By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The video begins with a hulking character in a black T-shirt digging into a batter’s box.
The difference in physicality between him and everyone else on the field is jarring. It almost looks like a promotional event, a professional ballplayer swinging by the playground to mess around and take some swings off the local JV team.
The pitcher, his jersey slightly too big, winds and deals. The chiseled figure quietly loads his hands and, with that picture-perfect, rare combo of effortlessness and violence, absolutely demolishes the pitch, sending it way deep and definitely gone.
The ball disappears, instantly, over the school building in left-center, never to be seen again.
The hitter in question is a 17-year-old baseballing maestro named Joshua Baez, considered by many the best amateur player the city of Boston has produced this century and a near lock to be taken in the first two rounds of Sunday’s MLB Draft. Compared to the other kids on the diamond in this video, Baez’s towering muscular frame makes him look like a sports alien, beamed down from outer space — or at least from the MLB All-Star Game — to wreak havoc upon the unsuspecting children of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
But greatness of this sort is not conjured out of thin air. This mammoth, 6-foot-3, 230-pound teenager who can run a 6.4-second 60-yard dash, throws a fastball 98 miles per hour and, according to his high school coach, “has more raw power than half the Red Sox right now” is the product of more hard work and determination than the average person could ever wrap their head around.
Joshua Baez is the culmination of summers at the ballfield and winters in the weight room. He is Boston-made and self-built, and his story is just beginning.
Boston is undeniably a baseball town — one trip to Fenway will tell you that — but as a cold-weather, Northeastern metropolis, the city understandably doesn’t have a great track record of developing elite amateur baseball players. Baez is seeking to be the first Boston kid drafted straight out of high school to make the big leagues since Manny Delcarmen, who made it all the way from West Roxbury High to the hometown Sox back in 2005.
Born in Boston, Baez’s family moved home to the Dominican Republic when he was an infant and lived in the capital, Santo Domingo, until he was 11, at which point they moved back to the neighborhood of Dorchester. They’ve lived there ever since.
Upon returning to his birthplace, Baez struggled to acclimate at school, as his English was rudimentary at best. But the dedication and work ethic that would one day turn him into a draft prospect also helped him pick up a language in just two years.
“English?” he said with a laugh. “I had nothing, pretty much nothing. Just hi, how are you — that was pretty much it. I struggled my first couple years coming from the DR. It was a big change for me. Just to learn content at school. I used Google translate to do all the assignments and stuff. The first few years of middle school, I barely passed. But by the time I got to high school, I took a test, and it said I was fluent.”
Baseball helped, too. Even though he’d lived in Santo Domingo, the baseball capital of the world, Baez said he didn’t really start playing baseball until he was 9 and didn’t play organized ball until he got back to Boston.
“When I first got back, I played in the South End little league,” he recalled to FOX Sports. “And I remember, for some reason, I thought I was really bad [when I was] in the DR because those kids were so advanced. You know, they play every single day. But then I got [to Boston], and the fields were tiny, kids were smaller, and they were using metal bats.
“So once we started playing, I was hitting two home runs a day. I was so surprised. In the DR, I was striking out all the time, every game. They were so good in the DR, they made me feel like I was below average, so when I came here, the pitching just wasn’t as great. So I dominated.”
Domination indeed. At 12, Baez won the Massachusetts state Home Run Derby for his age group, finished first in the state in homers and led his team to a state title. He was a tall kid, lanky and wiry, but clearly strong enough to drive the baseball with authority. He was a legit player with real potential. The only issue for Joshua was that the Baezes couldn’t afford the high-end training and baseball development that many other kids had access to.
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Enter Christian Ortiz, cofounder of Next Level Boston Sports and the Boston Blue Jays travel program.
“I was born and raised in Boston, went to public high schools and had the dream of playing pro baseball,” he said. “My brother was playing for a team out in Bridgewater that my mother was killing herself to afford, like a few grand. They practiced like once a week, the coaching wasn’t good, no real development, so I took the initiative and started my own program for kids in the city.”
