her 'I know Dad is not going to be here anymore, but we will be here for you. We have to be strong.' She calmed down some after that, but it was pretty bad."
He refused to let anyone see him cry. He was determined to be strong. But when no one was looking, he slipped into his grandmother's bedroom, shut the door and wept.