Article Image

Baxter now takes the field with the team he watched from the stands growing up.

Mike Baxter was just like any Columbia freshman, reading the "Odyssey" from his single in John Jay. But unlike most who have spent a night in Butler, nine years later, he smacked his first big league round-tripper for his hometown team. Like thousands of other high school athletes with professional aspirations, Baxter had his eye trained on schools residing far from his native Queens, in places where warm-weather sports like baseball can flourish year-round. In the spring of 2002, he looked to take his talents away from the snow-covered fields of New York. "When I was getting recruited out of high school, I had always dreamed of playing in the South in a big baseball conference, but the reality kind of set in that my options were gonna be limited locally," Baxter said. Not discouraged, Baxter found a home for himself a borough over—one that was happy to have a player of his caliber. "When I looked at the schools that were recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to play, Columbia stood out above the rest," he said. "It was a very easy decision at the time." Baxter's coach at Columbia, Mik Aoki—now the head coach at Notre Dame—said that Baxter eventually chose Columbia over other options, such as St. John's, because he and his family placed a high value on education. Baxter may have fallen beneath the radar of the coaches at some of his dream schools, but Aoki knew that Baxter had the skill to excel as a Lion. "He was a really good player," Aoki said. "He needed to gain some weight, but he was a very dynamic athlete. He was a kid that could play the outfield, first base, or third base. I think more than anything else, he was just a talented kid, but he was a really, really good baseball player." Aoki's instincts were validated, as Baxter excelled on the field. In just one year with the Lions, Baxter made a lasting impression on a program that has existed for over a hundred. His .368 average puts him fifth all-time in career marks, and the 56 hits he compiled are tied for the 10th most any Columbian has managed in a single season. He also became the first player in program history to be named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. When he wasn't punishing the Ivy's best arms up at Baker, Baxter cherished his time 100 blocks south on campus. "I loved it," he said. "My time there was incredible. I was living in John Jay my freshman year, taking Lit Hum and all the classes—I really, really valued my time there, and I would recommend it to anyone to go." Though a strong group of older players helped speed his transition to collegiate-level play, Baxter soon got to know the particular challenges faced by student-athletes at rigorous schools like those in the Ivy League. "I took Music Hum as a night class, and it wouldn't work because I was missing it for practice or games," he said. "Sometimes, when you get out of that environment in the Ivy League and go down to another school that's a little bit more open to athletics, they can work with you." Baxter ended up being forced to drop the class, and he began to consider his life goals and the path he'd have to take to achieve them. "I was evaluating my situation, and said to myself, 'Alright, baseball's extremely important to me, and academics are important to me, but is this totally right? Can I get more out of baseball and keep the academics at a relatively comparable level?'" he said. "And that's ultimately when I decided I could and I made the decision to go." As the year went on, the opportunity presented itself to fulfill his high school dream: to play in a prestigious conference, where he would face the highest level of competition and, if he played well enough, perhaps even catch the eyes of scouts. The dream of playing professionally, which had seemed so far out of reach at the end of high school, was starting to come into focus. "I had dreamt of it, I wanted it, but I didn't necessarily think it was going to happen. I wasn't planning on it by any means," Baxter said. "Then, when the opportunity came up to go down to a big conference and play some elite schools, at the time I thought that might be it—at least I would know I tried to play at the top level." The school that gave him that chance was Vanderbilt, a young and growing program with a new head coach and a handful of roster spots. "It was just the perfect storm. Vanderbilt was a program that was on the rise, and it was in a good conference in the SEC—the conference that I always wanted to play in," Baxter said. "The coach and I had a mutual friend that kind of put us together, and before you know it..." Little did he know that his path in baseball would lead him right back to the East Coast, back to New York City—back, in fact, to the borough in which he'd grown up. It wasn't until the middle of his junior year in 2005, when he batted .374 for the Commodores, that Baxter began to seriously contemplate playing baseball for a living. "In the off-season, scouts would come in and meet with the kids, and all the top guys had 20 meetings and I had three—so I was excited about my three. That was the first time when I was like, ‘OK, who knows how this is going to happen?'" Baxter said. "As the season progressed I played pretty well, and a couple weeks before the draft it started getting pretty heavy. On draft day, the phone starting ringing in the third or fourth round, so I was like, ‘OK, this is going to happen,' and I was really excited about it." The San Diego Padres drafted