The mission of Ortiz’s organization, which he started in 2014 while an undergrad on the baseball team at Northeastern, is to provide lower-income kids an affordable place to play competitive travel baseball and get exposure in front of college coaches.
So when the commissioner of the South End Little League brought a 13-year-old Joshua to a Boston Blue Jays tryout in the fall of 2016, Ortiz welcomed him into the program, albeit with a bit of skepticism.
“Our fall ball team back then was only 19U, and Joshua shows up as a 13-year-old. I asked the guy, ‘Is he gonna hang?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry he’ll be fine.’ He obviously struggled for a little while, but you could tell immediately that Joshua loved the game and loved to work. Since I met him at 13, he’s never, ever missed a practice.”
Work ethic is a theme with Joshua Baez, no matter whom you talk to. This isn’t a kid who just endures the grind. He lives for it.
“He has a strong desire to be great,” Ortiz explained. “Attention to detail. He loves to work, and not necessarily because he wants to get drafted — he obviously does — but because he loves the process. He loves lifting weights. He loves BP. The little tedious things he enjoys doing, which is special.”
“You cannot teach that type of mindset,” said Jamill Moquete, a former Boston draftee and now an area travel ball coach. “He has dedicated blood, sweat and tears to this. He literally does not take a day off. Joshua’s mentality is on another level.”
Baez and his Blue Jays teammates practiced outside year-round, whenever the weather allowed. Once it got cold, Baez would either brave the below-freezing temps — he says he has taken BP in 25 degrees — or hit indoors at a local community center. Four to six days a week, he’d be in the gym, lifting. After practices, Baez and his crew would sell water bottles in traffic to fund their annual trip to Florida.
“[Christian] gave me the recipe. I just followed it,” Baez admitted. “When you follow it for four years, you see your body change, you feel yourself getting stronger, you get better, and you step up. You become better than other people because you’re working harder than them.”
Over time, Joshua’s commitment to Christian’s plan began to transform him as a player. During the winter of 2018, Baez went from 165 pounds to 205 at age 15. His fastball went from 82 to 93 mph and then eventually up to 98. That opened doors for both Joshua and Christian the following summer: invitations to tournaments and showcases, first regional, then national.
Then came the big prize: an offer to play baseball at Vanderbilt, arguably the nation’s most highly regarded program.
“We had a tournament at UMass Boston,” Ortiz remembers. “Joshua hits a homer like 400 feet onto the JV field behind the fence. After that game, the head coach at UMass Boston, Brendan Eygabroat, came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I gave your number to Coach Tim Corbin over at Vanderbilt. He’s gonna call you about Joshua.’ I’m starstruck. The next inning, I got a text from Corbin.
“The next day, Tim Corbin came to our game, and obviously, Joshua stood out, and he ended up committing there to his dream school. Unreal.”
The future holds a lot for Joshua Baez. In a few days, he’ll be drafted and receive a contract offer for more than $1 million. He’ll either sign that and join an MLB organization or opt to play the next three years at Vanderbilt. His potential is limitless. As one evaluator proclaimed, “If it breaks right, he could have some peak [Giancarlo] Stanton-type years.”
The minor leagues are a grind, the attrition rate humbling, but Baez has the desire, intelligence and talent to reach the stars. And no matter how high he rises, he knows exactly where he came from.
Last winter, Baez had proven himself enough in Boston to earn a scholarship to the highly regarded IMG Academy in Florida. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
He turned it down.
“I didn’t wanna leave the people that I grew up with,” he explained. “You know, the people I’ve been working with, Boston itself, because this place is what built character for me. Boston is why I work as hard as I do to move forward.”
Boston shaped Joshua Baez, and now he wants to return the favor.
“I wanna try to help the younger kids out, too, to get them more exposure here in Boston,” he said. “Put the city on my back, let them know what it takes to make it so they can follow that.”
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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