David S. Driver
"Providing my byline by your deadline"
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August 26, 2010
By David Driver
For the News & Messenger
Used with permission
WASHINGTON - When Jeff Baker arrived at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Sunday, he and other members of the Cubs were ushered into a team meeting before a day game with the Atlanta Braves. “At the time no one knew what for,” said Baker, the former Gar-Field Senior High baseball standout who broke into the major leagues in 2005.
Earlier this season the Cubs learned that manager Lou Pinella would step down after the 2010 campaign. But he told the Cubs he was leaving the team after Sunday’s game to be with his ailing mother in Florida.
“It was a weird day, it was a really weird day. Your heart goes out to the family,” said Baker, 29, standing in front of his locker at Nationals Park before Monday’s game with Washington. “What he has done for the game, it was definitely an emotional day. The thing about Lou, he wants to win at all cost. His passion and intensity for the game definitely came off. The thing I will take away from Lou is how much he wanted to win.”
Mike Quade, who had been the team’s third base coach, was appointed interim manager of the Cubs. A former minor leaguer with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Quade ended his playing career with the Alexandria Dukes in 1982 in the Carolina League. The Dukes eventually moved to Woodbridge and today are a farm team of the Nationals.
“He is a fundamentally-sound guy,” Baker said of Quade, who managed more than 2,300 games in the minors. “You know where you are going to stand with him. The thing about Quade that I respect is he has had to work to get here. Everyone wants to be a major league manager. He has managed a lot of guys in this room (with Triple-A Iowa from 2003-06). It will be interesting to see how it goes and if we can play better baseball the last 30 days of the season.”
The managerial change is just the latest saga this season for Baker, who came to the Cubs on July 2, 2009 in a trade with the Colorado Rockies.
The Virginia State Player of the Year in 1999, Baker was drafted by the Rockies in the fourth round in 2002 out of Clemson. “It is just the unknown,” Baker said of being traded for the first time. “It is awkward. I was nervous. I was shocked.”
Baker played in just 12 games for Colorado in 2009 but saw action in 69 games for the Cubs, and he hit .305 (62 for 203) with 15 doubles, four homers and 21 RBIs for Chicago after he recovered from a sprained left hand suffered while with the Rockies. Prior to this season he worked out at George Mason University in December and January.
A right-handed hitter, he began this season platooning at second base with Mike Fontenot. A left-handed hitter, Fontenot was traded Aug. 11 to the Giants but Baker still remains a part-time player for the Cubs.
Prior to Tuesday’s game against the Nationals he was hitting .318 (35 for 110) against left-handed pitchers but just .055 (three for 55) against right-handers. He had made 20 starts at third base, 14 at second, one at first base and four in right field, a position he has played very little of in the college or pro ranks.
“It is tough. I have not had enough at bats to get in a groove against right-handers,” he said. “I still feel I can play every day in the big leagues. But for now that is not my role on this team. You never like to accept it but you will do what you can to help the team win.”
Issues such as playing time were put in perspective for Baker on May 27, when he was playing third base for the Cubs in a game at Wrigley Field against the Dodgers.
Earlier in the game he had trouble seeing out of his right eye while getting ready to bat. He later took his place at third base and while on defense he didn’t move when a line drive hit by Russell Martin went whizzing past him in the eighth inning. He didn’t move because he never saw the ball - a scary thought for someone standing about 100 feet away from a batter who can hit the ball more than 100 miles per hour.
He was taken out of the game by Pinella while on the field in the eighth and took a 20-minute cab ride in Chicago to have tests done. “I was thinking baseball was over. If you can’t see you can’t play. It was scary. It was definitely an eye-opener,” said Baker, with no pun intended.
During the cab ride Baker thought of what he would do if his playing career was over. He thought about returning to college, where he is about 25 credits shy of a degree from Clemson. “Your whole future is in front of you,” Baker said.
But the tests revealed no problems and Baker was able to return to the Cubs. And his 2010 journey included his only trip of the season to Nationals Park. His parents planned to attend the Cubs-Nats series. His father, Larry, is a teacher at Gar-Field and his mother, Dawn, works at a dental office in Occoquan.
“I always love coming here,” said Baker, who planned to spend Tuesday night at the home of his parents. “They have one of the best clubhouses in the league. (The clubbies) doing a really great job.”