Tucson Padres: Game throws Baker curve

Former San Diego catcher, 32, hopes to get back to majors
2013-06-09T00:00:00Z Tucson Padres: Game throws Baker curveDaniel Berk Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

John Baker has more than 1,000 career major league plate appearances to his credit. Just last month, he started games at Wrigley Field and Camden Yards. He's made more than $3 million playing the game he grew up with.

Yet, Saturday night, the 32-year-old catcher had to feel a million miles away from the big leagues.

Wearing a throwback Tucson Toros uniform, Baker was catching the first pitch, posing for pictures with mascots and going through catching drills in 105-degree weather more than three hours before game time.

"Whenever you think you have this game figured out, baseball throws you a curveball," Baker said. "I'm dealing with that curveball right now."

Indeed.

Baker was demoted to Triple-A last week for the first time in his baseball career. The move came after San Diego's Yasmani Grandal was reinstated after serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

With former Arizona Wildcats catcher Nick Hundley on the San Diego roster and now Grandal, there was no longer room at the big-league level for Baker, who was serving as Hundley's backup.

"These things are all a part of baseball," Baker said. "I think the business side was disappointing for me. I didn't get a huge opportunity in San Diego to play very often, and I feel like when you don't get a chance to play a lot, it's not that your skills wane, you're just uncomfortable when you do get a chance to play.

"And then more than anything, I was sad to leave my friends."

Just when he thought the baseball gods couldn't throw anything else at him, things got even crueler for Baker.

In his first game with Tucson on May 30, Baker was run over at home, trying to block the plate and sprained his AC joint in his shoulder. He missed the team's recent four-game road trip to Reno

"I felt like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, where he's sitting on top of the crow's nest and says, 'What else do you have for me?'" Baker said. "But, this is just baseball. It's not the end of the world."

The catcher is healthier now - still not 100 percent - and is slowly working his way back into Tucson's lineup. He's getting over the disappointment of being optioned to the minor leagues and trying to embrace Triple-A baseball the best he can.

"As far as people to help you through it, this is a phenomenal environment to be in," Baker said. "Despite the last couple of days and the things I've gone through getting sent down for the first time, I'm still happy to be a part of the Padres organization."

Added manager Pat Murphy before Tucson's game against Sacramento at Kino Stadium on Saturday night: "We all go through things that don't seem right. You have to be there for each other, because you do fall into patterns of 'why did this happen to me?' Good friends won't let you spend a lot of time worrying about that."

The other part of Baker's situation that's been tough for the Cal product to deal with is the fact that he isn't playing his best baseball.

In his limited opportunities with the Padres, he was just 6 for 40 (.150) in 16 games with no extra base hits and just two RBIs. The hope was for him to come to Tucson, get regular at-bats and rediscover his swing.

That plan obviously hit a speed bump when he got hurt, but he's close to getting back on track.

"I had a ton of respect for Pat Murphy playing against him at Cal and I think he has a chance to make me a better baseball player," Baker said. "You're always learning in this game, and that's my plan: to learn as much as possible."

Murphy is all for it.

" 'Bake' is a free spirit in the positive sense of the word," the manager said. "He's very bright and very complex. He understands the inner workings of the team and wants to get better. We have one of the top catchers in the PCL right now in Rene Rivera. But, we'll get 'Bake' there. We'll figure it out. We have to get him through it."

Today

• Who: Sacramento at Tucson

• When: 7:05 p.m.

• Radio: 1290-AM

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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