El Mago eyes bounce back with return of fans, in-game video


Nobody in baseball loves the fans and the energy they bring to the ballpark more than Javier Báez. 

That’s why nobody missed them more than the Cubs shortstop did last season.

"It was the worst, to be honest," Báez said of playing without fans in the stands in 2020. "It was worse than facing a pitcher in spring training in the backfield. 

“I didn't like it at all."

Coming off consecutive seasons in which he started the All-Star Game, Báez won his first career Gold Glove Award in 2020 but struggled offensively. In 59 games, he hit .203/.238/.360, his worst season at the plate since his 2014 debut.

Báez’ electric play has made him a favorite among baseball fans, both in and out of Chicago. He frequently brings crowds to their feet with highlight-reel tags, elusive base running and long home runs, earning the nickname El Mago for his energetic game.

Báez didn’t have the roar of the crowd to pull from last season, when games were played without fans due to the pandemic. He discussed struggling to adjust to those new conditions last summer, a sentiment shared by players throughout baseball.

His own manager, David Ross, said recently Báez “no doubt” was most impacted by the lack of fans among Cubs players. 

The fact that, in wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, Major League Baseball banned the use of in-game video terminals — which players use to make swing adjustments and see how teams are pitching to them in between at-bats — also didn’t help. 

The lack of video is something every player dealt with, but Báez and others, including the Nationals’ Trea Turner and Red Sox J.D. Martinez — pointed to it as a challenge of 2020.

“Last year, man, I don't want to talk about last year,” Báez said. “It was frustrating to me, to a lot of players.

“It was two months of baseball that I felt in a rush. I felt like I didn't have time to make adjustments. I'm not the guy that shows you everything I got in the first half. I can have a bad half or a decent first half and then my second half, I can make the first half disappear. 

“We didn't have that. I didn't have that trust in me. I was ready [physically]. I was not mentally ready for what happened last year.”

Those terminals are still prohibited in 2021 as part of MLB’s health and safety protocols, but teams will have access to iPads in dugouts that can be loaded with footage before games. Those tablets also will have in-game footage, which Báez looks forward to, framed in a way where catchers’ signs cannot be stolen.

"I always like to compete and get better every day," Báez said. "But last year offensively was tough for me. This year, we got the video [and] I got the comfort in that. It’s going to be great for me."

With video, a full schedule and fans likely returning to the Wrigley Field seats at some point — possibly as soon as Opening Day — Báez and Ross are looking for him to return to form in 2021.

“I think when he's right and gets to be himself and the pure entertainer he is, he's at his best,” Ross said. “I'm looking for a great season from Javy. I think he's going to have a special year. 

“Getting fans back in the stands, getting video back, all those things that play into a normal routine for him. 

“I think he’s in a good place going into this year.”

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