Baxter in the fourth round of the 2005 MLB draft. After a lengthy stay in the minor leagues, he was finally called up to the big league club on Sept. 6, 2010. "That was a great day," he said. "After five full years in the minor leagues, I was starting to wonder if it was gonna happen. But thankfully it did, and it kind of gives you a fresh start." Baxter faced a setback, though, when he hurt his leg the next March in spring training, forcing him to go on the disabled list and make his way through rehab. "It was the first time—in college, high school, professional—that I ever missed a game, and I missed 70 or 80," Baxter recalled. "It was tough to deal with mentally, but then sometimes you see what happens and realize that everything happens for a reason, and you just gotta trust it." The Padres placed him on waivers, and the New York Mets of Flushing, Queens claimed him this July, assigning him to Triple-A Buffalo. After a month back in the minors, they called him up on August 8. "To be honest, I was disappointed that my time was over with San Diego," he said. "You don't want your time to end somewhere like that. They make an investment in you, and they take time to develop you and make you a better ballplayer. To go out after an injury and never really pay off for them—personally, I found that frustrating for myself. Then it sets in that you have an opportunity and you're still on a major league roster, so I was excited and, beyond that, I was with the Mets. That's the team I grew up rooting for when I was a kid, so it didn't get any better. If I had to get picked up anywhere, this was the place I'd wanna go." Baxter's full-circle return to his home borough began with an RBI-double in his first at-bat as a Met, and ended with a go-ahead homerun in the final game of the Mets season. His family and friends were there to cheer him on. "I loved the Mets growing up," Baxter said. "I took the 7 train to high school. I would come to a few games every summer, watch them all the time on TV. I never really believed I'd play for them, but that's how it works sometimes. Since I've gotten here, the team's been extremely welcoming, everyone from the top down." "He's just such a great story," said Mets broadcaster Ron Darling, a former major league pitcher and key member of the world-champion 1986 Mets, as well as a former Yale Bulldog. "Every time he comes up—and this doesn't happen very often for me in my job now—I'm hoping he gets a hit, and I have never really felt that way before. But when you see a kid that comes from practically running distance from this ballpark and has a chance to live his dream, I think it's such a great story. He's such a nice person, and he's got that nice swagger and toughness of a kid from Queens. I just hope the fairy tale stays up for him—that his parents can, for the next 5 or 6 years, spend their summer nights here at Citi Field." Along the way to Flushing, during his stop in Buffalo, Baxter made another reconnection—Fernando Perez, CC '05, became his teammate again. "It's such a small world in baseball, and that's really how it works," Baxter said. "It's cyclical and you come across the same people. Fernie and I kind of got reunited. We were roommates on the road and we got caught up, and it was great." Perez, unlike Baxter, finished his collegiate career at Columbia. After his junior year, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays. He spent some time in the majors with Tampa Bay after being called up in September 2008, including a trip to the World Series the following month. After passing through the Chicago Cubs organization, he then signed a minor league contract with the Mets last July. Seeing Perez's success, however, Baxter still believes that making the switch to Vanderbilt was the right move for him. "At Vanderbilt, we had so many high-profile players—Jeremy Sowers, David Price—guys that ended up playing in the major leagues. The scouts were there to watch them, and by default, they would check me out," Baxter said. "I think that was the biggest difference between Vanderbilt and Columbia. The scouts were there to see all those guys and I was kind of on the periphery, whereas as at Columbia, they would have to come for me, and I wasn't that good. It's not impossible at Columbia—it's just a little bit harder. You just have to make a little more noise there than you would in the South." "I think he just wanted more baseball, when it comes down to it," Aoki said. "I think he wanted to be in an environment where baseball was more highly valued by all the people around him, and he was taking a pretty big calculated risk in terms of turning down an education from an Ivy League school and from Columbia. I think probably my one piece of advice was, 'Hey, if this is really what you want to do, I'm not going to stand in your way, but make sure you get to some place that academically is in the same category.' By going to Vanderbilt he was certainly able to accomplish that." While Baxter did decide to transfer, he hasn't completely left Columbia behind. He still has fond memories of the first college he called his own. "I ended up leaving for baseball solely, but looking back and comparing the two schools, I loved Columbia," Baxter said. "I have a lot of good friends in the city that I played with, so coming back and playing with the Mets has let me reconnect with them. I don't think I'll ever live life without following Columbia and seeing where they're at these days."

Vanderbilt New York Mets Mike Baxter major league baseball Baseball Feature Baseball
From Around the Web