DETROIT — Tigers players were greeted at their lockers Monday with ‘‘El Mago’’ T-shirts draped over their chairs.
It was a nickname shortstop Javy Baez earned with the Cubs, but these warmups were dark blue with orange writing, a bridge between the place Baez began his career and the team he’s under contract with for the next four seasons. On Monday, Baez faced the Cubs for the first time since they traded him to the Mets in July 2021.
‘‘It’s going to be exciting,’’ Baez said before hitting a two-run double in the Cubs’ 7-6 victory. ‘‘It’s going to be a lot of emotions.’’
Baez forever will be remembered in Chicago as a World Series champion. He earned a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, a National League Championship Series MVP and two All-Star nods with the Cubs. His highlights became legend — seemingly impossible defensive plays, clutch home runs, unique slides and baserunning maneuvers that left opposing defenders shaking their heads.
Now he’s a veteran on a third-place team in a winnable division, so his baserunning gaffes and swings at pitches far out of the strike zone go viral as often as his highlights. But Baez’s teammates, past and present, point to another aspect of his presence.
‘‘Everyone knows about the highlights and the amazing, magical things he does that no one else can and things like that,’’ Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner told the Sun-Times, ‘‘but he’s a guy who every day plays. He played through a lot of injuries, was always available and wanted to be on the field and always played to win and played hard. And I think that’s a little overlooked in his game.’’
After the Cubs traded Baez and right-hander Trevor Williams to the Mets for prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong, Baez signed with the Tigers for six years and $140 million the next offseason. He has struggled at the plate in his first two seasons in Detroit and entered play Monday hitting .223.
‘‘Why does it shock me?’’ said Cubs manager David Ross, who played with and managed Baez. ‘‘Because I’ve seen him be so great. I’ve seen him be really good for a really long time. And I know he loves to compete, and I know he loves to win. I know he loves to play baseball, so I know it can’t be for lack of trying and effort and wanting to be out there every single day and have success and put on an amazing show for fans.’’
Regardless of his numbers, Baez is still ‘‘El Mago.’’ On Sunday, he made what Tigers infielder Zack Short called ‘‘two of the best plays that I’ve seen in my life.’’
‘‘I was lucky enough to be on the left side [of the infield], just sitting there,’’ Short said. ‘‘And I literally was just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said it to him, like, ‘What?’ No surprise that guy has changed baseball.’’
Short, who came up in the Cubs’ system before they traded him to the Tigers in 2020, is one of the familiar faces on a relatively young roster, a group Baez is in position to lead.
‘‘Just to be themselves,’’ Baez said of what he hoped to pass on to his younger teammates. ‘‘We’re going to make mistakes, and we’ve got to make adjustments. [But] just to be themselves out there and just to have fun.’’
That’s how Baez endeared himself to Cubs fans. He once pictured himself spending his entire career with the Cubs, something that seemed like a real possibility when the parties were engaged in extension talks before COVID-19 shut down baseball in 2020.
Instead, he’s facing his former club two years after being traded away, along with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
‘‘That changed everything,’’ Baez said. ‘‘But what can I say? We went different ways, and now we’ve got different things to care about, like this team and trying to show the guys the right way to be leaders.’’