An exciting Latin American infielder has captivated baseball fans this postseason. He fields like a future Gold Glover. He scorches extra-base hits and jacks clutch homers. Drafted in 2011, he’s already a household name in his city. Now he is knocking on the door of true national fame.
Cubs and Indians fans both know who I’m talking about. Here’s the catch: Each group would think I’m describing a different player. A pair of stars with almost identical biographies are split up, one on each team. Both men were raised in Puerto Rico, were high-school standouts in Florida, and are even personal friends. Now these buddies will face off in the World Series, and whichever pseudo-twin plays better might just ensure his starving team gets the trophy.
On its own, this coincidence would be intriguing. But the improbable link between Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor isn’t this year’s only World Series parallel. Several other bizarrely symmetrical storylines are hovering around this year’s showdown. Parallel universes are colliding all over the place. How they resolve might reshape baseball history.
1. Can the Cubs’ Flashy Young Infielder Defeat His Doppelgänger?
Chicago loves Javy Baez. Their telegenic second baseman is the most GIF-friendly player in baseball. But to Cubs fans with a sense of history, Baez means more than that. Although only 23, he is a vestige of the frustrating Cubs era that immediately preceded this happy one. Javy is a human wormhole to a recent past Chicago thinks it is glad to be rid of.
That’s because we snagged him in 2011, the last draft before the Cubs convinced baseball genius Theo Epstein to take over the team. His older-school predecessors focused less on modern statistics and more on conventional scouting. So when that old guard caught wind of a cocky Latin American shortstop blasting balls way over Florida fences, they had to have him. The Cubs grabbed Baez straight from high school — another statistically imprudent gamble that the new leaders probably wouldn’t have made.
Today, Cubs fans like to deride Epstein’s unsophisticated predecessors. We roll our eyes at the illogical decisions our team made before it persuaded the best executive in sports to take charge. As Baez wove his way through an organization run by a regime that didn’t select him, he seemed like Exhibit A for those errors.
That’s because a devastating lack of plate discipline obstructed Javy’s path to stardom. Baez always had power, but he was too impatient, especially with two strikes. The meatball mistake pitches he’d been slugging since his Puerto Rico playground days were much harder to find in the majors. Javy’s whole career hung in the balance, and the Cubs waited to see whether he could amend his approach and exchange some aggression for consistency.
Spoiler alert: The kid fixed it. Javy worked with coaches to shift his batting stance and repair his approach. He still jacks up game-winning home runs and plays ludicrous defense. But now he also takes strategic walks and ekes out go-ahead singles.
Even during his slumps, Javy never abandoned his “Make Baseball Fun Again” attitude. He is all smiles and swag. He opts for passion and playful antics, not old-school stoicism. He cares little for “unwritten rules,” which are finally dying an overdue death. He lacks the methodical discipline of his true superstar teammates whom Epstein acquired, but Javy is more fun on some level—and he’s been a Cub longer than they have.
There is poetry in the fact that he’s contributing to this stretch run. It reminds us that the team’s success is a story about redeeming the past, which was lovable even if flawed, and not just about discarding old ways in the garbage. This dynamic player might be a big comparative advantage for the Cubs—if the Indians didn’t their very own version of the breakout star. And he’s even better.
Baez and Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor have such similar biographies that the two are personal friends. Viewers of game one saw Baez tease Lindor over his hairstyle on Tuesday night, earning him some playful shoves. More bro antics followed in game two. The two Puerto Rican natives played together in a now-famous Florida exhibition game before both entered the 2011 amateur draft. Even on draft day, no daylight separated the two. Cleveland got Lindor with pick number eight, and the Cubs grabbed Baez at number nine
Both men perform in the clutch, each delivering key hits already this postseason. But the similarities aren’t total. As he showed on Tuesday night, Lindor is a more consistent hitter. He batted third in game one, where you put your best player, and torched several hits. Baez hit sixth and contributed to the Cubs getting shut out. And Lindor is a sparkling defender like Baez, but as a shortstop, he achieves that excellence in a tougher spot.
Who will outplay whom this week? Either way, if the two friends spend Thanksgiving together like they did two years ago, the conversation might be less easy. One of them will probably have played a key role in drumming his doppelganger out of the World Series.
2. Both Teams Bought a Yankees Relief Pitcher
Except October, late July is the best time for baseball. At the season’s halfway point, the league’s trade deadline hits, and the teams bifurcate into “buyers” and “sellers.” The buyers think they are making the playoffs. They want to trade minor league prospects for proven talent to help them win now. The sellers see themselves as out of the running and want to wring future value from present assets.
This season, for the first time in recent memory, the Steinbrenner family let the Yankees’ executives “sell.” The club was struggling to stay afloat in a tough division, and had several useful pieces it could trade in for future talent. That included two of the very best relief pitchers in baseball.
Andrew Miller, a 31-year-old left-hander, spent the first chunk of his career as a journeyman starter. In the last four years, he switched to full-time relief, and the move paid off handsomely. Now he’s baseball’s most dominant defender of late-inning leads. He looks like an average scruffy dude on the mound, though he stands a tall 6’7”. But as the Cubs saw in game one, he dissects hitters with mastery.
