In a matter of a few hours at Citi Field, Javier Baez went from a villain worthy of lusty boos to the heroic recipient of a standing ovation amid a happy celebration at home plate. In short, he went from thumbs-down to thumbs decidedly up.
Baez had a key two-out, run-scoring single in the Mets’ five-run ninth inning on Tuesday afternoon, and then scored the winning run by sliding headlong across home plate to secure the Mets a 6-5 slide-off victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a doubleheader.
“It says a lot about the guys,” Mets outfielder Michael Conforto said of the entire rally, “especially today.”
The day started around noon when Baez and Francisco Lindor, Mets infielders and good friends, were forced to apologize publicly for their recent thumbs-down gestures, which had caused outrage among fans and within the organization.
The gesture, Baez had admitted on Sunday, was directed at fans in retaliation for booing the team in recent weeks. Some fans were willing to forgive Lindor, who has been with the club since the first day of spring training. When he came to the plate throughout the game, he heard a mixture of boos and mostly cheers.
But when Baez entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth, he heard only boos from a small crowd of 8,199, who were in attendance for the resumption of a game that had been suspended on April 11, while Baez was still with the Cubs. Baez was hit by a pitch in that at-bat and then came to the plate again in the ninth after the Mets had cut into a 5-1 deficit with Brandon Nimmo’s two-run home run.
With runners on second and third, Mets Manager Luis Rojas said he could sense a dramatic moment brewing as Baez, whom Rojas labeled a clutch player, strode to the plate.
“You expect something special to happen,” Rojas said.
Whatever instincts the fans might have felt to boo Baez at that moment were superseded by their desire to see the Mets win the game. Some even chanted Baez’s name in support. He responded by ripping a bouncing ball into the hole at shortstop and hustled down the line to reach first base safely on an infield hit as one run scored to close the gap to 5-4.
The next batter was Conforto, who ripped a single into left field. Pete Alonso scored easily from third base and Baez, motoring hard behind him, saw that left fielder Jorge Alfaro had mishandled the ball. Without hesitating, Baez dug in, sprinting around the turn and safely sliding home headfirst, igniting a joyous celebration on the field and in the stands.
Jonathan Villar, who was on deck, arrived first to hug Baez, but Lindor was there an instant later. The close friends, who had been the center of a uniquely Mets-like controversy, shared an emotional hug in front of home plate as the rest of the team moved out to second base to celebrate with Conforto.
Taijuan Walker, who had started the day — officially in relief of Marcus Stroman who had started the original game on April 11 — acknowledged that the team’s energy was low after the gathering storm of the thumbs-down controversy and a team meeting to address it on Tuesday morning. But after the first game ended Tuesday, Baez had reignited the team and many of its fans.
“He does everything he can to win ball games for us,” Walker said of Baez.
The mood had been far different on Sunday after Baez revealed the inside nature of the signal, which was usually made on the basepaths toward the team’s dugout after the player got a big hit. Later that night, Sandy Alderson, the team president, condemned the players in a statement, calling it “totally unacceptable.”
Alderson showed that he, too, was willing to forgive Baez. During the player’s slide home, or perhaps during the celebration, Baez lost a diamond earring on the field. Long after the first game was over, Alderson was out scanning the playing area, helping the grounds crew and other staff members look for the precious lost jewelry.
The team had been off Monday, but on Tuesday, Lindor, who signed a 10-year, $341 million extension before the season after arriving in a trade from Cleveland, and Baez spoke to reporters on the field before a pair of games against Miami and issued their apologies and explanations.
“Thumbs down, for me, means the adversity we have gone through, the negative things, we have overcome it,” Lindor said. “We did it, we went over it. However, it was wrong and I apologize to whoever I offended. It was not my intent to offend people. You can’t go against the fans.”
Lindor added, “It doesn’t look good on our part.”
Steven Cohen, the owner of the Mets, applauded Lindor and Baez for apologizing and asked fans to get behind them for Tuesday’s games.
“Glad to hear our players apologizing to the fans,” he wrote.
Baez, who had helped lead the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title in 2016, was acquired on July 30 for an outfield prospect, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and the Mets lost 11 of the team’s next 15 games and fell out of first place in the National League East. As the losing continued in recent weeks, the fans booed more vociferously and, according to Baez, some players developed the thumbs-down gesture as a way of saying that if the fans can boo the players when they play poorly, the players can boo the fans when the team has success.
“I didn’t mean to offend anybody,” Baez said. “It’s something I’ve done in the past to the other team.”
Baez said that he might have said something wrong about booing the fans and that he really meant it toward his teammates.
“I didn’t say the fans are bad,” he said. “Like, I love the fans. I just felt like we were alone. Obviously, the fans want to win and they pay our salary, like everybody says. But we want to win, and the frustration got to us. I didn’t mean to offend anybody. We apologize.”
They did that, and a lot more, to help win back the favor of a famously loyal fan base.
“In short,” Conforto said, “winning cures everything.”