Brace yourselves, Cardinals-hating Cubs fans: Joe Maddon compared Javy Baez to David Eckstein

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There’s a ton on the line in this season-ending Cubs-Cardinals series. But doesn’t this year’s edition of the rivalry feel a little different?

The Cubs are trying to win a division race with the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Cardinals are trying to win the National League’s second wild card spot. So the stakes are high and there’s plenty of juice at the Friendly Confines. But is there the same level of vitriol that was so present in seasons past?

Before the Cubs’ ascent to the top of the NL Central heap in recent years, fans always circled these matchups with the rivals from St. Louis, no matter the stakes. They hated those Redbirds teams. They hated the Cardinal Way. They hated that the Missourians often — if not always, it sometimes seemed — came out on top. These days, that energy is directed at the Brewers, the team in direct competition with the Cubs for the division crown and all the playoff momentum that comes with it.

Fans, though, haven’t forgotten those Cardinals teams of old. So when the Cubs’ fan-favorite MVP candidate gets compared to one of the faces of the Cardinal Way — at the start of this rivalry series on the North Side, no less — it’s probably not their favorite thing to hear.

That’s right. Javy Baez got compared to David Eckstein.

But before Cubs fans start crying that the two have totally different skill sets and that Baez isn’t the grindy little guy that made Eckstein such a popular figure at the other end of I-55, just read what Joe Maddon had to say.

“He’s not afraid to voice his opinions in moments and situations,” Maddon said, describing Baez’s emergence as a leader this season. “When you go out to the mound for that little scrum when you’re taking somebody out or when (pitching coach Jim Hickey) goes out there, he always has something that he’s seeing that he wants to relate to the rest of the group. David Eckstein was like that, I had David (in Anaheim).

“David had that same kind of thing about him where he would see things, he’d come off the field and I’d be standing there and we’d talk about maybe something I saw and something that he saw, we’d try to morph it together. Javy, I can communicate with him during the game, he looks in all the time, he’s really good about that. His little hand signs or thoughts or points, he’s really intuitive.

“So everybody recognizes that. It’s a combination of the season that he’s having, his knowledge of the game exceeds most other people’s, and he’s not afraid to share it.”

The comparison is obviously a compliment of Baez and another aspect of his breakout, MVP-caliber 2018 season. And it’s one Cubs fans should readily embrace.

Eckstein wasn’t just some guy who infuriated them with bunt singles and the art of small ball. He was a two-time World Series winner — in 2002 with the Angels and 2006 with the Cardinals — a two-time All Star and a two-time top-25 MVP finisher with a .345 career on-base percentage.

Yeah, Baez’s game and style are completely different. But they share a knowledge of the game, in Maddon’s eyes anyway, that makes them winners.

If the Cubs are going to make it two championships in three years this October, it’ll be with a lot of help from Baez, either at the plate, on the base paths or with his glove on the infield. That’s a reflection of baseball IQ that made Eckstein so valuable to his championship teams.

And the results at the plate didn’t hurt, either: Eckstein hit .364 with a .391 on-base percentage in the 2006 World Series, including a combined eight hits, three doubles, four RBIs and three runs scored in Games 3, 4 and 5, the final three wins that gave the Cardinals the title. He won World Series MVP honors for his efforts.

If that’s the role Baez plays for these Cubs, then maybe fans will embrace that comparison a little more readily.

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