The Yankees’ other relief ace cut a different figure. While Miller is a lanky white dude who took several years to catch on, Aroldis Chapman is an imposing Cuban refugee who’s been a phenomenon from his first days in Major League Baseball. Instead of mixing and matching different pitches, he relies on an overwhelming fastball. He can literally throw harder than anyone else. He holds the all-time Major League record with a staggering 105.1 miles per hour.
The Yankees collected bids for these two arms from several teams. For once, after years of soul-sucking fire sales designed to stockpile future talent, the Cubs were ready to buy. All teams involved valued Miller more than Chapman. The former is slightly more dominant and is under contract through 2019, while Chapman’s impending free agency made him a pure half-season rental. So the Cubs pursued Miller doggedly.
But it became clear the Yankees would only accept one guy in return—and the Cubs wouldn’t give him up. Kyle Schwarber, only just drafted in 2014, soared through the minors and has already proven to be a monster big-league hitter for the Cubs. He is also a defensive liability who lacks a true position. That combination seemed ideal for the American League, where he could hit without playing the field. A Schwarber-for-Miller swap looked even more tempting to the Cubs given that he was sitting out all of 2016. His season ended with an April ACL tear, caused by clumsily playing the outfield in the season’s very first series.
But despite Schwarber’s murky future and his inconvenient injury, the Cubs wouldn’t budge. He was too good a pure hitter to trade. So Miller went to the next team in line. Because it’s 2016 and fate is folding in on itself, that meant the Cleveland Indians. Cleveland shipped a king’s ransom of minor-league talent to the Bronx and got the best guy in return. The Cubs pounced on Chapman at a fairer price.
Both men have been huge this postseason. True to their selling prices, Miller has looked more dominant than Chapman. He is also more versatile. Miller is comfortable entering the game whenever necessity strikes, and can throw multiple innings. Chapman is a conventional closer who’s only effective in certain slots.
Will Miller prove so valuable as to turn the tide of the World Series personally? He was effective in game one but not dominant, allowing several baserunners before working himself out of the jam. Perhaps Chapman can climb back from “really good” to “utterly dominant” and make the Cubs look like geniuses for grabbing the discount option. He wasn’t perfect in game two, but he pushed his team across the finish line. Each man has helped seal his team’s first win in this series. Whichever former teammate bests the other the rest of the way might just win his new team the championship.
3. Which Just-Injured Folk Hero Will Triumph?
When Schwarber suffered that season-ending injury back in April, it felt like a preemptive strike from evil spirits. But it didn’t take long for the team to prove they would be the best in baseball even without the stocky slugger fans compare to the Flintstones’ “Bam-Bam.” Soon, fears that his loss could destroy our season gave way to a milder regret that he couldn’t be part of the fun.
But in a shocking surprise after months of rehab, even that worry has vanished. After receiving medical clearance, the Cubs shocked the baseball world by activating Schwarber just before the World Series began. We thought we’d next see him in spring training. Instead, he earned his first hit of the entire season off the Indians’ ace in game one of the World Series. In game two, he emerged as the main hero, knocking in several runs and working great at-bats. It’s ridiculous.
In a truly ironic twist, the series has already seen Schwarber go toe-to-toe twice with Miller, the very man the Cubs could have had in exchange for him. He won one battle (with a walk) and lost the other (with a key strikeout).
The Indians just activated their own recently injured player after a similar sprint back to health. Like the Cubs with Schwarber, Cleveland hurriedly hustled back pitcher Danny Salazar so he could play in this Series. Both teams used some unorthodox tricks to get these players ready on short notice. The Cubs sent Schwarber to the sleepy Arizona Fall League for two quick games that suddenly received national press coverage. The Indians had Salazar pitch in a stadium full of simulated crowd noise.
Perhaps one of these unexpected reincarnations will be the difference-maker this week. Maybe Schwarber crush a curse-breaking home run over the fence in Chicago. Maybe the Cubs’ rental reliever will defy expectations and outduel his former Yankee teammate. Maybe Baez will come alive and personally ensure that the now-inevitable divergence between his resume and his good buddy’s will skew in his favor.
Whoever the heroes may be, one of these two weirdly similar teams will win. You probably know that the Cubs own the longest championship drought in baseball—108 years—and the Indians are right behind them (68 years). The upshot of this is like a classic horror film trope, right in time for Halloween: The curse will only spare its victim if he hands it off to someone else.
If the Cubs break away from this 1-1 tie and take the Series, they will have copied the evil videotape from “The Ring” and dropped it into Cleveland’s mailbox. Or maybe it’s more like a dark twist from “Saw.” To free itself from the rusty shackles of failure, Chicago must use its own hands to lock up the next loser in line.
All of America should be hoping for this outcome. Similarity doesn’t mean equivalence. The 2016 meeting between these teams may look like parallel universes colliding, but the teams’ timelines of historic sufferings are simply and truly incomparable. The road ahead for real baseball fans is clear. Let’s see if the Cubs have what it takes to walk down it.